Conservation: Fire Policy
Meeting the Challenges of Fire Safety and Environmental Conservation: Policy Statement of the Marin Audubon Society
Approved by Board March 3, 2020
Wildfires are becoming more catastrophic in our region. Megafires ignore boundaries, require prolonged and expensive interagency responses, and harm natural and cultural resources. Recently, the wildfire season has lengthened from five to seven months. Larger areas are burning, and more houses are in fire prone landscapes.
Our communities are increasingly at risk from disastrous wildfires because of the expansion of housing in the wildland urban interface (WUI) which endangers human safety, property, and wildland values. The Marin Audubon Society commends efforts to reduce fire hazards in the WUI but cautions that there is a need to integrate environmental concerns in fire prescriptions.
As the National Academy of Sciences concluded:
“When houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation, they pose two problems related to wildfires. First, there will be more wildfires due to human ignitions. Second, wildfires that occur will pose a greater risk to lives and homes, they will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn becomes impossible.”
The increasing frequency of fires due to climate change and human activity in the WUI run the risk of conversion of natural forests and other wildlands from native plant assemblages to ruderal (weedy) wastelands along with the loss of wildlife habitat. Certain well-intentioned fire prescriptions may also have the effect of unintentionally encouraging invasive exotic vegetation and destruction of wildlife habitat. While clearing understory, thinning, and opening forests may temporarily reduce fuel loads, the longer-term effect may be the encouragement of broom and weedy non-native shrubs, which increase fire hazards over time.
Marin County towns and agencies have developed programs designed to reduce wildfire risk using mechanical thinning or prescribed fire.Â Generally, these programs are planned by fire suppression professionals without sufficient input from ecologists and natural resources specialists. Potential adverse impacts of fuels treatment by vegetation removal include increased erosion and sedimentation of streams and loss of habitat for ground dwelling wildlife (e.g., birds, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and small mammals) that depend on low growing vegetation for some portion of their life cycles (e.g., cover for nesting, protection from predators, and foraging habitat).Â Loss of cover for prey species increases their vulnerability and may result in reduced populations of prey for predators such as Northern Spotted Owl. Likewise, dying, dead and downed wood in natural wildlands constitute critical habitat components for woodpeckers, other cavity nesting and foraging birds, as well as small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
Also in many locations native vegetation improves water quality, stabilizes shorelines, traps sediment, prevents erosion, improves air quality, sequesters carbon, and overall increases resiliency in the face of climate change.
Fire prescriptions need to be tailored to Marin County’s local conditions. One size does not fit all. Landscaping practices that work in southern California scrub habitat with Santa Anna winds are not appropriate for our redwood forests. Thinning and prescribed burns that work for the Sierra Nevada mountains are not appropriate for our oak woodlands.
Scientific research identifies fires in our region as being primarily wind-driven not fuel-driven. Under extreme fire-weather conditions (e.g., high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture) vegetation removal and thinning has little bearing on the progression of major wildfires.
Prescribed fire is appropriate in certain vegetation types to reduce fuel loads, but prescribed fire in other landscapes do not reduce fire risk but do harm the habitat. It is destructive to ecosystems if that area is not susceptible to fires, may not be at risk of burning, or does not benefit from burning.
Considering the above, Marin Audubon advocates the following:
- Protect native vegetation, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Â Â
- Emphasize reducing ignition sources, such as undergrounding powerlines and promoting microgrids, which could have more fire reduction success than the emphasis on vegetation (fuel) removal. Once an ignition occurs, wind can pick it up and carry it.
- Avoid development in wildlands and in fire prone/highÂ risk areas.Â Enact ordinances restricting building in the WUI.
- Focus fire suppression activities on structures and on areas immediately around structures and on saving people: fire-proofing houses (e.g., external sprinklers, ember-resistant vents, replacing flammable roofing), creating and maintaining defensible space around structures, reducing highly flammable landscaping next to structures, providing access for firefighters and evacuationÂ routes for residents.
- Justify fire suppression activities based on identification and analysis of areas that are particularly susceptible to fires (such as the wind corridor in the Santa Rosa fire).
- Apply ecosystem approaches to fuel reduction and monitor both the efficacy of prescriptions for fire reduction and the effects on wildland and wildland habitat values. Management efforts should then be adapted to have the lease possible impact.
- Conduct fuel reduction work outside of the nesting season, after wildlife surveys have been conducted and erosion control measures installed.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Rapid growth in the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. 2018. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/13/3314
Newman et al. 2018. Chaparral bird community responses to prescribed fire and shrub removal in three management seasons. Journal of Applied Ecology. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.13099
Syphard AD, Brennan TJ, Keeley JE. 2014. The role of defensible space for residential structure protection during wildfires. Int J Wildland Fire 23:1165-1175
Recommended supplemental reading:
Bevington, D. (ed.) A New Direction for California Wildfire Policy – Working from the Home Outward. 2019. Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. https://assets.takeshape.io/1f1d0876-be74-4b33-99c8-6ac93f1d70db/dev/18cecbdc-20ad-4ac8-aab2-05b60f5ff064/LDF%2C%20A%20New%20Direction%20for%20California%20Wildfire%20Policy%2020190211.pdf
Keeley, J.E. and Alexandra D. Syphard, A.D. 2019. Twenty-first century California, USA wildfires: fuel-dominated vs. wind-dominated fires. Fire Ecology. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1186%2Fs42408-019-0041-0.pdf
GEOS Institute. 2019. Open Letter to Decision Makers Concerning Wildfires in the West. https://www.climatesignals.org/resources/open-letter-decision-makers-concerning-wildfires-west