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Know the West

It Happened in the Shrubbery


Last weekend, as the Station wildfire on the northern edge of urban Los Angeles doubled, and doubled, and then doubled again – it has now grown to 250 square miles in the Angeles National Forest – I sat down to re-read “Fire Management of California Shrubland Landscapes” by Jon E. Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey. The academic paper was given to me by Richard Halsey, the founder of the California Chaparral Institute, whom I profiled for this magazine two winters ago. And it lays out, in plain, clear language, why just about everything you hear about wildfire in Southern California – from politicians, newscasters and most of all homeowners on the edge of that urban-wildland interface – is wrong. 

The paper is of particular importance in light of a letter California Senator Barbara Boxer wrote responding to this early-onset fire season to the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who ultimately oversees the Forest Service. Urging the federal government to clear forests before big burns happen, she wrote, “too often, dead or dying trees and chaparral, in many cases where fire has not occurred for decades, becomes the fuel for fires that cannot be controlled without a serious threat to people and the communities they live in.”

Boxer’s complaint is based on the idea that fires would be smaller and more manageable if only the plants didn’t get so big and old. She is one of the many who "assume," as Keeley writes, “that this fire hazard is unnatural and has developed because of fuel accumulation arising from a century of fire suppression policy.” And while that principle applies to many Western coniferous forests (see the comparisons in Keeley's latest collaboration, "Ecological Foundations for Fire Management in North American Forest and Shrubland Ecosystems"), little of what burns in Southern California is coniferous forest. Most of it is chaparral shrubland – 95 percent of the Station Fire happened in chaparral -- and fire hazard in chaparral has very little to do with the age of the fuel.

Writes Keeley: “large catastrophic fires will readily burn through young stands less than 20 years of age and do not require old vegetation.”

Just to make sure I was getting all this right, I called up Keeley on his cell phone. I mentioned to him Boxer’s letter, and a recent Associated Press story reporting that the forest service never finished conducting the controlled burns they'd planned on 1,800 acres of land, some of which falls within the boundaries of the Station Fire. But would any of that have held back a fire that spread across more than 100,000 acres within a week?

Keeley said no. A complicated a no, but no nonetheless.

Keeley is involved right now with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project, a collaborative effort among scientists, public officials and emergency personnel to reduce the vulnerability of communities to natural phenomena – earthquakes, winter storms and wildfires -- in Southern California. As part of that effort, “we’ve been looking at this subject of fuel treatment on the landscape,” Keeley told me. “So far the evidence shows that fuel treatments are not going to stop these fires.”

Prescribed burns can help firefighters defend homes from wildfires, Keeley explains, "but they don’t really have any effect on the size of the fire. Within the perimeter of the Station Fire there are more than 150 miles of fuel breaks and several thousand acres of prescribed burns. The fire just burned right through them.”

And another thing: Even though investigators have declared that arson caused the Station Fire, it happened within the timeframe of the natural fire cycle. Contrary to the media's current master narrative, it did not feed on extraordinarily old fuels. More than half of the just-scorched land last burned from 30 to 40 years ago, which is just about “the lower limit of the interval you want to burn at,” says Keeley. More frequent fires destroy the seedbank in the soil and allow grasses to replace chaparral, “and that would be an ecological disaster.” Not only would fires burn faster and happen more frequently, but land would slip more violently: Chaparral shrubbery stabilizes steep slopes. (Say that 100 times really fast.) If anything, fire suppression in the chaparral has kept the "type conversion" of chaparral to grasses at bay.

The tragic deaths of two firefighters and the destruction of nearly 300 homes make it hard to say anything good about the Station Fire. But even though it’s now been deemed the largest fire in the history of Los Angeles County, from a purely ecological standpoint, it’s not the worst. And it’s probably not the one for senators to use to make points about keeping people safe from fire.

“We have to get away from this view that we can stop these fires,” Keeley says. “We can’t. To me, listening to someone say you need to do something to stop these fires sounds as ridiculous as saying 'we’ve got stop these earthquakes.' What do we do about earthquakes? We ask how can we adapt to earthquake country. We need to treat fires like earthquakes, recognize they’re inevitable, and modify how we live with them.”