Up in Smoke

'In many things in life, we have a tendency to go one way or the other, and not much in between," says Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. "Once, fire was all bad. Now, everything needs to burn in order to keep it healthy." Halsey, a biologist and ecologist, has been invited to speak about the facts and myths of San Diego's native chaparral at the San Diego Audubon Society's general meeting on Friday, February 23.

One myth he will cover is that chaparral (the dense, native plant community that blankets most Southern Californian hillsides) is to blame for fire devastation. "Fire size here is all about wind and weather conditions," he explains. "You don't get big fires when you don't have Santa Ana wind conditions, and you have big fires when you do. It doesn't matter what kind of fuel it's burning through; as long as there's a wind pushing it, it's going to keep going. In the Cedar Fire, it jumped Interstate 15 and went into the Miramar Air Base. It went all the way to just before it got to the 805 and dropped dead out in very dense, 50- to 60-year-old chaparral. According to conventional wisdom, things burned that shouldn't have burned, and things that didn't burn should have burned."

A popular misconception is that the Native Americans regularly burned chaparral in order to keep it healthy. "Chaparral is not very good, economically speaking, for crops or grazing cattle. What the Indians would do is burn [the land] to type-convert it, or turn it into something more economically viable for them." Halsey insists that, contrary to public opinion, chaparral does not need fire to remain healthy. "I often ask, 'Do you have fire insurance?' When a person says, 'Of course,' then I say, 'Clearly you're adapted to burn then, and we'll have to burn you out every 30 years,' and they balk. It's not that [chaparral] wants to burn -- it's that evolution has created organisms that have adapted to survive naturally occurring fires." For example, fires ignited by lightning.

No homes or lives were lost in 1889 in a fire that burned 800,000 acres in Orange County. In the Cedar Fire of 2003 (which burned approximately 273,000 acres), 2232 homes were destroyed and 14 people were killed. Halsey says planning commissions, not chaparral, are to blame. "Scripps Ranch lost 300-plus homes, and the main reason those houses were lost were shake-shingle roofs [made of cedar wood]. Embers from the wild lands [which can travel by wind for up to one mile] landed on the roofs in the morning and the houses caught fire. There weren't enough fire engines, so they ended up burning by the afternoon. It's unbelievable how many of those residents pleaded with the city to put the houses back in the same way, with shake-shingle roofs."

Halsey believes many homes and lives would be saved if firefighters were placed at the "end of the line" of the permitting process. He gives an example of a poorly placed home that five firefighters lost their lives trying to protect in the Esperanza fire of October 2006. "Despite what those people could have done to make the place fire-safe, right below that house was a steep canyon, and fire came blasting up the canyon. There was almost an instantaneous ignition of the area surrounding the house." The home was located in a "fire corridor," which is "an area that gets repeatedly burned; when fire runs through this area, nothing can stop it." One such fire corridor is the area between the El Capitan reservoir and Harbison Canyon. "There are homes there that are getting rebuilt today," says Halsey.

If people insist on placing their homes in high fire-risk areas, Halsey suggests they place giant red signs notifying firefighters not to proceed past a certain point, for the firefighters' safety. "But people don't want to hear that. When fire chief [Jeff] Bowman told folks in Tierrasanta, years before the Cedar Fire, 'When a fire comes here, I only have so many engines. We're just not going to be able to get to a lot of houses, and we're going to have to let them burn,' everybody gasped. Everybody wants their house saved."

Years before the Cedar Fire, Halsey says, residents were warned of the high fire risk, and obtaining fire insurance was difficult. "Was it their fault? No, it was the fault of the city planning commission that allowed those buildings. If you wanted to design a community to burn down, it would be Scripps Ranch." -- Barbarella

Chaparral Ecology and Fire Recovery with Richard Halsey Friday, February 23 7 p.m. Tecolote Nature Center Tecolote Road (end of the road heading east from Sea World Drive exit) Tecolote Canyon Cost: Free Info: 619-682-7200 or sandiegoaudubon.org/events.htm

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