Living with fire: In the dry West, it's not if a house will burn, it's when

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    Wildfires are increasingly expensive and dangerous to fight as more housing is built in dry areas in the West where the vegetation is highly flammable. A single spark can ignite a fire. A warning sign near Mt. Baldy, above the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California.

    - David Weinberg

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    Plants that make up chaparral have evolved to store moisture as oil. That makes their leaves waxy -- and the plants highly flammable. These plants live to burn; many require fire to regenerate.

    - David Weinberg

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    Richard Minnich, a fire scientist at the University of California, Riverside, says houses built in chaparral areas are surrounded by "a carpet of gasoline."

    - David Weinberg

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    Government policies requiring wildfires to be put out as quickly as possible allow fuel to build up in fire zones, says fire scientist Richard Minnich. Whether houses in fire zones will burn is not the question, he says. It's a matter of when.

    - David Weinberg

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    A fire burns near the community of Lake Elsinore in Southern California. Some 250 crews were called in to fight it, and the fire was controlled without any damage to buildings. A few days later, another fire started 40 miles away and burned 16 square miles in less than a day.

    - David Weinberg

Wildfires in the western U.S. have grown in size for decades. Mega-fires burn more than 100,000 acres -- 15 square miles. And there are more fires near housing developments.  In California alone, two million houses sit in high-risk fire zones.

A wildfire denudes hills of vegetation. Often all that’s left is ashes and blackness. When Richard Minnich looks at a charred landscape after a wildfire, he doesn’t mourn the loss of the plants killed in the blaze. ”I’m not crying at al," he says. "I’m saying, wow, you solved your fire problem for a while. The energy is gone.”

Minnich is a fire scientist at the University of California, Riverside, in Southern California's inland desert. As a native of the state, he grew up appreciating the natural beauty of its  mountain forests and chaparral.  But he also recognizes its danger, and he doesn’t think houses should be built in what's called the Wildland-Urban Interface, places where houses bump up against high-risk fire zones.

Solitary houses

"Straight ahead of me, I’m looking at solitary houses on the tops of hills," Minnich says. "It just ticks me off to see that."

We're driving through a neighborhood in Riverside where houses are surrounded by scrub oak, chamise and other chaparral vegetation, which to Minnich’s eyes is one big field of stored energy in a region where it doesn’t rain for six months at a time every year.

"So it is a carpet of gasoline, and it should be viewed as such, and people should think if it in those terms," Minnich says. "And if they did, they would think twice before they would want to live in a  landscape that produces this kind of disturbance frequently."

As we drove back to Minnich’s office, we came up over a ridge and saw a column of smoke rising in the distance.


"You can see where that fire is taking off there, on the other side of those hills," Minnich says.

After my interview with Minnich,  I headed for the smoke. By the time I got to the fire, near the Southern California town of Lake Elsinore, huge flames lit up the night. The local high school had been turned into a central command station for firefighting crews, and a church was handing out hamburgers to residents like Gary Sykes, one of about 100 people ordered to leave their homes.

"Actually, I’m kind of pissed off for the simple fact that 10 o'clock, I get up I see a fire, and all I see is two puny-ass helicopters with hoses," Sykes says. "Get this fire out. Let us go home to our houses that we paid hard money for."

This sentiment is not uncommon among people who live in fire zones. When they see flames coming toward their homes, they want them out, immediately.

And that’s exactly what happened in Lake Elsinore. More than 250 fire crews were called to the scene. They brought with them nearly 100 fire engines  along with six helicopters and six air-tankers. No structures were lost in the blaze.

Total suppression

"In Southern California, we have a total suppression strategy," says Lorine Buckweld, a suppression battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service. "In other words, that means every fire will be suppressed with as many resources as we can throw at them to keep them small. Because of the threat to the Wildland-Urban Interface."

The Forest Service now spends more than half of its budget fighting wildfires. Most of which they are spending fighting in and around structures, housing developments and the like, not in and around  wilderness areas.

Environmental history professor Char Miller at Pomona College is one of many critics who doesn’t think the public should be footing the bill to protect homes in high-risk fire zones. And he says we’re not factoring in the human cost when we build in these areas.

"As we saw in the Yarnell Hill fire, in which 19 firefighters died struggling to fight a fire that was coming close to a brand new subdivision," he says, referring to a fire in Arizona last month. "It’s a tragedy to be sure, but it’s a tragedy of our own making.

Two days after the Lake Elsinore fire, lightning caused another fire 40 miles away. It burned 16 square miles in less than 24 hours. Two dozen homes were destroyed. Five firefighters were injured.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. That means people who lost their homes could be eligible for federal disaster aid. They are free to use that money to rebuild on the same plot of land where their home once stood, and where seeds of chaparral plants will soon sprout from the blackened soil.  Plants that, Minnich points out, have evolved to be drought-resistant and as result are highly flammable -- in fact, they need fire to regenerate.

"That combination guarantees burning," Minnich says, "and we’ve had that combination of factors in geologic time scales for 300 million years, and it’s not as if we’re going to stop this."

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.
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The best thing homeowners can do is to make their home firesafe, through things like boxing eaves, screening vents, moving flammable things away from walls (flammable includes those beautiful pines, cedars, or palm trees under the eaves), and keeping the landscaping hydrated http://www.minkner.com

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While Richard Minnich is correct that homes should not be built in high fire risk areas, his hypothesis that young vegetation will not burn has been proven incorrect time and time again. And his continual reference to valuable habitat as just "gasoline" indicates he has a deep disrespect for the natural environment. The news release below provides additional details about why Minnich's opinions on fire in southern California have been rejected by the fire science community.

The August, 2013 Silver Fire near Banning, California, Defies Beliefs About Wildfire by Burning Within the Deadly 2006 Esperanza Fire Scar

According to conventional wisdom, the seven-year-old vegetation was not supposed to burn

Defying the fundamental assumption that older “overgrown” vegetation is the cause of large wildfires, the devastating Silver Fire near Banning, California, burned through invasive weeds and young, desert chaparral recovering from the deadly 2006 Esperanza Fire. Such high fire frequency will lead to the spread of more weeds and the loss of native chaparral.

Proponents of backcountry vegetation treatments have maintained that the cause of large wildfires is unnatural “fuel” build up due to past fire suppression efforts. Younger fuels, they maintain, will not carry a fire. For example, in commenting on the July 2013 Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, UC Riverside geographer, Dr. Richard Minnich, maintained that allowing fires to consume as many acres as possible would increase the protection of nearby communities for fifty years (Press Enterprise 7/18/13). The loss of 26 homes and the burning of young vegetation by the Silver Fire contradicts Dr. Minnich’s contention that much of southern California is in pretty good shape because older vegetation burned off during a spate of wildfires over the past decade (KPCC 8/10/13).

While sounding intuitively correct, such fuel-focused perspectives are not supported by the most recent scientific research. With a rapidly drying climate and an increasing population causing more ignitions, whether the fuel be weedy grasses, young or old native shrubs, or trees, southern California wildfires will likely continue to be large and intense.

Like earthquakes, large wildland fires in southern California are inevitable. Instead of trying to prevent them by clearing large areas of backcountry habitat, we need to use strategies that have been proven to be the most effective in protecting lives, property, and the natural environment from wildland fire. Namely, create communities that are firesafe through hazard relevant zoning, fire resistant construction and retrofits, appropriate defensible space, and strategic fuel breaks (within 1,000 feet of homes) in conjunction with firefighter safety zones. For those communities in indefensible locations, evacuate the residents, then focus firefighting resources on communities that are defensible. Such an approach needs to be incorporated into Cal Fire’s proposed Vegetation Treatment Plan.

Additional details can be found on the California Chaparral Institute's "Fire and Science" page on their website:

I agree with both Mr. Minnich and Mr. Landis. Grassland is more likely to ignite than chaparral and fire spreads more rapidly through the grass. When chaparral is destroyed, non-native annual grasses are the most likely occupants of the bared ground. The point of this story is NOT to destroy chaparral.
However, wildfires spread rapidly into chaparral and gain energy from the woody fuel. Defenders of chaparral should stop and listen to this story again. The point is that we should stop building homes where fire is inevitable. Jon Keeley would have said exactly the same thing.
The last vegetation type to ignite in a wildfire is the forest, which only ignites if the fire spreads into its canopy. Yet, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, native plant advocates have convinced many members of the public, as well as many politicians that all non-native trees must be eradicated to achieve fire safety. They even claim that native plants are inherently less flammable than non-native plants, which is ridiculous as NPR’s story makes clear to anyone who is prepared to listen it with an open mind.
Thanks to NPR for this important story. One hopes that a few people in the San Francisco Bay Area heard it.

It made me cringe to listen to Marketplace using Minnich as a source. While I respect some of his older work, his view on chaparral is in a distinct minority. In the interest of journalistic fairness, it would have been wise (and more accurate) to include some other researchers on chaparral fires, such as Jon Keeley's group at USGS. (e.g. http://www.werc.usgs.gov/project.aspx?projectid=226)

The big problem here isn't that chaparral is "born to burn" as it is unfairly demonized. ANYTHING that gets dry enough--trees, shrubs, grass, homes--will catch fire. Chaparral plants aren't noticeably different in this regard. Their critical problem is that they deal with drought, which makes it hard to get water out of the ground and to the leaves that need it. As a result, they're short, to minimize the distance between groundwater and leaves. Any fire that gets started will burn their canopies, because those canopies are too close to the ground to avoid the fire. Tall trees like ponderosa pines don't have this problem, but they also need more water for fairly obvious reasons.

That said, chaparral is much, much, much LESS ignitable than dry, dead weeds and grasses, and this is where Minnich is dangerously wrong. Replacing chaparral with a field of weeds technically "decreases the fuel load," but it's replacing a field of fairly hard-to-ignite wood with a field of dangerously ignitable kindling. Given a Santa Ana wind, a grass fire is every bit as dangerous as a chaparral fire. Chaparral burns hot once it's ignited, but getting it to that state is actually harder than it is with most non-natives.

That said, the firefighters and the ecologists (except for Minnich) do tend to agree: firefighters cannot stop a wind-driven chaparral fire. Embers can blow for miles in a Santa Ana, and there's no technology, including fire breaks, giant clearances, mosaics of differently-aged vegetation, or 747 water bombers, that can stop a wildfire moving down-wind. The best thing homeowners can do is to make their home firesafe, through things like boxing eaves, screening vents, moving flammable things away from walls (flammable includes those beautiful pines, cedars, or palm trees under the eaves), and keeping the landscaping hydrated. According to current research, it helps to clear up to 200 feet from homes (to keep the heat of a fire from igniting the homes), but beyond that, it doesn't matter. There's much more information at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/project.aspx?projectid=226 and other sources.

Oh, and be sure to bug your local firefighters to make their stations fire safe too. They're amazingly sloppy about both construction and landscaping, and they aren't a good example to the homeowners who depend on them.

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