The fire next time
How will the October fires reframe the conversation about what it means to be fire safe?
Sarah C. Phelps
Is it too soon to start talking about the next fire?
Not if you’re talking to Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist for Audubon Canyon Ranch, based at Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen.
“In many ways it’s easier to see fires as bad and not see them in the context of the ecosystem,” she said. Berleman, with a Ph.D. in wildland fire science from U.C. Berkeley, studies what is called the “fire regime” of different plant communities within a landscape that has adapted to the regular presence of fire. Historically in Sonoma Valley regular fires were caused less by lightening strikes (as is often the case in other parts of northern California) and more often by humans. Native Americans deliberately used fire to improve foraging conditions and visibility for hunting, and the evolution of our plant communities is a direct result of this management tool. Different plants have “fire regimes” – which is a need for a certain intensity of fire at a certain time – and if they don’t get that exposure, they start suffering. The effects, said Berleman, include higher stress, lower diversity, and increased pathogens and disease. That, coupled with a culture of fire suppression – putting out any wildfire as soon as it starts – has led to a build up of dead and dying debris that can translate into kindling for a larger wildfire under the right conditions.
“Here in the Bay Area, there isn’t a ‘no fire’ option. Because of our Mediterranean climate – wet, cool winters and hot, dry summers – fire will always be a part of our world here. Additionally, as climate change affects our summers by extending that hot, dry season and causing hotter, drier weather within it, our fire season is getting longer and becoming more extreme,” wrote Berleman in an Oct. 24, 2017, article for Bay Nature.
“Better than this all or nothing approach is to learn to live with fire,” said Berleman.
In spring 2017, Berleman took part in a prescribed burn at Bouverie Preserve – the first there in almost a decade. At first the prescribed burn was envisioned as part of a two-week fire management program in the spring and the fall that would use prescribed burning, pile burning, understory thinning and other “fuel treatments” on selected plant communities and help train other fire ecologists to do the same in nearby areas. She had two other prescribed burns planned for fall 2017, until Mother Nature did the work for her. When fire ripped through the preserve in October, Berleman got to see first-hand how the prescribed burn had changed the fire’s behavior for the better. Outside the areas that had undergone the prescribed burn, the fire burned much hotter and produced much more damage – some areas might even require some replanting, said Berleman. After the October fires, Berleman has decided to scale up the fuel treatment program. She is pursuing funding for a year-round fire management crew that would help address ecological concerns at Bouverie and, through extensive community outreach, hopefully other public and private property in the valley.
Close to home
Using fire as an ecological management tool might be great in the open space and wildlands of Sonoma Valley, but how does that translate into fire resiliency in the areas where the man-made world mixes with the natural world?
“Because we’ve been putting all these fires out all these years, we have selected – through natural selection – for fires to happen only under conditions where we can’t control those fires,” said Caerleon Safford. Safford has spent more than a decade as the executive director of Fire Safe Sonoma, a nonprofit fire council in Sonoma County that serves as a resource for those who want to assess and mitigate their wildfire risks. In 2016, the Board of Supervisors approved the Sonoma County Community Wildfire Protection Plan developed by Fire Safe Sonoma.
“Prescribed burning is a really efficient tool in the tool box and I’m a great believer in prescribed burning, but I’m a greater believer in Joe Homeowner and what he or she does,” said Safford. “We could moderate the power of wildfires like those in October, but the best chance for survival is home owners stepping up to take control of what they can.”
Fire Safe Sonoma has developed tools to help homeowners assess their home for wildfire risks, which includes managing the 100-foot “defensible space” and the critical five-foot “combustible space” around their homes.
This is what Safford calls “starting at the house and working out.”
Still, there are no guarantees. Safford acknowledged that in worst-case weather conditions like those leading up to the October fires – extremely high winds, extremely low humidity – some people who had followed those guidelines to fire harden their homes still lost them.
“When conditions are that bad, all bets are off and it’s difficult to sell the argument I’m making,” admitted Safford. “Until we get to a place where we can use fire as an effective tool where it won’t get out of control, we have to start with the house and work out.” It then becomes a community effort. Fifteen homes in a community managing their defensible space together is better than just one, said Safford.
A new conversation
“We need to shift the playing field of disincentives and incentives in places with highly flammable vegetation,” said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center. “The thing that is the cheapest, easiest thing to do should also be the thing that is the safest.”
Cornwall believes that in the overlap between the man-made and the natural world, a key will be starting a larger conversation about fire-wise land use policy, planning and development.
The time might be ripe to begin talking.
“[Governor Brown] was dead on when he said yesterday, ‘You can’t fight nature; you have to work with it.’ That means rethinking where and how development happens so we aren’t required to build inherently risky infrastructure to serve those communities,” said Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) at a Jan. 26 Senate subcommittee on gas, electric and transportation safety. The causes of the October fires are still under investigation by Cal Fire, but representatives from the CPUC, Pacific Gas & Electric, and other utility companies appeared before a panel of state legislators in Santa Rosa to answer questions about their efforts to address safety challenges.
Picker said he’s personally scared that the scale, severity, and frequency of major disasters, particularly storms, can always overwhelm any planning, tighter rules, and resources. “Perfect safety will be hard to reach,” he said.
Safford, whose day job is a fire inspector for the county, has seen how effective a model of disincentives can be. “But the question is ‘how much do people want to be regulated?’”
Another question is how to keep people from forgetting there is a risk at all. “I’ve heard it called a cultural short term memory problem,” joked Berleman.
Recent articles in the San Francisco Chronicle document the city of Oakland’s ongoing struggle to fund fire mitigation efforts now, 27 years after the 1991 firestorm that killed 25 people and burned almost 3,500 homes in the Oakland hills.
In the East Bay, the land managers are still very focused on keeping fuel in check, but public perception has changed, said Berleman.
“We need to change the way the public pays attention,” said Daren Bellach, chief at the Kenwood Fire Department. Bellach said that over the last 20 years the fire fighting community has done a good job educating people about things like defensible space, but hasn’t really educated the public on how to pay attention to warning signs, like how to watch the weather, how to watch for a wind alert, or for low humidity.
“With longer fire seasons, almost all year round, and changing weather patterns, public education will need to be looked at and changed, statewide,” said Bellach.
“All the work in wildland is great, but you still have to do the personal work, the community planning,” said Safford.
Fire Safe Sonoma
Sonoma Land Trust
hosts Caerleon Safford at its Santa Rosa office on Feb. 22, 7-9 p.m., to discuss the wildfire protection plan for Sonoma County and the steps you can take to protect your home and community from wildfires.