Fire control subject of controversy

The following article first appeared on Page B-4 in the Ojai Valley News on Sunday, September 23, 1979 under the “Pro & Con” section. It is reprinted here with their permission.  The photo of Cary Sterling was added to this article by the Ojai Valley Museum.  

Fire control subject of controversy
Cary Sterling

Cary Sterling

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No characteristic of southern California’s brushlands causes more heartache than fire. The Ojai area has dubious honor in this regard. The largest fire in the history of California began in Matilija Canyon in 1932, spreading to 219,254 acres.

Strangely enough, it is the attempt to prevent fires which result in the extremely destructive and dangerous brushfires which inevitably occur. The policy for many years has been to control fires until, ultimately and all too logically, an uncontrollable fire is produced.

All the old-timers I have spoken with agree on one thing. This area needs more frequent fires. At first, I thought they were out of their minds. This is a rough concept for a member of the Smokey the Bear generation.

Research, as usual, supports the old-timers. The reason that chaparral is so fire-prone is, quite simply, that it loves to burn. It has been designed, by God or natural evolution if you will, to burn every eight to twenty-five years. Every year between fires, more fuel is accumulating.

A 30 YEAR OLD brushfield is not natural and when it finally goes up, adverse weather conditions can turn it into a holocaust. At this point, even the most modern of fire-fighting techniques become inadequate. It is then that we helplessly witness the spread of brush fires to areas of human occupation.

The difficult problem of bringing wild area fire management policies in line with natural ecology is explored by Professor Miron L. Heinselman, of the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an article entitled “Fire in Wilderness Ecosystems.” Professor Heinselman’s article appears in a text on wilderness management used by the U.S. Forest Service.

“Fire-dependent plant communities burn more readily than nonfire-dependent communities because natural selection has favored the development of flammable foliage. [Chaparral] is such a “community.” Such plants and communities actually depend on periodic fire for survival.”

While fires may be tragic for individual animals caught in the conflagration, they increase the size of later animal populations by creating more areas for grazing and browsing. Fire does this in the following ways: 1) It triggers the release of seeds. 2) It stimulates flowering and fruiting of many plants. 3) It alters seedbeds when dense litter is replaced with bare soil, ash and thin humus. 4) It stimulates vegetative reproduction of many species when the overstory is killed. 5) It reduces competition for moisture, heat, nutrients and light. 6) It reduces diseases caused by insects and plant parasites such as mistletoe.

THE ABOVE IS MOST true for the lighter fires which occurred more frequently in natural cycles. Such fires are less likely to destroy large trees. “The giant sequoia forests of the Sierra usually experienced light or moderate surface fires at short intervals (four to fifteen years) that kept down invading shrubs, true firs and incense cedar. They scarred but seldom killed the giant sequoias.” The major cause of such natural fires is believed to be lightening.

Heinselman lists five alternatives in fire management for wild areas, reviewing the pros and cons of each.

Fire Exclusion. “A fire-exclusion policy requires the immediate suppression of all fires, regardless of cause, location, or expected damage. At the very least it is often defensible as a holding action until a rational judgement concerning the best alternative can be made.

“One problem resulting from a policy of fire exclusion is a buildup of fuels. This has created very difficult control problems in the chaparral zones of California. Fire was one of nature’s ways of reducing fuels. Perhaps, in following a policy of exclusion, we are only setting the state for a major conflagration which not only could be dangerous to human life and property, but disruptive to the very ecosystems we are purportedly protecting.”

No Fire-Control Program. “Some fire protection people might believe that fire ecologists advocate complete cessation of fire control, but actually no informed and responsible person would be so callous. This option must be rejected outright.”

Management of Lightening-Caused Fires. “The approach is simply one of avoiding direct manipulation as much as safely possible by allowing nature to select the time, place, vegetation and fuels for fires through lightening ignitions.”

Prescribed Fire. “The goal is the restoration of the natural fire regime through the substitution of deliberate ignitions. The basic reason for this option is the belief that fires can often be managed safely if the time and place of ignition are selected in advance.”

Mechanical Manipulation of Vegetation and Fuels. “This policy rejects fire as an unacceptable or unsafe agent of change, and substitutes mechanical manipulations – e.g., harvest of the forest, soil disturbance, planting for the periodic, natural perturbations caused by fire.” The professor cites this approach as more appropriate for semi-wild or agricultural areas than for places where true wilderness values are the highest priority.

Heinselman’s final recommendation for true wilderness is “to restore fire to its natural role in the ecosystem to the maximum extent consistent with safety of persons, property, and other resources.” Safety is then the great problem.

“In recent years most fire fatalities have been sustained by firefighters. Furthermore, the responsibility for keeping fires away from homes, villages, roads, powerlines, structures, and commercial forests outside the wilderness is absolute.”

Many brushfields are now of such advanced age that the need for controlled burning presents a nightmare for the fire personnel. Meanwhile, for occupied areas, there is only one viable policy: the most immediate possible suppression of fires.

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