Burning Question: Can California Prevent the Next Wildfire?

By Glen Martin

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could’ve been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.

“As things stand, cities and municipal or regional agencies — like the East Bay Regional Park District or the East Bay Municipal Utility District — are responsible for dealing with fuel buildup and other potential fire safety issues,” says Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. “Cities particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there’s a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do clean-up work and billing the homeowner. But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren’t done.”

Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at Cal, also believes city officials are often unable or unwilling to enforce strict fire ordinance options. The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, Stephens says. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk, such as the scorched Fountaingrove complex in Santa Rosa, and fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.

Ongoing climate change is affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires.

As Santa Rosa newspaper columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron has written, the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa could’ve been predicted; in 1964, another wildfire followed almost the exact same path. But that earlier fire burned mostly forest and agricultural land. Fountaingrove’s pricey developments weren’t put in until the 1990s, rammed through by local officials anxious for the tax revenues, and in apparent violation of an ordinance that proscribed development on ridge tops overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley.

Along with mushrooming development, ongoing climate change is resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons, affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires with the destruction of Coffey Park, a large tract of middle-class homes in western Santa Rosa far from any forested areas.

“Coffey Park was a huge surprise for me,” says Stephens. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I had never expected to see anything like it. But you had this terrible confluence of events. Incredibly powerful, dry winds swept down eastward-facing canyons, and threw burning embers west clear across the Highway 101 corridor into Coffey Park, where they ignited dry leaves and other fuels. Now that we know these kinds of scenarios can play out, we need to prepare for them.”

How? McBride believes that it would be wise to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and place it with the state. State agencies, he observes, are largely immune to both the blandishments and intimidation of local development bigwigs and are motivated by larger issues than municipal and county tax bases. He points to the California Coastal Commission as a promising template. Prior to the Coastal Commission’s formation in 1972, development pressures along the state’s incomparably beautiful coastline were increasing dramatically. It seemed certain that California’s future would include a solid wall of strip malls and gimcrack bungalow developments from Crescent City to San Diego.

“Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren’t necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved. We avoided the ‘Miamification’ of California that otherwise would’ve been inevitable. A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”

Stephens agrees with McBride that state authority is likely to be more effective than local agencies in establishing and enforcing effective fire regulations, and suggests that the University of California could also play a role.

“We have to educate as well as enforce, and in fact, education and cooperation at the community level may be the best way to accomplish fire safety goals,” Stephens says. “One of the tragic things about the Santa Rosa fires is that most of the fatalities were older people: 60 and older. People in neighborhoods in fire-vulnerable areas should meet regularly to identify older neighbors who may need help in evacuating, identify escape routes for different scenarios, and discuss risk reduction measures they could take.”

As far as Cal goes, continues Stephens, “UC Cooperative Extension [under the university’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources] maintains [agricultural and conservation] programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators. We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn’t be very expensive.”

Both Stephens and McBride think the presence of certain types of ornamental trees should be minimized. Grasslands and native oak savannas burn readily, says McBride, but at a low intensity; grass fires can usually be countered relatively easily by firefighters. But some exotic trees, particularly eucalyptus and Monterey pine, are impregnated with oils and resins that burn explosively, often producing flame lengths of 200 feet or more and creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes, making effective firefighting impossible.

“We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes selective removal of eucalyptus and other problematic trees in the intemix zone.” *

Cal Fire defines the intermix zone as “areas where homes are interspersed among the wildlands.”

McBride says some communities are approaching fire risk in a progressive and effective way, and they should be emulated.

“Landscaping at Sea Ranch [on the Sonoma Coast] largely consists of native grassland and prairie, and that provides a lot of security for the homes,” says McBride. “They also plow firebreaks throughout the development every year. They do have stands of native bishop pine, which burns with high intensity, but they prune and thin them to break up the fuel ladders, and that minimizes fire risk.”

The homes at Sea Ranch are modeled on the old barns of the ranchers who originally settled the Sonoma Coast, another factor that reduces fire risk, observes McBride. 

“They don’t have eves or roof overhangs, which is a very wise design feature in wildfire-prone areas,” says McBride. “Overhangs trap burning cinders driven by the wind, and encourage fires either on roofs and walls or in attics.”

Indeed, says McBride, modern architects and urban planners can learn about a lot about minimizing fire risk by studying some of the historic structures from California’s past.

“Windows are a big entry point for heat,” says McBride. “In fact, heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking. When you go through the old Gold Rush towns in the Sierra, you see these stone buildings with big iron shutters that could be closed over the windows. That was a fire prevention strategy, and it was very effective. We don’t need to make shutters from heavy iron sheets, of course, but we could certainly design shutters from modern materials for the large plate glass windows that are so popular in modern homes.  The [Forty-Niners] really understood the risks of wildfires, and they designed their buildings with fires in mind. We need to do the same thing.”

* This quote has been corrected from an earlier version of the story, which mistakenly suggested that Professor McBride supports “banning” eucalyptus trees from urban and suburban areas.

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You are mistaken about the trees. There is no proof of eucalyptus or monterey pine having unusually high flammability. The buildings are much more explosive and flammable than any tree. Proof is visible in the recent horrific Marin fires. The tales of flammability were fabricated at an IPC symposium in 2004 in order to demonize the “non-natives”. We have the minutes from that symposium. Please let me know if you would like to see the pdf file. Of course what is native is in continual flux, so how to say what was where when is like herding cats. As to flammability - best to rely on the latest discoveries. Not easy to light wet wood on fire. And living trees are wet wood.
I live in a high wildfire risk area in Butte County. I have seen live native trees burn before my eyes. ALL vegetation burns, but some of the invasive non native plant species, such as Scotch broom, add tremendously to the fuel load. Much of the forested lands have unnaturally dense growth, which is unhealthy. Livestock grazing and responsible logging help mitigate wildfire danger better than worrying about what species of trees are planted.
When we bought land back in the ’80’s Butte County was more than happy to take our money for permits to put up a home, despite the fact that the roads and infrastructure were, and still are, totally inadequate. The county still does this, despite experiencing massive fires over the last 25 years. There is better code enforcement for busting marijuanna grows than the defensible space that is also mandated by law.
Monterey Pine is a native tree - not an exotic tree as stated in the article.
Many eucalyptus burned in the Oakland/Berkeley fire in 1991. But they did not “creat[e] ‘spot’ fires miles from primary blazes.” In fact the entire fire area was only three miles long. No one documented embers from eucalyptus causing any spot fires in that wind driven event. (Burning wooden shingles from houses did land downwind.) The recent North Bay fires involved large tracts of native trees and brush that burned furiously, not eucalyptus. If the “spot fires from eucalyptus embers” story wasn’t realized in the 1991 fire, nor in the recent North Bay fires, how does this myth persist so tenaciously? It seems that the demonizing of eucalyptus is driven solely by the (irrelevant) fact that they are not native to California.
I was misquoted in Glen Martin’s article posted on October 30, 2017 as having said: ““We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes banning eucalyptus and other problematic trees as much as possible.” It is a misquote of a statement I made concerning the removal of eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees at some sites within the intermix zone. I did not say nor mean to suggest that the eucalyptus trees should be banned.
This recent article has misquoted Joe McBride as being supportive of this anti-tree agenda. He was misquoted by the author, Glen Martin. Joe has posted a comment on the article stating that he was misquoted. I would like to request a retraction of the article by the Cal Alumni magazine. Glen Martin is again promoting his own agenda and misquoting his sources.
It seems that Mr. Martin’s article is intended more as a propaganda piece than as a scholarly assessment of the situation. To misquote one of the key sources used in the article is quite problematic, and should be reason enough for this article to be withdrawn and an apology provided. Beyond this, the article seems to ignore the fact that bay trees, chaparral, grasses and even oaks are a far greater fire risk than eucs or pines. Mr. Martin should probably look at the research of his fellows at UC, research that demonstrated that the ferocity of the recent Napa fires was fueled largely by exactly the species that Mr. Martin thinks we should have more of. Not one word about Sudden Oak Death and how this is causing oaks to become a serious fire hazard, as was demonstrated in Napa. The recent Napa fires, the worst in the history of the State, were fueled almost entirely by natives. No eucs or pines were implicated. No mention of the fact that the courts have consistently ruled against UC in its attempt to clearcut the Berkeley “hill campus”. No mention of the fact that at this moment FEMA, East Bay Regional Park District, and Hills Conservation Network are united against UC’s latest lawsuit in its ongoing land clearing efforts. No mention of the fact that progress is addressing the real risk factors is currently under way, but would be jeopardized if UC were to prevail in its FEMA lawsuit. Maybe the suggestion that vegetation management for fire risk mitigation be taken over by a regional authority is nothing more than an attempt to do an end run around the local agencies and courts because the outcome has not been what Mr. Martin and his associates wanted? It’s time that the Alumni Magazine stopped being used as a propaganda tool. As a Cal alumnus I can say that we deserve better than this.
I have taken courses from Joe McBride at Cal, walked in parks in SF and Berkeley with his classes, attended his lecture at the Commonwealth Club, read his studies and publications, etc. I was therefore flabbergasted by Glen Martin’s article in which Joe is quoted. I have never heard Joe say anything remotely resembling the words Mr. Martin has put in his mouth. Having read several of Mr. Martin’s hit pieces in the service of UC’s plans to clear cut all non-native trees from UC properties, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Mr. Martin is not a journalist. He is an activist and that has been apparent going all the way back to his days at the Chronicle. I have complained before about Mr. Martin’s counterfactual articles published by the Cal Alumni Magazine and have apparently been ignored. The Alumni Magazine continues to employ Mr. Martin to write inaccurate articles. This choice reflects badly on the Alumni Magazine as well as on UC. UC taught us to be critical thinkers and to speak up when we witness injustice. As Cal alumna, I am just doing my duty to my alma mater. Please remove this article from your website.
The quote in question has been corrected after conferring with Prof. McBride. We apologize for the error.
Regarding Monterey pines, they are indeed native to California but have a very limited natural range and are properly considered ‘exotic’ in the context of this article.
To Pat Joseph, THAT is a matter of opinion. There is fossil evidence that Monterey pines lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area several times in the pre-settlement past. The definition of “native” is arbitrary. Nativists have selected a very narrow range of time, immediately prior to the arrival of Europeans, at the end of the 18th century. Many people don’t agree with that definition, including the person who found the fossil evidence and published her findings in the journal of the California Native Plant Society. She asked in that publication that Monterey pine be allowed to live where it lived in the past. Furthermore, Monterey pines are endangered in their small “native” range in Monterey County. If nativists are successful in eradicating it everywhere else (which seems unlikely, although they are surely trying their best to do so), the Monterey pine will be extinct.
That’s interesting. You know the history of Monterey pine here and elsewhere, but you still consider it non-native here. Again, many people would not agree with you; most recently, Chris Thomas, author of “Inheritors of the Earth,” who uses Monterey pine as an example of a plant that is endangered in the range deemed “native” by nativists that is being eradicated.
Does Glenn Martin set the tone for the discrimination towards healthy trees by UC? Is this the opinion of the UC organization, the UC Alumni, or just G. Martin? Extremely disappointing to see such a worthy educational entity associated with sort of blind unquestioning discrimination against organisms that are so beneficial to human life.
Thank you for this article. It highlighted an issue that has been ignored too long - the responsibility of local planning agencies to create fire safe communities. And thanks to Stephens and McBride for focusing on what really matters - reducing the flammability of homes and developing fire response plans to protect the most vulnerable citizens. McBride’s suggestion of using the Coastal Commission model to approach development withing firesheds is brilliant. The Tubbs Fire was so destructive because land planners have failed us, with firefighters left holding the bag. Planning agencies need to be the first line of defense. Local leaders need to restrict development in fire prone areas, require strict fire codes for new developments throughout California, enforce proper defensible spaces regulations, and demand that older communities retrofit homes within ten years to increase their chances of surviving an ember storm. Such policies would cost significantly less than pretending we can stop wildfires in one of the world’s most fire-prone environments.
There is ample evidence that eucalyptus trees are adapted to fire and that the oil in eucalyptus oil is highly flammable, especially in blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus). That is why they are referred to as “gasoline trees.” I refer readers to articles such as “Australia’s Wildfires: Are Eucalyptus Trees to Blame?” (LiveScience Oct. 21, 29013; https://www.livescience.com/40583-australia-wildfires-eucalyptus-trees-b...) for additional background on the flammability of eucaplytus.
Jeffery, unfortunately, the article you linked is a news report, not a research paper that can help us here. Yes, Eucalyptus trees are flammable in Australian forests, but in California they just have not held up to their flaming torch reputation. For example, in the 2003 Cedar Fire, large groves of Eucalyptus were untouched other than some leaf scorching, while homes nearby burned to the ground. The litter was reportedly a problem, but again this is anecdotal. Eucs reportedly saved homes in one of the Laguna Beach fires because they appear to have acted as heat sinks and ember catchers. The bottom line is that in California, Eucs are just not the flame throwers they are made out to be.
Yes, Mr. Halsey, virtually all fires in California occur in native vegetation. Eucalyptus is what burns in Australia because that is the predominant tree. Wildfires in Australia occur in the Mediterranean climates on their coasts, just as they do in California. The vegetation in both places is therefore fire adapted and fire dependent. To claim that eucalyptus is more flammable than California’s native vegetation is to turn a blind eye to the reality of wildfires in California and the similarity of Australian and Californian vegetation. This is either willful ignorance or an attempt to mislead the public in the service of the nativist agenda. On November 16, 2017, the Bay Area Open Space Council held a symposium about the recent fires in the North Bay that was billed as a “Community discussion on the impacts of the recent wildfires.” Bay Nature magazine moderated a panel of experts representing CalFire and 8 managers of public and private open space reserves. The Director of Conservation for the Bay Area Open Space Council showed a slide of the vegetation types that burned in the fires. With the exception of vineyards, only 2% of the burned vegetation was “urban.” All other burned vegetation was native grassland, chaparral, and native trees. The speaker from CalFire said that we must learn to live with fire. He suggested that the way to accomplish that goal is by improving land use planning, using fire and ember resistant building materials, creating defensible space, and improving the health of our forests. The slides of the presenters and an audio recording of their presentations are available here: http://openspacecouncil.org/2017novgathering/
Hi Mary. It’s probably best not to imply a conspiracy over Eucalyptus. There are real concerns about the presence of Eucs, particularly for the blue gum and its tendency to eliminate native habitat. The Eucs in the East Bay and in San Francisco proper have dramatically reduced the biodiversity of the areas where they grow. The efforts to restore these areas with native vegetation such as oaks is a reasonable goal if biodiversity is valued. Oaks are remarkably fire resistant if healthy and can reduce fire risk to nearby buildings if properly maintained. Regarding fire, even though Eucs are not the flame torches some people claim, many species do produce a tremendous amount of litter that can increase the flammability of an area. Euc leaves, seed pods, and bark in gutters, and their potential to provide material for ember generation, do pose a fire risk. I’m not sure how relevant the 2% figure is. The important thing to do, as you mention, is to address the flammability of our communities. This includes both structure hardening and defensible space. If a large Euc is overhanging roofs, it needs to be trimmed or removed, as is the case for any tree. If there is a large number of Eucs near a community, they need to be properly thinned and managed to reduce the chance that they will contribute to a future fire.
Mr. Halsey, I understand that you are in Southern California and that your interest is chiefly in protecting native chaparral. (Good on you!) Therefore, I am not surprised that you are not familiar with the debate about eucalyptus that has occurred primarily in Northern California. There are innumerable studies that document that the eucalyptus forest is as biologically diverse as oak woodland. Here are a few: (1) Professor Robert Stebbins (Professor of Zoology and Emeritus Curator in Herpetology, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley) was hired to study the eucalyptus forest in Berkeley, California for the Nature Conservancy’s California Field Office. His report which was published in 1983 is available at wiki.bugwood.org. (2) Dov Sax, “Equal diversity in disparate species assemblages: a comparison of native and exotic woodlands in California,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 11, 49-52, 2002. Professor Sax is at Brown University. (3) Professor Joe R McBride (UCB) made a presentation to the Commonwealth Club about the biodiversity of eucalyptus forest in 2014 that is summarized here: https://milliontrees.me/2014/08/22/understanding-the-eucalyptus-forest-p... Eucalyptus was planted in California on treeless grassland. The existence of eucalyptus on the coast of California is not at the expense of oak woodland. Oaks existed along the coast of California only in canyons where they were sheltered from the wind and where there was sufficient water for them. Oaks in Northern California are being killed by Sudden Oak Death. About 20% of the oaks in East Bay parks are dead and the rate of infection is projected to be 10% per year. Brice McPherson of UCB expects about 50% of coast live oaks and tan oaks to be dead within 20 years. SOD is not found as far south as San Luis Obispo. Since you are in Southern California, you are perhaps unaware of the future of oaks in Northern California. If you wish to engage in the debate in Northern California, I suggest that you familiarize your yourself with our local issues.
Mr. Halsey, I understand that you are in Southern California and that your interest is chiefly in protecting native chaparral. (Good on you!) Therefore, I am not surprised that you are not familiar with the debate about eucalyptus that has occurred primarily in Northern California. There are innumerable studies that document that the eucalyptus forest is as biologically diverse as oak woodland. Here are a few: (1) Professor Robert Stebbins (Professor of Zoology and Emeritus Curator in Herpetology, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley) was hired to study the eucalyptus forest in Berkeley, California for the Nature Conservancy’s California Field Office. His report which was published in 1983 is available at wiki.bugwood.org. (2) Dov Sax, “Equal diversity in disparate species assemblages: a comparison of native and exotic woodlands in California,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 11, 49-52, 2002. Professor Sax is at Brown University. (3) Professor Joe R McBride (UCB) made a presentation to the Commonwealth Club in 2014 about the biodiversity of eucalyptus forest that is summarized here: https://milliontrees.me/2014/08/22/understanding-the-eucalyptus-forest-p... Eucalyptus was planted in California on treeless grassland. (Nowak, David, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implication for urban forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture, 19(5): September 1993) The existence of eucalyptus on the coast of California is not at the expense of oak woodland. Oaks existed along the coast of California only in canyons where they were sheltered from the wind and where there was sufficient water for them. Oaks in Northern California are being killed by Sudden Oak Death. About 20% of the oaks in East Bay parks are dead and the rate of infection is projected to be 10% per year. Brice McPherson of UCB expects about 50% of coast live oaks and tan oaks to be dead within 20 years. SOD is not found as far south as San Luis Obispo. Since you are in Southern California, you are perhaps unaware of the future of oaks in Northern California. If you wish to participate in discussions in Northern California, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the issues in a very different ecosystem.
Mary, I have been following the debate in northern California since the Park District Fire Hazard Mitigation Program EIR was completed in 2010. I am very familiar with the Oakland Hills area as I used to live there. After more than 25 years, 5 lawsuits, and millions of dollars spent on environmental reports, the community is still without a viable plan. That is ridiculous. Much of the reason for the delay has been the Eucalyptus issue. While there can certainly be a place for Eucs in our urban ecosystems, and yes they do provide habitat for a number of species (i.e. monarchs, nesting raptors), McBride’s lecture is short of peer-reviewed scientific evidence and a bit too loose with confirmation bias. McBride’s dismissive opinions about concerns over how invasive Eucs can be (they can be very invasive) and their impact on reducing water availability for native species (they can be quite greedy at the surface level) indicates to me that he was going beyond his field of expertise. The TNC document you cite says, “The wildlife section draws heavily upon conversations with Professor Robert Stebbins.” Not quite the standard for a research paper. However, the document did say, in reference to the blue gum, that, “a coastal grove has the potential to spread 10 to 20 feet in diameter a year, eliminating the diversity of native species as it colonizes new ground.” The problem with the Sax paper is that there was no effort to record individual species, or at least the paper didn’t provide the data. So while the paper’s measurements of diversity appeared to show minimal differences between Eucs and native oak woodlands, we have no idea at what cost to native species. A more recent paper (Fork et al. 2015) found a significantly different result than Sax (2002): “Eucalypts had significantly greater canopy height and cover, and significantly lower cover by perennial plants and species richness of arthropods than oaks. Community composition of arthropods also differed significantly between eucalypts and oaks. Eucalypts had marginally significantly deeper litter depth, lower abundance of native plants with ranges limited to western North America, and lower abundance of amphibians. In contrast to these differences, eucalypt and oak groves had very similar bird community composition, species richness, and abundance.” As with all science, it is best to examine all of the literature, not just the stuff you agree with.
Here are some scientific papers published and available freely online that support what I wrote in my initial post about the extreme flammability of eucalyptus trees; “Group IV: The extremely flammable species Laurus nobilis (laurel) and Eucalyptus camaldulensis (gum tree, eucalypt) belong to this group. These species are extremely rich in flammable volatile essential oils.” Dimitrakopoulos, A. P., and Kyriakos K. Papaioannou. “Flammability assessment of Mediterranean forest fuels.” Fire Technology 37, no. 2 (2001): 143-152. “Among hardwood, Eucalyptus globulus litter has intermediate characteristics, with high ignition frequency and high flame height, along with relatively low times to ignition and rates of spread.” Guijarro, M., Hernando, C., Díez, C., Martínez, E., Madrigal, J., Lampin-Cabaret, C., … & Fonturbel, M. T. (2002, November). Flammability of some fuel beds common in the South-European ecosystems. In IV International Conference Forest Fire Research. “There is no doubt that Australia’s eucalypt forests can burn well; they are highly flammable. In this general sense, ‘flammability’ means ‘ability to burn’ but this ability is manifest only under particular weather and fuel conditions and only when an ignition source is present.” Gill, A. M., & Zylstra, P. (2005). Flammability of Australian forests. Australian forestry, 68(2), 87-93. Regarding your assertion that eucalyptus trees might lose their flammability characteristics in California and elsewhere, there is evidence that this might not be the case: “It has been estimated that other than the 3,000+ homes that burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in California, about 70 percent of the energy released was through the combustion of eucalyptus.” http://wildfiretoday.com/2014/03/03/eucalyptus-and-fire/ http://wildfiretoday.com/2015/05/29/sierra-club-argues-against-femas-pla... Reeling from its deadliest forest fire, Portugal finds a villain: eucalyptus trees http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-portugal-eucalyptus-fire-20170... The Great Eucalyptus Debate https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-great-eucalyptus...
And I have been a Chaparral Institute subscriber and one of your readers for some time. I have been struck by the similarity of our mission to prevent the destruction of a landscape that we value. It is therefore a disturbing to find myself defending myself against your criticism, but I must. Your criticism of McBride’s Commonwealth Club attack would be justified if most of his statements were not based on empirical studies. He did not pull his data out of the air. Your criticism of Stebbins would also be justified if his statements were not based on an empirical study that he did for the East Bay Regional Park District in 1976. He did a comprehensive inventory of vertebrate populations in four different types of vegetation. He found more vertebrates in oak woodland than in eucalyptus forests. However, he found more species of vertebrates in eucalyptus forest than in Monterey pine and in redwood forests. Professor Stebbins’ study is not available on-line because of when it was written, but I have a hard copy and can send you a copy if you wish to read it. Likewise, an inventory of the eucalyptus forest on Angel Island that was done prior to its destruction found twice as many amphibians in the eucalyptus forest than in the grassland that is now the dominant vegetation on Angel Island. In fact, that grassland is now exclusively non-native annual grasses, like 98% of all grassland in California. That is the result of destroying the tree canopy, whether it be native or non-native trees. The only study of leaf litter in eucalyptus forest, compared to oak woodland with which I am familiar was done by the GGNRA. That publication contains a table comparing the fuel loads of eucalyptus, bay laurel and oak forests. At first glance, the reader might think the table reports a bigger fuel load for eucalyptus forest. Take another look. The table includes the weight of the tree trunks. Since eucalyptus is a much taller tree than the natives to which it is compared, the weight of its trunk is much greater. However, the tree trunk is not considered flammable and therefore is not appropriately added to the fuel load. It is biomass, not fuel. If subtracted from the table, eucalyptus forest does not have greater fuel load than bay laurel and oak forests. Finally, you have not addressed the hard reality that we are losing our oak woodland to a deadly pathogen and that destroying hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus will not result in oak woodland. I prefer oak woodland to eucalyptus forest, so this is as disturbing to me as it should be to you. In fact, tens of thousands of eucalyptus have already been destroyed and the result is always non-native annual weeds that are highly flammable. These are places that you are welcome to visit and see for yourself the result of destroying the trees that are shading the ground, keeping the forest floor moist and suppressing the growth of flammable weeds. I am not opposed to the thinning of eucalyptus that is being done by East Bay Regional Park District because the canopy is still intact, keeping the soil moist and suppressing weed growth. However, if fire hazard were the top priority, the park district would do something about the tens of thousands of dead oak trees about which they are presently doing nothing. Nor do I object to destroying trees near residential properties, which is NOT where trees are being destroyed by public land managers in the East Bay. To the extent that vegetation management projects are being delayed in the East Bay, they are being delayed by the lawsuits of the Sierra Club and UC Berkeley because those lawsuits demand that ALL non-native trees be destroyed. I would be happy to take this discussion out of the public arena. I’m sure I could learn something from you and I believe you would benefit from more information about the East Bay.
And I have been a Chaparral Institute subscriber and one of your readers for some time. I have been struck by the similarity of our mission to prevent the destruction of a landscape that we value. It is therefore a disturbing to find myself defending myself against your criticism, but I must. Your criticism of McBride’s Commonwealth Club attack would be justified if most of his statements were not based on empirical studies. He did not pull his data out of the air. Your criticism of Stebbins would also be justified if his statements were not based on an empirical study that he did for the East Bay Regional Park District in 1976. He did a comprehensive inventory of vertebrate populations in four different types of vegetation. He found more vertebrates in oak woodland than in eucalyptus forests. However, he found more species of vertebrates in eucalyptus forest than in Monterey pine and in redwood forests. Professor Stebbins’ study is not available on-line because of when it was written, but I have a hard copy and can send you a copy if you wish to read it. Likewise, an inventory of the eucalyptus forest on Angel Island that was done prior to its destruction found twice as many amphibians in the eucalyptus forest than in the grassland that is now the dominant vegetation on Angel Island. In fact, that grassland is now exclusively non-native annual grasses, like 98% of all grassland in California. That is the result of destroying the tree canopy, whether it be native or non-native trees. The only study of leaf litter in eucalyptus forest, compared to oak woodland with which I am familiar was done by the GGNRA. That publication contains a table comparing the fuel loads of eucalyptus, bay laurel and oak forests. At first glance, the reader might think the table reports a bigger fuel load for eucalyptus forest. Take another look. The table includes the weight of the tree trunks. Since eucalyptus is a much taller tree than the natives to which it is compared, the weight of its trunk is much greater. However, the tree trunk is not considered flammable and therefore is not appropriately added to the fuel load. It is biomass, not fuel. If subtracted from the table, eucalyptus forest does not have greater fuel load than bay laurel and oak forests. Finally, you have not addressed the hard reality that we are losing our oak woodland to a deadly pathogen and that destroying hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus will not result in oak woodland. I prefer oak woodland to eucalyptus forest, so this is as disturbing to me as it should be to you. In fact, tens of thousands of eucalyptus have already been destroyed and the result is always non-native annual weeds that are highly flammable. These are places that you are welcome to visit and see for yourself the result of destroying the trees that are shading the ground, keeping the forest floor moist and suppressing the growth of flammable weeds. I am not opposed to the thinning of eucalyptus that is being done by East Bay Regional Park District because the canopy is still intact, keeping the soil moist and suppressing weed growth. However, if fire hazard were the top priority, the park district would do something about the tens of thousands of dead oak trees about which they are presently doing nothing. Nor do I object to destroying trees near residential properties, which is NOT where trees are being destroyed by public land managers in the East Bay. To the extent that vegetation management projects are being delayed in the East Bay, they are being delayed by the lawsuits of the Sierra Club and UC Berkeley because those lawsuits demand that ALL non-native trees be destroyed. I would be happy to take this discussion out of the public arena. I’m sure I could learn something from you and I believe you would benefit from more information about the East Bay.
Mr. Barrett, I have not asserted “that eucalyptus trees might lose their flammability characteristics in California and elsewhere.” I have no doubt that eucalyptus is at least as flammable as trees native to California. After all, our climate is very similar to the Australian climate where eucalyptus is native and both climates have resulted in native vegetation that is fire adapted and fire dependent. Unless you are advocating for the destruction of all trees in California for the purpose of reducing fire hazards, it is not sensible to demand the destruction of a single species of tree. It will not change anything. I believe the original source of this statement is the GGNRA: “It has been estimated that other than the homes that burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in California, about 70 percent of the energy released was through the combustion of eucalyptus.” The author of that statement in a GGNRA publication was identified as a member of a student association and no citation was provided in support of that claim. Since most of the fuel in that fire was the homes that burned, that is not a meaningful statement. Since virtually everything in the path of that wind-driven fire burned, the composition of the fuel was equal to the composition of the landscape. According to the FEMA technical report on the 1991 fire, eucalyptus contributed more fuel to that fire than they normally do because of the deep freeze that occurred the winter preceding that fire: “The unprecedented drought was accompanied by an unusual period of freezing weather, in December 1990, which killed massive quantities of the lighter brush and eucalyptus. Dead fuel accumulated on the ground in many areas and combined with dropped pine needles and other natural debris to create a highly combustible blanket. Due to the fiscal cutbacks, governmental programs to thin these fuels and create fuel breaks were severely curtailed, so the fuel load was much greater than normal by the second half of 1991.” (page 6) Such freezes, sufficiently deep and sustained, causing eucalypts (and other plants) to die back are very rare in the Bay Area. There has not been such a freeze since 1990 and its predecessor was in the early 1970s. In the warming climate, such freezes become increasingly less likely.
Mary, I admire your passion and depth of knowledge on this subject. Yes, let’s chat offline. Please send me an email and we can figure out a time. As a fellow activist, I sincerely respect your efforts.
Mary, While my second post was also in response to Mr. Halsey, I was also responding to your first post in this thread in which you stated the following: “You are mistaken about the trees. There is no proof of eucalyptus or monterey pine having unusually high flammability. The buildings are much more explosive and flammable than any tree. Proof is visible in the recent horrific Marin fires. The tales of flammability were fabricated at an IPC symposium in 2004 in order to demonize the “non-natives”. ” I was perplexed by your blanket statement that eucalpyts are not highly flammable and so I have provided sources that refute this statement. Mr. Halsey later suggested that eucalpyts might lose their flammability characteristics in California based on anecdotal evidence and I suggested that this might not be the case based on the 1991 Oakland Hills fire as well as recent fires in Portugal. It is true that there is little scientific data on the fire regime of eucalypt stands/forests in California which would be an interesting study for a grad student to undertake. However, one cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence of the high flammability of eucalypts in their home range of Australia and Tasmania nor can one conclude that eucalypts lose this characteristic in California without scientific evidence. Mary, in addition, no where did I state that all eucalypts (or a single species of them) should be cut down in California as you seemed to imply by the following statement in your post above ” Unless you are advocating for the destruction of all trees in California for the purpose of reducing fire hazards, it is not sensible to demand the destruction of a single species of tree.” I simply responded to your assertion that you made about the flammability of eucalypts in the very first post of this thread. I would suggest that you take a different tact if you want people to understand where you are coming from and to share your appreciation of the eucalyptus forests in California. Besides, I agree that not all eucalyptus forests in California are dangerous or need to be eradicated and that they do have a cultural and historic significance as well as a beauty unto themselves.
Jeffery, thank you for the citations. They are very helpul.
Mr. Barrett, Please look at that comment again. Please note that it was not written by me. It was written by someone else. As I have said before, the fire behavior of vegetation in all Mediterranean climates is similar. I recommend that you read Jon Keeley’s book, “Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems.” The fire cycle in all five Mediterranean climates is similar and therefore the vegetation that grows there must be adapted to fire. I have not said otherwise. I don’t ignore fire behavior here or elsewhere. Here in California virtually all vegetation that has burned this season and is burning now is native to California. You may not be advocating for the destruction of all non-native trees, but that is the debate on which you are presently commenting. UC Berkeley has engaged in several lawsuits in the pursuit of their written plans to destroy all non-native trees on their properties in the East Bay Hills. A series of articles has been published by UC Alumni magazine in support of that agenda. Those who are opposed to those plans are commenting in this debate. As for “taking a different tact,” since I am not “Mather Matters” I will assume that your advice is not directed at me.
Mr. Halsey, I have not been able to find an email address for you. I can’t use the contact form on the Chaparral Institute website. I left a message for you several days ago on the website of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, where you seem to teach courses about chaparral. I have not had a reply from that email message to you. They are probably dealing with more pressing matters during the fires in their area. Please let me know how I can make contact with you, if you still wish to continue this conversation off-line. Thank you.
While it is all well and fine to discuss eliminating trees that might be more fire prone than others through any combination of legislative efforts, the FAR MORE SIGNIFICANT POINT is that if you want to really save peoples lives and their communities , STOP ALLOWING WOOD HOMES TO BE BUILT IN CALIFORNIA FIRE AREAS PERIOD!!! As a developer of ICF Concrete and Foam homes , I can tell you that they are the most fire resistant , ( and there is evidence to suggest) FIRE PROOF homes in the world PERIOD. They have survived Fully intact the San Diego fires, the Washington State Wildfires, The Middletown Wildfires where all other homes were destroyed. They actually cost around the same as wood homes to build , are built faster and far better , and can be built to look like any other home with any surface material or shape that you want . With tempered glass and fire proof external window coverings, fire cannot get inside. In Guam , President Kennedy authorized Henry Kaiser to build 6000 concrete homes in 1963, in response to the typhoons that kept destroying all the wood homes on the Island. Since then , they have survived fully in tact one of the worst tornadoes in history , one of the worst hurricanes in history ( 234 mile an hour plus winds) and an 8.1 earthquake in 1991, again all fully intact . These homes are 80% more energy efficient that wood, and with the new Tesla Solar Roofs and back up batterys, we can create homes that will be 100% NET ZERO , which will never need energy from the grid again, especially in a wildfire. In addition, the homes are mold, termite, mildew and dry rot proof, have no offgassing, are 10 times structurally stronger than wood, can structurally span up to 60 ft inside, allowing for interior walls to be moved without taking out load bearing walls, and are built to last 1000 years. Fire insurance rates are at least 40% less than wood and you can get fire insurance from anyone , unlike what will likely happen in the near future with wood , unless you go to the Calif Fair Plan for the fire zones or specialty carriers. These concrete and foam homes have proven themselves over and over again all over the world, but we are woefully ignorant of them here in the US as the wood industry has done all it can to suppress the information , for fear of giving up their over 1 trillion dollar a year industry to a hugely superior product. Imagine if people don’t have to evacuate or rebuild their homes in the future that is sure to be hit with wildfires likely every year according to Governor Brown for years to come due to this horrible drought were experiencing. We are about to build these homes in Santa Rosa and the neighboring communities and already have 3 of them under construction in St Helena and San Anselmo. They are the answer, and we know it. There is simply NO Alternative anywhere even close to these homes for the sanity they will bring to our communities in dealing with the major issues of FIRE, Earthquakes and Green building moving forward. It is time to stop living in the past with solutions that do not work . NO matter what you do to fireproof a WOOD home , in a wildfire all bets are likely off. So we need to stop living out the definition of insanity and move forward into the 21st century.
Brilliant contribution, Daniel. Thank you for expanding the conversation about fire risk. It is exactly what we need to be doing.
The recent fires were in Sonoma and Napa counties, not Marin. And now southern California is on fire. Mt. Tamalpais in central Marin has not had a major fire since 1929. Look at a map of the towns around the mountain. We who live in Woodacre, Fairfax, San Anselmo, Ross, Larkspur, Kentfield, and Mill Valley are living on luck. This is NOT a good way to live.
In looking at the burned areas of the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, I noticed that fields of grass did not appear to get burned. The tress around this fields seemed to survive too. Maybe we need more grass surrounding our houses, not less. Although that would create a big watering problem.
Eric - The Tubbs fire was in fact carried much more rapidly through the fields of grass that occur between Calistoga and Santa Rosa. The Tubbs fire moved at some 3 miles per hour the night of October 8th which was largely due to the many fields of grass in the area. Take a look at the area with Google Earth to see the what the landscape looks like. Also, one can’t tell very easily that the grass fields were burned now as much of the grass has regrown back (I was just there in November). This fire might not have spread as rapidly if the the fields of grass had been prescribed burned this year.
All, I’ve worked with Joe McBride on and off since the 1970’s. He was the chief consultant for one of the first EIR’s we prepared for Sonoma County on a subdivision called The Foothills Estates, an early proposal for a high end development smack in the middle of undeveloped wildlands (I think Bennett Ridge may have been the first, which also suffered major fire losses this time around). He and Elgar Hill, who lead the effort, pointed out in the EIR that it was an extremely high fire hazard location and both told me privately that they would never chose to live in such a location. I believe only a couple of those Foothill Estates survived the Tubbs Fire. As I recall, (it’s been a long time), the original proposal was reduced from a couple of hundred two and three and five acre lots to the fewer ten and fifteen and twenty twenty acre parcels that were eventually approved and developed. But the politics of the day would not entertain the idea of simply concluding that it was the wrong place for people to live and denying the project. Joe also prepared a management plan for me on the 6000 acres that has now become the U.C. Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve. I have the highest respect for his work. Can’t think of anyone who has more experience in these issues. The issue of where in the hierarchy of governmental entities one vests approval authority is a really complex and historically hotly fought issue. Local governments have always very jealously protected their prerogative over local land use decisions. The Coastal Commission is one example where local governments have lost some of that authority to the State. It required a public initiative (written by the people, not the legislature) and a statewide vote to make it happen. Not a trivial effort. And, I think we all agree that it has turned out to be a good thing. At least for the Northern California Coast (don’t know much about southland). But it always depends on whose interest is at stake and where they have the most leverage. As a generalization, big players, corporations, big business and land uses requiring really large capitol investments have turned to the State where local developers and smaller interests have been better served by working in the local political landscape. And, certainly grass roots environmental interests have much better political access at home than we do in Sacramento. The Coast Act is an interesting amalgamation of local and state control where local governments prepare their coastal plans in accordance with state guidelines, and then the state gets to approve that plan. And most individual projects require approvals or are subject to appeal at both levels. But it really depends on the politics at the time. Who appoints the members of the commission, what is the persuasion of local government and where lies the balance of power for any one decision. I don’t think any of us would like a State Coastal Commission under a Trumpian governor or a highly partisan Republican legislature. Two other examples of the local vs. state tussle come to mind. Not so many years ago, solid waste disposal companies banded together to promote a law preempting local control over the siting of solid waste sites and vesting all authority at the state level (not shared as in the Coastal Act). Don’t remember all of the details anymore (was there a statewide initiative measure that failed?) but local governments fought the proposal with a full court press by the League of Cities and the state supervisors association and turned back the proposal. I think this is an illustration of big money interests believing that they have more clout at the higher level of government away from those pesky local citizens. The second example came up in the late 1980’s when there was an effort to preempt local control of mining and mined land reclamation. Many of the major mining companies were frustrated by the effort required to comply with CEQA and the then new Surface Mining and Reclamation Act and to get the necessary local approvals for new mining operations. Or to even bring existing operations into compliance with these new laws. A measure was introduced into the legislature (with the support of the department in state government that would gain a huge new bureaucracy) that would have transferred all decision authority over mining from the local level to the state. Ultimately the bill was amended to remove the provisions for state preemption and was passed and signed by the governor over the objection of the department hoping to take over regulation of mining. We’ve all seen recent attempts at the state level by development interests to gut CEQA and its requirements for full public disclosure and public notice and debate. There was a day when the vast majority of development in Sonoma County was by local developers. In recent decades we’ve seen a lot more of our development proposed by southern California and perhaps even out of state companies with a great deal more financial clout that the locals brought to bare in the past. And during the “great recession” a great number of foreclosed housing units were acquired by large real estate companies, RIT’s and hedge funds. Check out who funded the opposition to the recent rent control initiative. I think these newer development interests would likely welcome more state and less local control. But again, it depends on the political bent of those in control at each level at the time. If a measure could be crafted following the model of the Coastal Act, where authority is shared between local and state government and the requirements for fire safe development were embedded in legislation, and the political complexion remains favorable, it could very well work. But it’s a lot of “ifs.” And remember who actually crafted the Coastal Act. It was the people, not the government. In the long run, it may prove to be more likely that local government could be persuaded to do the right thing than taking on a state wide effort. Be careful what you wish for, Ray
Thank you Ray for your detailed comment. We are working with some folks in Sonoma County and trying to work with the Board of Forestry to develop better land management policies that recognize fire danger. Unfortunately, it has taken the Napa/Sonoma and Ventura fires to get people to listen… now. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-halsey-socal-fires-why-201712...

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