Q&A with the Wildfire Experts

By Kate Eplboim

Four months after the Woolsey Fire, community members and environmental organizations, like Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT), remain steadfast to revitalize the mountains. While wildfires have been a recurring part of the Santa Monica Mountains since their inception some 2 million years ago, this recent fire was the largest in recorded history.

  • The 13-day  fire claimed 3 lives and displaced roughly 250,000 people.
  • 96,949 acres were burned, including 150 acres at MRT’s LA Sierra Preserve.
  • 1,643 structures were lost, including MRT’s nursery operations.
  • Estimates of the cost caused by the wildfire have been pegged in the upwards of billions.
  • The Camp and Woolsey Fires produced approximately 5.5 million tons of CO2, which corresponds to around 15% of all California emissions.
  • Within the week, air quality in California surpassed world health standards by 60 times.
  • Roughly 47% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) was burned.
  • 2 of the 13 NPS-collared mountain lions perished.
  • Surface erosion in Woolsey-impacted areas will increase by 24-fold for a 2-year recurrence storm event, 10-fold for a 10-year recurrence storm event.

As we reflect on the Woolsey Fire and our wildfires of past and future, we have reconvened the experts from the MRT & Conrad H. Hilton Foundation’s Community Halls to share their knowledge about the matter.

MRT: What are the major causes and drivers of wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains?

Dr. Phil Rundel, distinguished Professor of Biology at UCLA’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology: Virtually all recent fires in the Santa Monica Mountains have a human cause, either direct or indirect. Down or arcing power lines caused by wind have been the ignition events causing several recent fires. Motorcycles or cars with a hot muffler driving over dry grass can be a cause. Arson is rare but has occurred. Whatever the ignition source, hot dry Santa Anas make fires difficult to control. Drought conditions in recent years has caused dieback in chaparral shrubs and increased flammability. The same is true of invasive annual grasses, which can lengthen the length of fire season.

Dr. Rundel recommends visiting California Chaparral Institute to learn more about fire ecology in the Southern CA.

MRT: What and where do wildfires burn in the Santa Monica Mountains?

Dr. Marti Witter, National Park Service Fire Ecologist: Fire burns all fuel types – grasslands, woodlands (oak woodlands and riparian woodlands), shrublands (coastal sage and chaparral) and homes (the highest fuel load type).

The below maps give an illustrated, pictoral answer to where fire burns in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area – everywhere, but some areas more than others. The area with the most fires are the Cheeseboro/Liberty Canyon/Malibu Canyon corridor.  If you look at the decadal fire maps you will see that the area of the Woolsey Fire hadn’t burned since the 70’s and 80’s, but it is an area that has seen a lot of large fires in the past.

NPS Fire History Maps

Large fires are not new and have occurred since we have been keeping records (1925) and even before then which we know from historic newspaper reports and paleontological data (charcoal deposits).  The decadal fire maps show this really well. All of our large fires have occurred under weather and fuel conditions of low humidity, low fuel moisture and high winds (usually in the fall, but the 2013 Springs Fire was in May and the drought created conditions that were equivalent to those that normally occur only in fall).  

The only difference with the Woolsey Fire conditions to that of other fires was: four years of drought preceding Woolsey, causing a lot of SHRUB dieback – note that dead trees do not carry fire in the same way as dead shrubs –  and a longer than typical 2-3 days Santa Ana wind event. The 2017 Thomas Fire also had a record setting Santa Ana event duration which was 10 days.

To learn more about California wildfires, Witter recommends visiting The California Fire Consortium

Active Fires 2/3/19 – NASA image

MRT: What role do wildfires play in ecosystem health?

Brad Shaffer, Director of UCLA La Kretz Center for CA Conservation: Biological communities go through natural successions over time—grasslands often establish quickly, shrublands follow and outcompete grasses, and ultimately trees and forests of different heights come to dominate a landscape. Those successions occur in the absence of disturbance, and they are part of the natural dynamics of ecological communities. However, disturbance helps keep all of those species alive and functioning, and fire is a major source of disturbance. Many of the shrub communities that dominate Southern California will transition to oak woodland if they never burn, but fire keeps them from attaining the so-called climax community of mature trees. Given that this process of patchy, random disturbance from fire has gone on for millions of years, certain plants and animals have evolved to specialize on those post-burn conditions. Black-backed woodpecker is a northern species that specializes on insects that themselves specialize on dead trees following wildfires— without fires, the woodpeckers, their insect prey, and certain species of plants would all go extinct. The key, from an ecological and ecosystem health perspective, is to have moderate fires that occasionally burn patches of landscapes, leaving different patches in different stages of succession supporting the species that specialize on those conditions.

Brad recommends two websites (Fresh from Florida’s – The Natural Role of Fire, and Landscope’s – Fire in Florida) that help emphasize the importance of wildfire, pointing to Florida’s wiregrass-longleaf pine community, a threatened ecosystem that depends on very frequent (every 1-3 years) fire. Whether those fires are in the form of controlled burns of wildfires doesn’t matter, just so it burns very frequently.

MRT: Why is chaparral, the dominant habitat of the Santa Monica Mountains, so vital to our local ecosystem and safety?

Steve Davis, Professor of Biology at Pepperdine University: Chaparral and coastal sage scrub vegetation are vital to our local ecosystems for the goods and services they provide humans, wildlife, and our mountainous watersheds. Chaparral and coastal sage scrub are low maintenance, requiring no irrigation or fertilization, yet they hold up our rugged hillsides. They enable animal life through oxygen production, nutrient transformations, and solar energy capture. They provide humans food, fiber, fuel, and medicine. These distinctive vegetation types deter global warming, desertification, and soil erosion. In short, they help sustain our life support system on earth.  

To find more information on the numerous ways our local ecosystems impacts us, Davis suggested Peter Raven’s article “Saving Plants, Saving Ourselves.”

MRT: What are the most effective actions and initiatives communities can take to make their homes and neighborhoods wildfire safe?

J. Lopez, Assistant Chief of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department in the Prevention Services Bureau: The ability of your home to survive a wildfire depends on its construction materials and the quality of the “defensible space” surrounding it. Windblown embers from a wildfire will find the weak link in your home’s fire protection scheme and gain the upper hand because of a small, overlooked or seemingly inconsequential factor. However, there are measures you can take to safeguard your home from wildfire.

·       Hardening your Home: Hardening the home is a crucial process in protecting one’s property from wildfire damage. Hardening refers to the process of fireproofing one’s house or other structures through the use of various flame retardant materials. Flying embers can destroy homes up to a mile from a wildfire. “Harden” your home now before a fire starts by using ember-resistant building materials.

·      Creating and maintaining defensible space:  Preventing conditions where fire can travel from adjacent fuels, through an ornamental landscape to your structure, is the key to creating defensible space. Fire spreads through convection, conduction, radiation, or embers. Proper maintenance of ornamental vegetation reduces ember production, fire propagation, intensity, and duration of the approaching flames.

To find more information on how to harden your home, Asst. Chief Lopez recommends using the “Ready! Set! Go! Program”.

MRT: What post-fire toxins should humans be most concerned about? What do we do about them?

Dr. Yifang Zhu, Dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health: When houses, cars and other materials are burned,they release toxic fumes into the environment in their wake known as PAH*, this toxin can be produced after burning coal, garbage, oil, and wood to name a few. HERE is a recent study showing after 14 months, no difference was observed for wildfire-derived PAHs and trace elements in indoor environments

Unfortunately, I could not find any other study specifically addressing wildfire’s impact on indoor environments within 14 months. But more research has been done on structure fire. Ash from burned structures is generally more hazardous than forest ash. Depending on what materials were burned, post-fire toxicants may include PAHs, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds, etc.

Dr. Zhu’s recommends the California Department of Public Health’s wildfire page to learn more about the protecting public during and after wildfires.

*PAHs: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

MRT: What does the landscape recovery/regeneration look like post-fire?

Suzanne Goode, Natural Resource Program Manager for California’s Department of Parks & Recreation for the district of Los Angeles: Post fire regeneration often starts prior to the first rains with visible growth on still-standing yucca plants.  The first rains have already brought the germination of annual grasses and new growth of native perennial grasses, as well as the return of the wild cucumber.  When the weather warms, if there has been sufficient rain, chemicals in the smoke will have infiltrated the soil to break the dormancy of fire-following annuals, with resulting spectacular displays of color from California poppies, wind poppies, lupines, phacelia, and many others.  Short-lived perennials, such as bush poppies and chaparral bush mallow will also begin to grow. Seedlings of obligate seeding chaparral species, such as big-pod ceanothus and big-berry manzanita will also appear. Resprouting shrubs, such as chamise, laurel sumac, greenbark ceanothus, sagebrush and sage will be a foot or more tall by the end of the first growing season.  The second year will continue to have post-fire wildflowers, though not quite as abundant as the first year, and the shrubs will have become more prominent. Oaks that were severely burned but still survived will exhibit sprouting along their branches. By the fourth year after the fire, the chaparral canopy will have begun to close, with only a few burned stems left to show evidence of the fire.

MRT: Where can policy makers make the biggest differences to reduce the impact of future wildfires?

Richard Halsey, the Director of the Chaparral Institute and author of  Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California:  The traditional approach to wildfire protection is backward. It focuses on vegetation rather than what we want to protect – our homes and families. The nearly exclusive focus on vegetation management is not working in the wind-driven fires that cause all the devastation. We must look at the problem from the house outward, rather than from the wildland in. Homes burn because they are flammable and are built on fire-prone landscapes. Most structures ignite during wildfires because of flying embers that can travel a mile or more from the fire front. This is why so many families have lost their homes even though they have complied with defensible space regulations – their homes were still vulnerable to embers. This is why the wildfire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Therefore, to stop the destruction of our communities by wildfire, fire policy must focus on strategies that reduce the flammability of existing communities (ember-resistant vents, fire-resistant roofing and siding, and exterior sprinklers, then 100 feet of defensible space) and prevent new ones from being built in very high fire hazard severity zones.

Halsey said you can find more of his in-depth research and commentary at The Chaparral Institute website. MRT recommends reading Halsey’s book “Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California”.

MRT: Where can we best innovate to minimize the future causes and/or devastation of wildfires in Southern California?

Peter Kareiva, the Director of UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability:  Although wildfires have always been part of Southern California, with climate change fires are different.  Best practices for 1950 are likely not best practices in 2020, much less 2050. Not surprisingly there is a lot of research directed at improving our understanding of how wildfires spread so that the spread can be modeled and predicted in order to better direct fire containment efforts.  At a less technical level a high priority is to revisit flammability, and ask to what extent does species composition influence the likelihood of ignition and rapid spread, after factoring out weather conditions. A third priority is rethinking restoration. Restoration implies returning to some previous condition.  But with global warming accelerating more rapidly than anyone anticipated, we should consider our actions after a fire as rejuvenating nature so that it is resilient and thriving in tomorrow’s world, not yesterday’s world. What plants will thrive in Santa Monica mountains in 2050? Does that mean we favor some plants over others?  Lastly, after every major fire we hear that every fire is different. And we also know that the plant communities and species in the Santa Monica are unique. We need to make sure our management guidance for mitigating fire risk is tailored to the Santa Monica’s and not borrowed from some other region of the state.

Please stay connected with and support MRT as they ask more questions, host more events, and form initiatives and partnerships to better understand and defend against the damages of wildfire. MRT has partnered with UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation, National Park Service, US Geological Survey and 100 college students to quantify revegetation and biodiversity post-fire. MRT is also in development to create a physical monument and place to contemplate wildfires and post-fire regeneration.