Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 1, 2009

Learning to live with wildfires

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 1, 2009
Fire map of Los Angeles region as of Monday afternoon. More up-to-date details from CalFire.

The following is an editorial that will be published in the September 1, Los Angeles Times.  Implications for a strategy of resilience are woven throughout.


Was the still air a blessing or a curse? The dearth of breeze kept the Station fire from burning even more disastrously out of control at the same time that it corralled ash and heat, making for miserable air quality. Most tellingly, though, it was a sign, just one of many, that the length and severity of wildfire seasons are worsening.

The worst fires typically occur around October, when Santa Ana winds and brush that has been drying in the hot sun since April combine to fuel deadly blazes. Yet the fire in the Angeles National Forest has consumed more than 105,000 acres without a gust to be felt. That is in good part because of the exceptional dryness of the vegetation after years of drought.

If it weren’t for the evacuations and the lives and buildings lost, this would be considered one of the more environmentally acceptable fires. Southern California’s scrub and chaparral depend on an occasional burning. Many plants, in fact, are “fire followers” that evolved to sprout up after a conflagration; fire clears areas for growth and deposits fertilizer. This area in the San Gabriel Mountains hasn’t burned for 40 to 60 years, which is in sync with the natural fire cycle for the region; more frequent fires damage open land by not allowing native plants to mature while giving invasive annual plants a chance to take over.

In recent years, though, truly catastrophic brush fires have occurred even shortly after the rainy season ends in early spring. Years of low precipitation have brought progressively drier brush; research indicates that this is a result of climate change. Construction adjacent to open lands has led to attempts to stop all wildfires, allowing dense growth to build up and exacerbating the dollar and human damage from those that occur. Grazing livestock and human activities have given non-native plants, especially annual grasses, the opportunity to dominate wild landscapes. These cover more extensive patches of ground and dry earlier.

Even if the predicted El Niño conditions arrive this winter, the blessing will be mixed. Heavier rains lead to lusher growth — which then turns into a bumper crop of fire fuel.

It’s hard to win against something as natural to the area as wildfire without dominating — and further damaging — wild lands. But we can reduce fire’s harm by severely limiting sprawl into remote areas; regularly clearing near buildings and creating fire buffers along roads and between open lands and inhabited areas; and restoring habitat to a more natural state that provides less fuel. Fire is inevitable; our challenge is learning to live with it.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2009 @ 7:10 am

While draining the Owen River and other sources, LA often forgets that essentially it exists in a desert climate! Good luck this century with climate change. Oh and the big one I hope is long after I am gone and US and LA are prepared as best can be!
But hey maybe still the end of the rainbow for many.
What the post ignores is the mudslides that follow the fires if and when the rains return. Both hazards must be recognized. Flood-related mudslides were added to the coverage of the National Flood Insurance Program in 1969 and a wonderful National Geographic article has amazing pictures in that year. And of course alluvial fan flooding and debris flow always a problem. FEMA never mapped the mudslides despite suggestions of how to do it from the NAS but they did take some primitive steps on alluvial fan issues. Again good luck when the “relief” of the rains occurs.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2009 @ 7:20 am

I should have added that the NFIP discussed in the comment previously should long ago have adopted the principle that it does not pay claims for any hazard it does NOT MAP! I believe that is the way the National Flood Insurance Act (42 USC4001 and following) reads. But my opinion in 20 years in FEMA counted for nought on that subject. If that principle had been followed [payment only for mapped hazards] the levee and flood wall failures in NOLA and other places over the years [Cedar Rapids, IA, e.g.] would not have been covered and the program would not be in deficit. True, free disaster relief would have occurred. But perhaps pressure to repeal 33 USC Section 702 that holds the USACOE and US harmless from flood control projects, even where gross negilence [many states equate gross negligence with constructive or actual fraud] would have kept some structural measures from being built to respond to STATE and LOCAL political pressures and perhaps no NOLA 9th ward or NOLA EAST but instead other solutions that were more environmentally sound. By the way their are earthquake and fire maps in CA just almost no one knows about them. But the insurance business does–just look at the so-called FAIR plans in operation there.

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