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Learning to live with wildfires

The fiery eruptions are part of California's natural landscape -- but there are ways to reduce the devastating effects.

September 01, 2009

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 Nino 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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