Southern California's Wildfire Season Expected To Be Mild

There are currently 19 active wildfires across nine states, including devastating ones in New Mexico and Colorado. California, in particular, is no stranger to fighting flames and we're bracing for our own fire season. But according to leading fire ecologist Richard Minnich, the hazard in our region's grassy areas is greatly diminished this year.

"Some rain in the fall allowed the grasses to grow, but then the winter drought killed most of them before they could make seed," explained Minnich, who is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. "As a result, the hills show mostly bare ground today, greatly reducing the fire hazard, especially in the interior valleys from Riverside to Temecula. We should therefore see no big outbreak of fire in low-elevation grasslands in Southern California this summer. There might be small fires on shading north-facing slopes where grasses barely survived the drought, as in the recent fire at Lake Mathews [in Riverside County]."

The region saw some light rain in March. However, once the grass is wet after a drought it breaks down -- or decomposes.

Fire risk in chaparral and forests in the higher mountains, however, is linked to how long it has been since an area experienced fire. The fuel energy of chaparral and forests relates to collective growth of vegetation.

"This is decades of time," said Minnich. "They don't burn every year,"

Others agree that the chances for a mild fire season are good.

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"One of the things that are really interesting about fires in the West is its cyclical nature," explained Char Miller, who directs of Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College and writes a regular column for KCET.org. Miller agrees that following a drought when there is minimal or no growth of vegetation the "odds of us having a major conflagration are reduced."

Minnich's prediction for the fire season coincided with an announcement from the National Interagency Fire Center -- which coordinates firefighting resources from several federal agencies -- that they are working with first responders from various western states during the fire season. Various agencies will provide airtankers and helicopters, as they are needed, along with federal funds to states currently battling fires.

"We're bringing the full range of our federal, tribal, state, local and non-governmental resources together to manage these wildland fires and reduce risk to communities," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "We remain vigilant and continue to do all we can to ensure the safety of all firefighters in this challenging wildlife season."

The announcement isn't exactly surprising. Around the same time each year, as various states brace for their fire seasons, federal agencies pool their resources to put out flames. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior respond to more than 20,000 wildfires per year on average.

"Every year they say it's going to be a terrible fire season," said Minnich. "It's an empire justifying their existence. The irony of this culture of ours is that we think we can stop a process that's much bigger than us."

Minnich argues that a lot of firefighting efforts are not cost-effective, characterizing preemptive strikes against fires as a "dog and pony show."

Instead he says firefighting efforts should focus primarily on turning the direction of the fire away from communities and carefully watching fires that were non-threatening to homes.

Besides allowing fires to self-organize by letting them burn out so long as they do not harm communities, Minnich suggests that efforts could be concentrated on carefully burning brush in decent weather so it doesn't catch in the Santa Ana wind or allowing fires to burn into snow in the mountain where they will cease.

The strong emotional reaction to fires from the public, however, makes such tactics difficult to implement.

"We have a society that doesn't want to pay taxes," said Miller, who notes there are ways to carefully mimic fire through mechanical means to destroy brush. "We've paralyzed the ability to manage landscapes."

Minnich's research calls for focusing on higher risk areas, such as Lake Arrowhead, which has not had a major fire in more than a century, rather than "waste resources."

However, Miller believes a cautious approach is necessary because of the high-risk of fires that spread and harm communities."Its important to be vigilant in areas where human beings are congregated," he said. "You don't want people to be on a panicky edge but you don't want to ignore it either."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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