While 2020 is a year most of us would just as soon forget, as long as the climate keeps warming, the risk of large wildfires will continue as part of the “new abnormal.” How we deal with this risk has implications for the health and diversity of native plant communities in our natural areas. One key way to deal with the threat is by effectively retaining and managing our native flora.
CNPS joined the regional conversation about wildfire prevention in the aftermath of the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991. Since then, there has been an enormous uptick in acreage burned annually across the state as climate warming is drying vegetation over an extended fire season.
Our CNPS East Bay Chapter continues to engage in this task today as cities and public land agencies seek state funds to plan and implement wildfire prevention strategies along the wildland-urban interface (WUI). CNPS supports a vegetation treatment approach that reduces the vegetation fuel load (the amount of fuel, in this case vegetation, that is potentially available for combustion) in a way that conserves native plant communities and restores them in place of hazardous weedy vegetation. Watch the short Sierra Club film, “Bring Back the Oaks,” for more information about this approach.
Below are a few examples of how CNPS East Bay is engaged locally.
- Over the years, we’ve met regularly with East Bay Regional Park District Stewardship and Fire Department staff as they carry out the district’s Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan. Among its prescriptions, the plan states that replacing stands of hazard trees with oak-bay woodland or native grassland should be considered where feasible. Also, areas dominated by invasive species should be converted to more fire-safe vegetation types, such as native grassland or oak-bay woodland (on moister sites).
- In the spring of 2019, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District received a state emergency grant to complete a 19-mile fuel break in the East Bay hills (the North Orinda Shaded Fuel Break). CNPS and other environmental organizations met with the fire district and their environmental monitors, whose role is to protect habitat in the area from negative consequences of fuel break construction. We requested that fuel break work retain sensitive plant communities. Volunteers from the CNPS East Bay Conservation Committee then worked with fire district staff to survey for native plant cover a year after the district mowed a dense hillside stand of coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis).
- Working with the statewide CNPS office, our East Bay chapter commented on the severity of CalFire’s model for California “fuel reduction treatments.” Fuel breaks primarily serve to provide access for firefighting activities and slow down ground fires. They are not a particularly good defense against large wind-driven wildfires; wind-carried embers are the biggest threat to homes and may blow right over fuel breaks. Therefore, we asked that CalFire adopt an alternative WUI “fuel reduction treatment” approach used in the East Bay hills that retains the green, low-growing native plant understory. This alternative retains habitat values, provides erosion control, and can help protect the site from conversion to flammable, weedy vegetation.
- In January of this year, CNPS joined the 34 representatives from the Oakland Firesafe Council, Oakland neighborhoods, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, and the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter in a letter to the City of Oakland about the city’s Vegetation Management Plan Environmental Impact Report. We recommend an alternative that would include removal of large stands of the most flammable and unsafe vegetation (eucalyptus, pine, cypress, acacia, broom, non-native grasses) in key areas, to be replaced with native plants that are proven to be safer and more sustainable both environmentally and financially.
Achieving fire resilience in the East Bay that works with and benefits our native flora will take all of us using a good mix of both fire and ecological science and making our homes more fire resilient, too.
Williams, A. Park, John T. Abatzoglou, Alexander Gershunov, Janin Guzman‐Morales, Daniel A. Bishop, Jennifer K. Balch, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, “Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California,” Earth’s Future, 7:8, 892-910, July 15, 2019.
Voiland, Adam, “Study: Fire seasons getting longer, more frequent,” NASA’s Earth Observatory, July 27, 2015.
Syphard, A., J. Keeley, and T. Brennan, “Comparing the role of fuel breaks across southern California national forests,” Forest Ecology and Management, 261:2038–2048, 2011.
California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, California Vegetation Treatment Program Final Program Environmental Impact Report (CalVTP PEIR for Project Proponent), 2019.
— Jim Hanson, Conservation Committee Chair, CNPS East Bay Chapter