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A controversial plan for preventing wildfires is back. It’s the final round for Cal Fire’s vegetation-treatment plan, which targets 60,000 acres of state-responsibility land for annual brush clearing.

On August 26, the new draft was up for discussion at a Board of Forestry and Fire Protection Meeting in Sacramento. There to testify was Rick Halsey, a professed “nature guy,” founder of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido. Halsey has written letters, attended field trips, and done what he can to shape the plan on behalf of the region’s elfin forests, scrub, and oaks. In 2012, his group helped prompt the overhaul of the draft.

Back it went for a scientific review, with critics claiming it targeted a third of the state for clearing. Cal Fire denied it. The agency says their use of prescribed fire, herbicides, chopping, weeding, and animal grazing will greatly shrink the size and number of fires, costs to fight them, and losses to life, property, and natural resources.

Third-Party Opinion, Please

For this draft, the Board of Forestry took the lead, calling on the California Fire Science Consortium to review the first plan’s environmental impact report. “They recommended changes like ours,” says Halsey.

Why does it matter? For one thing, mechanical tearing up of the understory is now going on, he says.

“In chaparral, that’s huge.” As the drought drags on, Cal Fire has begun to take a dim view of vegetation, as environmental advocates see it. It’s all just “fuel,” dry and combustible. Such a broad swipe at the landscape makes no distinction between, say, grassland or trees at varying elevations, which Halsey says should all be treated differently. “They didn’t consider it until now.” What’s more, those scrubby shrubs aren’t refuse; they’re refuge. “This is habitat,” he says.

According to the city’s web page on managing fire-prone vegetation around homes, “Brush is the predominant native plant community in the canyons of Southern California.” That’s one reason the first draft riled many. The National Park Service said Cal Fire was ignoring important science studies, while the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said the plan could cause serious environmental harm. It was also considered vague as to what the state was proposing to do and where.

For the Birds, Indeed

Will the new plan protect the sage-homes of birds and wildlife? It’s a lot better, Halsey thinks. It allows more public involvement, uses newer science, and is less “fuel fixated.” The agency has now defined three distinct fuels: trees, grasses, and shrubs. Treatment area categories include wildland-urban interface (1.5 miles), fuel break, and ecological restoration. Prescribed fire is one tool used to thin dense vegetation in outlying areas, where fire agencies say years of fire suppression (tackling every fire, rather than letting some burn naturally) has created a tinderbox. Wildfires are a healthy part of western landscapes, but while prescribed fire can benefit forests, chaparral is burning too often, Halsey says. And Cal Fire is now acknowledging that, at least for Southern California.

The agency has taken a different view of northern brush, where environmental groups weren’t as noisy. So Halsey’s group and other longtime participants, like the California Native Plant Society, asked for one more round of scientific review, to fix this and a few other concerns. The board took no action, but plans to discuss the document as a full group — not in committee – which will take about two more months.

On August 26, three members made comments supportive of further scientific vetting, while the chair appeared to disagree.

Buffer Zones or Roofs that Resist Fire?

More than ever, fire agencies need preventive tools. Since January, nearly 6800 wildfires have erupted in the state; over 1500 more than average. Cal Fire handled 5032 of the fires, which have burned more than 150,000 acres.

But what should those tools be? Firefighters in Northern California said the Rocky Fire’s erratic behavior was like nothing they had ever seen. Homeowners said their carefully pruned 200-foot buffer zones, effective in past fires, weren’t enough; the fire leapt right by. A current fire in the same county is said to be ripping through vegetation at a rate of 50 feet a minute.

One study of defensible space in San Diego County looked at homes that burned (or survived) from 2001 to 2010. Those most likely to survive had a cleared buffer zone of 16 to 58 feet from the home. However, distances beyond 100 feet failed to provide extra protection.

Halsey suggests “a more lasting solution” is one used in the towns of Big Bear and Idyllwild, aided by FEMA pre-disaster grants.

“If they took one tenth of the money for the vegetation plan and helped citizens install amber-resistant vents and non-flammable roofs, they would save more homes.”

At the meeting, Gabe Schultz, Cal Fire regional resource manager, acknowledged the inadequacy of the previous version, with its broad sweep across terrain, saying the new draft is “not a blank check.”

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