It’s Friday evening, late July, and we’re driving south down I-5 toward Universal Studios and the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Jim Dale’s rendition of the sixth Harry Potter book plays from the car speakers. Then, up ahead—a bright orange glow in the dark hills ahead. These are the flames of the Sand Fire, which would burn just over 40,000 acres near Santa Clarita, California in the next several days. The next day, ash was falling on the rooftops of recreated Hogsmeade shops and the sky was a smoky pink. The California wildfire season was heating up.
California’s 2016 fire season had begun long before that July evening—indeed, some argue that “fire seasons” have gotten so long that such a thing doesn’t really exist anymore—but late July is still a time for big fires to really get going. The Sand Fire wasn’t the only big fire to start then. That same exact day—July 22, 2016—another fire was reported in Big Sur, California. That one was the Soberanes Fire, California’s biggest fire of the year so far, and it’s still burning. More than two months later, the Soberanes Fire is 99% contained at just over 132,000 acres (about 9/10 the size of Chicago).
This year’s big fires are mostly in Southern California: of the ten biggest fires this
year, eight are in Southern California (though the biggest is on the Central Coast). This is the opposite from last year: nine out of ten were in Northern California. Most Southern California fires are not forest fires (neither were several of last year’s biggest fires). Instead, these fires blaze through the steep, dense shrublands known as chaparral. This year, chaparral-covered Southern California should have our attention. So why are so many media outlets still focusing on the stories of Northern forest fires?
Let me be clear: big fires, including chaparral fires, always make the news—even the national and international news. In fact, I’d wager the majority of news articles about California fires are actually about chaparral fires—they are closest to where people live (chaparral surrounds most of the big cities) and some of the hardest to fight (dense vegetation, steep slopes).
But news articles about fire fall into two types—or at least, two parts. There’s the incident part–we hear about fire size, ignition source, number of firefighters, people evacuated, structures damaged. Then there’s the big picture part—why are we seeing so many big, hard to control fires today? How do these fires fit into long term trends?
News articles that focus on chaparral fires get the first part right. Here’s an example, from last year’s Rocky Fire. But reporters struggle when it comes time to step back and put these fires in the broader context of the modern problems of fire in the West. They throw in references to fire suppression (here’s one example) and note that prescribed fire can help–even when most evidence suggests that this is not the case for these regions. Likewise, bigger picture stories in the science sections of the New York Times or LA Times tend to treat all wildfires as if they are forest fires under conditions like those found in the Sierra Nevada.
Fires in forests and in chaparral or other vegetation types have a lot in common, and understanding the basics of what generates and shapes wildfire (eg. available fuels, ignition sources, weather, topography) is helpful in any environment. But just as different habitats have different plants, animals, and amounts of rainfall, so too do they have different fire behavior. This isn’t just a comparison—the kind of plants and the amount of rainfall directly determine the kind of fire you get in a given system.
Why is it so important to recognize this difference? When it comes to managing fire for the benefit of people, infrastructure, and natural resources, the kind of fire you get in that system matters. As noted above, some strategies that work well in one system are counterproductive or inefficient in another. Managing wildfire is expensive, in both dollar amounts and costs for human life and wellbeing, and we can’t afford to keep using a one-size-fits-all approach.
In particular, we need to bring more attention to understanding the specific dynamics of chaparral and other non-forested ecosystems in California. Many big, destructive fires aren’t in forests, as noted above, and most people in California don’t live in forested areas–they live in the big cities, surrounded by hillsides covered in dense chaparral shrubs. As of 2010, the five most populous California counties are in Southern California, where the most common vegetation type is chaparral or desert. I’ve heard the argument that wildfire is only a problem when people come into contact with it—when they build their houses in fire-prone areas. If the wildfire problem is a people problem, its center should be Southern California and other highly populated areas, not the Sierra Nevada.
I don’t mean to suggest that forests are not important, or that we should stop talking about the issues they face. Indeed, forests take up much more land area than chaparral in California. Instead, I want fire science communicators to approach their work a bit differently. First, we should make a greater effort to consider the ecosystem context of the wildfires we write about. Second, we should elevate the importance of understanding and finding solutions for fire issues in the systems where most people actually live.
There are signs that fire science communicators are starting to do this—a recent article on fire and beetles by KQED took pains to discuss how region-specific differences could matter, and an article in the New York Times mentioned how shrublands were different from forests at the end. In September, there was a panel on Living With Fire at the Society for Environmental Journalists meeting in Sacramento that stressed the differences between fire in Northern and Southern California.
But caveats in the last few sentences of an article, as was the case with the NYT article, aren’t very effective. Most people won’t read that far—they’ll read the headline and introduction, which are designed to draw readers in. The aforementioned NYT article has a headline focused on prescribed burning yet starts with a discussion of big chapparal-driven blazes. Does it matter that the end of the article asserts that prescribed burning isn’t a solution for Southern California when the first half of the article implied otherwise?
Chaparral fires need their own stories—they can’t be a tag on or exception. And newsmakers seem to be aware that something called chaparral plays a role in many big, destructive fires—chaparral is the star of the incident-focused stories. Why is it so hard, then, to tell their scientific and management stories?
My answer: it comes down to good storytelling.
The narratives about fire suppression in the Sierra are so compelling, and in the end, so satisfying. The story of fire in the Sierra is a great story. It has lots of interesting characters (the Europeans who thought fire was bad and didn’t know any better, environmentalists who decided fire was natural and good decades later, Smokey Bear as a surprise villain, Native Americans who knew the truth all along), it has neat and understandable science (fire behavior and plant adaptations), and it has a terrific setting (Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, everyone’s favorite hiking spots). But most importantly, this story ends with solutions. People are left to feel optimistic that we can undo the damage we’ve done through prescribed burns, letting more wildfires burn before suppressing them, and carefully planned thinning (never mind the fact that we haven’t done a very good job of implementing these solutions in the decades that we’ve known about them).
In our shrubby backyards? That story doesn’t have a lot going for it. Humans caused most of the fires, and they still do. Fires in chaparral have probably always been hot and destructive. Suppression wasn’t nearly as effective as it was in the forests, and we get more fires, not fewer, as coastal cities grow. Prickly ceanothus branches aren’t nearly as lovable as a huggable Jeffrey pine that smells like butterscotch. There’s already plenty of fire on the ground, and there’s not much evidence that thinning and burning are effective. What’s the solution? Move away, build your home out of different materials, don’t start fires. Learn to live with fire, or leave. Prescribed fire and fire use are somebody else’s job. When there’s not a lot that fire management can do, the burden of living in the wildland-urban interface falls more squarely on the homeowner’s shoulders.
That’s a pretty negative narrative, and it’s no wonder these stories don’t catch on. Yet it doesn’t need to be written that way. We can learn to tell a good story about fire in chaparral or other non-forest systems–the long history of fire and people along the coast, the plants and animals so adapted, the importance of climate and population growth and erosion and flooding. Chaparral fire has its own history and characters, from Native American fire use over thousands of years to to residents of San Diego evacuated in the 2003 Cedar Fire–the largest in recorded California history. Ceanothus shrubs may be stiff and prickly, but they have beautiful flowers that color the hillsides in the early spring. As for solutions—even if the best strategies we have now for living with fire in Southern California aren’t so appealing, it’s likely that there are tools and strategies that we don’t even know about yet that would come about with further research and discussion. But there’s no chance for this until we bring more focus to chaparral fires and stop conflating them with forest fires.