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Fire, fire everywhere and...
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
November 1, 2007
California is about living on the edge. On the edge on the continent. On the edge of the Pacific. On the edge of disaster. Famous for its' earthquakes, its' wildfires cause the most damage in loss of life and property.
The State of California is a study in unsustainability. In a golden state of culturally ingrained denial and delusion, Californians live in spite of, not in balance with, the ecological conditions surrounding them. Southern Californians even more so.
Southern California is comprised of desert and semiarid chaparral, two biomes receiving very little rainfall. Drought resistant plant communities have evolved to sustain themselves on limited water resources. San Diego County is situated in the chaparral biome. To say chaparral is fire prone would be a gross understatement.
Chaparral wildfires have a crown-fire regime, consuming from the top down, an entire system once ignited. Many chaparral plant species recognize fire cues such as heat, smoke, or charred wood for germination. These species have adapted to particular fire regimes involving season, frequency, intensity and severity of the burn. Too many fires is unnatural.
History and the recent firestorms prove fire suppression activities fail to exclude fire from southern California chaparral. Low humidity, low fuel moisture, and high winds appear to be the primary wildfire conditions. Overpopulation and over development of human communities only compound the threat of seasonal wildfires. In fact, the number and frequency of fires is increasing with regional population growth.
Frequent fires also increase the potential for invasive species, making it difficult for scrub and chaparral plant communities to recover. Without wild refuge, native fauna will seek the few areas not blackened by flames to compete for limited resources. Some species will move into residential areas exposing them to other threats.
According to Dave Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Fires kill and displace many animals, and sprawling urban development has wiped out many areas that might once have provided a refuge for survivors. One of the greatest fire tragedies for nature has been the reburning of areas lost in 2003 that had only just begun to recover. This may be the last straw for many endangered species that have already suffered so much habitat loss to development and overly frequent fire."
The California gnatcatcher, California spotted owl, Coastal cactus wren, Hermes copper butterfly are severel species severely effected by the recent firestorms.
The issue is not about wildfires, there have always been wildfires. At issue is the price and cost of protecting an ever-growing population of people in a drought and fire prone region.
Dry or drought is the norm, and water resources always at a premium, yet population and encroachment into wildlands continue to grow. Too many people with too little water is a problem, add to that wildfires and Santa Ana winds and you have a man-made catastrophe perfect for the 6:00 news.
Climate change associated with global warming means the future of Southern California will be shaped by fire, drought, and overpopulation. Ignorance of natural processes will not protect the people of San Diego County.
The challenge for residents and elected officials is how to best adapt to changing environmental conditions of a warming world, without sacrificing biodiversity and environmental quality of life.