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Part 1 of an 8-part Series


By Anne S. Fege, Ph.D., M.B.A., wildfire ecologist/educator and retired Forest Supervisor, Cleveland National Forest

October 13, 2009 (San Diego’s East County)--By any accounts, we will always be “between wildfires” in southern California. That raises three wildfire questions that face San Diego. What will it take to keep houses from igniting? What will happen to nature, with repeated wildfires? What can we do, to live sustainably with wildfires and nature? These questions reflect the paradigm shift that is underway nationally, from wildfire prevention (Smokey, “YOU can prevent fires”) and wildfire suppression, to wildfire property risk reduction (knowing “how houses ignite” and retrofitting structures).

What will it take, to keep houses from igniting? It’s time to look at our wildfire fears and our wildfire-prone region differently. Instead of blaming the vegetation and trying to “fireproof” nature, we can plan, build, and maintain structures to reduce wildfire property losses. We can “walk around the house” to identify risks and places that embers can land, then retrofit and maintain our homes to eliminate those ember-catchers.

What will happen to our local natural environments, with repeated wildfires? More than 800,000 acres burned since 2002, and more than 50,000 acres burned twice. These areas are not growing back with the same plants, but are “type converting” to weeds—which dry out earlier in the year, catch fire more easily, and burn faster than native plants. And climate changes are predicted to increase droughts and extreme weather events in the region, and likely wildfire severity. We will lose many of the economic, social, and natural values of these ecosystems, that have been provided “free” for centuries.

What can we do, to live sustainably with wildfires and nature? We can be honest about “defensible space” and not foster a false sense of security. It is absurd to remove acres of coastal sage scrub in urban canyons or illegally bulldoze acres of chaparral in the backcountry—and then keep wood roofs, wood fences attached to houses, vents without screens, unpruned landscaping, and debris around the house. It is absurd for insurance companies to demand “clearance” to 300 feet or more. It is absurd to underestimate the essential firefighting preparedness and resources. It is absurd to keep approving developments in fire-prone locations.



This short article is the first of eight, in a series written by Dr. Anne S. Fege, a local wildfire ecologist and educator. She is a partner in Business and Ecology Consulting, Botany Research Associate at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Biology at San Diego State University. Fege is widely known as a co-founder of the San Diego Partners for Biodiversity and the San Diego Fire Recovery Network; co-organizer of the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative; and co-curator of the recent Earth, Wind & WILDFIRE exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum. She served as Forest Supervisor of the Cleveland National Forest from 1991 to 2004, managing 460,000 acres in Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Counties.


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