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Adapting To The New Reality Of Increased Wildfire Danger

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May 13, 2013 12:30 p.m.


Rick Halsey, Director of the California Chaparral Institute. He specializes in wildfire ecology and is also a former wildland firefighter.

Alexandra Syphard, Ph.D., Ecologist with the Conservation Biology Institute

Lawrence A. Herzog, Professor and Coordinator of the Graduate Program in City Planning at the SDSU School of Public Affairs

Related Story: Adapting To The New Reality Of Increased Wildfire Danger


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Last week state officials acknowledged a very early start a fire season in California this year. gov. Jerry Brown emphasized that the state has to prepare for longer and more hazardous fire conditions in the years to come.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Our climate is changing. The weather is becoming more intense. It does not seem like the people in charge are going to do what it takes to really slow down this climate change, so we are going to have to adapt and adapting is going to be very, very expensive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Two San Diego firefighters appeared here last week on Midday Edition and we asked them to explain how firefighters are working to prepare for serious wildfires. Today we want to explore the governor's warning about adapting to the new reality of increased fire danger. What does that actually mean? How expensive will it be and are San Diego officials beginning to address this problem? I'd like to welcome my guests. Rick Halsey is the director of the California chaparral Institute. He specializes in wildfire ecology and is also a former wildland firefighter and Rick, welcome to the show.

RICK HALSEY: Thanks, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Alexandra Syphard is an ecologist from the conservation biology Institute and Alexandra, welcome


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Lawrence Herzog is professor in the SDSU school of Public affairs. Lawrence, welcome to the program.

LAWRENCE HERZOG: Thank you very much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You all work on various aspects of California ecology and how it relates to wildfire. I'd like to get your reaction to having that government are increasing wildfire danger. Is he reading a problem correctly, let me start with you, Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA SYPHARD: I think it is important. First of all to say that that climate change problem and the fire problem is not simple. There's different stories. Depending where you are in the state and therefore the response to climate change is going to need to be different depending on where you are. In the southern part of the state, climate change may not be so much of a problem as it is in other areas. And, we are seeing in research that we are doing that in higher elevation forests fire activity does track claimant and temperature much more, but in the lower elevation temperatures in Southern California where we are. The problem is not necessarily so much the nature of fires that are changing but that we are having many more impacts and the problem stems from development patterns and the way that we are developing. And so, adaptation in the southern part of the state to fire and climate I think requires a multidimensional process and multiple solutions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Larry Herzog, what is your reaction to what the governor said last week?

LAWRENCE HERZOG: Right, I think we need to recognize that the regional pattern of growth is that the growth is occurring directly into what I call the cone of wildfire occurrences. That is, over the last decade, the areas of fastest growth in the San Diego region are indeed lend suburban areas precisely where the worst wildfire occurrences have taken place. Therefore, we really need to start looking at urban planning and fire planning.


RICK HALSEY: I'm encouraged by what the governor said. But on the other hand I'm becoming quite fearful because typically governments will continue to do what they've always been doing and get this case instead of long-term planning a look at the habitat vegetation nature and that is seen only as feel, not a valuable resource. So what is the solution? Get rid of the fuel. We've been trying to do that for about 100 years, it's not working. So I think a better approach that all of us will agree he look at fire like you look at earthquakes, there's no major agency: calculate. He planned them efficiency, appropriately we are not quite doing that indent in that regard. Just create fire safety entities that actually will watch the fires go by.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lawrence Herzog when you talk about the governor reactingadapting to this new climate change. What kind of adaptation does it detail?

LAWRENCE HERZOG: I agree with Rick, I think we need to start to grow sustainably. We need to work on sustainable growth in the inland region. For example, the media tends to portray wild for programs as a work greater drop water out of military planes, your firefighters are coming in and it sounds like a war and they're not talking about preventative planning where you actually look at the ecology of how wildfires occur, and what the community can do in terms of zoning, local firefighting, local firehouses and understanding, having the citizens trained to evacuate the committees knowing where the votes are, making sure the roads are wide enough there is a whole array of tools that can be used from planning ecological planning that communities can adapt to the reality that we are going to have to wildfires. It's 95° outside the studio today and it is May. So, the heat season is starting up early and we have to acknowledge that the accommodation of climate change the way we have grown in the region and the kind of ecosystem that we have and the flows of Santa Ana winds back from the desert toward the urbanized region of San Diego, you put all that together and you have sort of a perfect storm of events that lead to these terrible wildfire disasters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alexandra Syphard, you make an interesting point, in reacting to what the governor said, and it's not the same kind of climate change fire risk everywhere in California. What if we learned since the last big fires, about the way fire behaves in Southern California?

ALEXANDRA SYPHARD: Well we have actually mostly confirmed what we've always known and that is in Southern California, we have a Mediterranean climate, which means we have six months of summer drought, and when the autumn comes around it corresponds a Santa Ana wind conditions so we have some of the worst fire weather in the whole country in Southern California and fires under these conditions behave very differently, and a colleague of mine once said that we have two different kinds of fire in Southern California. We have the ones that we plan for and then we have the ones that do all the damage and the ones that do all the damage are the wind driven fires in Santa Ana wind conditions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rick Halsey, the fire authorities sometimes use a method that they call control burns, prescribed burns, they use it in other areas of the state quite effectively. But I hear that it does not work here, why is that?

RICK HALSEY: In Southern California you have chaparral ecosystems here that has a crown fire regime which means when the fire comes through burns the whole thing down to the ground to the hard scape and occasionally I hear comments that we need to think the chaparral so we have surface fires for example in the patient. These little fires underneath the shrubs, when shrub catches fire, the whole thing goes, you cannot create a miniature forest in Southern California like you can in the situations in the north where you have surface fires and controlled burns. The problem is prescribed burns now in Southern California. There is more fire on the landscape and the natural environment can tolerate. We've gone past that. So every fire you add to the landscape you threaten the integrity of the ecosystem that's here and some people say what is more important. The bunnies in nature or people's lives, what they don't understand is almost all the fires have started in weedy patches of areas that have either been overgrazed, or have actually been involved in some kind of fuel, they called the nature futile. What happens in many situations is you create an environment where you have more flammability than you had before. So again, we are not looking at the right problem. We are looking at how we safeguard lives and protect property. That's what we want to do. That's where we look instead of out on the wildland.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lawrence Herzog, Gov. Brown said adapting to an increased threat of wildfires is going to be very, very expensive. What do you think are the costly measures that he's talking about, and you agree with him?

LAWRENCE HERZOG: I agree with him that it is expensive. I think it will require reinventing and retrofitting suburban communities, making sure the streets patterns, the evacuation follows are correct. I think it can involve creating tremendous site planning changes. It could cost developers. They might have to change the way they build in new areas that have outgrown yet. We might have to go back to existing neighborhoods and do some expensive retrofitting the first systems and so forth. I should mention also that the question of who pays for this I think is very important. It's been suggested by Cal fire, if I'm not mistaken, that the charge be assessed in the wildfire zones, the fire safety zones I believe is what they are called, and it would cost approximately $180 per year for people living in the areas to received on this increased government protection and prevention planning. That seems appropriate to me, but I understand that there's a lot of resistance in the wildlands and that that country people don't feel they should have to pay the fee but my question would be if you want to have the finest response when there is a wildfire in your area, you ought to be able to step up to the plate and pay a small fee each year to cover the expense.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the expense for a moment because San Diego officials continue to say no to a county fire department. We are the only major urban county in California that does not have one. As Lawrence mentioned San Diego County residents are fining the state fire fee on people who live in high risk fire areas, so where will the push come to actually pay more for increased fire protection?

RICK HALSEY: Well, you are dealing with a population that is really your attending because the County Board of Supervisors turned their back on fire protection a couple decades ago and so you have these committed to developing volunteer fire agencies which for the most part a lot of times work very well, but when you activate coronation problem like you had at the Cedar fire, or Witch Creek fire sometimes there's problems but I want to address the whole expense issue. The County chose to spend $7 million to cut down dead trees and in the forest up in the mountains and at that particular time. I asked the board, looking at the witch Creek fire, there were homes according to the research. This was confirmed by analysis outside in the field, that were actually burned down because of direct content. It was not the vegetation per se and Alex has discovered this in a lot of situations to it was the embers and that kind of thing. If you spend $7 million on ember resistant vents, the effect of that in terms of saving lives and homes and possibly lives would be tremendous.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the homes themselves?

RICK HALSEY: The resistance is we can't give private property owners things the government but that's why the homes burned down because of the ember issued and if you can do things to address that. Instead of continually wasting money on the wildland, look at the research and find out what is causing the homes to burn and turn the question around. Instead of how do we stop fires, how do we save lives and property. And once you turn it around like that, it's a whole suite of different answers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alex Syphard let me ask you more or less the same thing. We are already spending quite a bit of money on fires and fire mitigation, so how could we be using the money in a better way?

ALEXANDRA SYPHARD: I think it is really important that we are able to stop expecting California and the fire service to do everything in terms of fire protection. It's true that they play a very critical role, however our research is showing that there are a lot of other things that can be done that may defray some of the expenses such as homeowner actions. When Rick was talking about members being the main cause of fires burning, some research shows that Billy is the flammability of letter. For example on the ground and if homeowners go out and clean up the letter. This could go a really long distance into saving their own. The same notion with defensible space is that defensible space is a policy that's been widely embraced and strongly promoted. Research shows that it is more effective to work from my home outward, however we need to be careful again with what Rick said, is that creating a moonscape, or clearing to the bare ground or creating an environment that is conducive to a lot of flashy fuels like dry grasses could increase the problem because of the him first landing on flammable materials.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A lot of people take this back to the idea that we are just building in places that people should not live in because the risk of wildfire is too high. Do you agree with that as a city planner?

LAWRENCE HERZOG: I do agree, but of course San Diego is an attractive region, people want to move here and I think what I saw the last numbers for 2000 and 2030. There will be 1 million people added to the region. Something like 60% of the population is going to move into the inland wildland urban interface, what we call the WUI, that is where the land is no more land on the coast and expects place to live in the region. Is there inland region. Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, etc. All of those inland areas and the big cities, Chula Vista and Escondido are the two fastest growing cities in the region and they are inland for the most part the part of Chula Vista that is growing is to the east and that is where the fires are burning. The next point would be if you are not going to stop growth, we talk about smart growth, that's a popular buzzword today in urban planning. We are not building with respect to wildfires, we are not building smartly. We are putting up the same generic suburban subdivisions master plan committees that are spread out horizontally across the landscape. And if you look at a map of San Diego region, you will see and Rick and I have talked about is filled with canyons. Canyons have become hot wind tunnels for wildfires as they sear across the region. Slopes which cause the fire to get hotter and hotter and of course we always build the houses right on the edge of the slopes because they have nice views so this is nice planning that is not smart.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I hate to turn off the conversation because we could talk for about an hour and I am completely out of time. Do you think you might be able to come back at a future time because we will talk a lot about fires this summer? I've been speaking with Rick Halsey, Alexandra Syphard and Lawrence Herzog. Thank you all so much.

ALL: You're welcome.