Fire Suppression, Science, and
From TheySaid, 6/22/07
by Richard W. Halsey
California Chaparral Institute
With what has happened in South Carolina this week and
some of the other things going on, I'm not particularly in the mood to
discuss this issue, but recent events make it impossible to ignore
First some background. Although I have had the
unfortunate experience of being manipulated by a few reporters over the
years to say that one "personal-headline quote" they were fishing for, I
have tried to deal with this continual fire suppression/fuel build-up
debate in Southern California on a strictly scientific basis. I've
always felt it best to ignore the personality and stick to the data.
This is typically not the approach the press emphasizes, but it is how
science is supposed to work.
However, there comes a time when a viewpoint becomes so
disconnected from the accepted body of scientific knowledge that it
distracts from constructive dialogue. At times it can even delay or
alter important policy decisions. Such delays create negative
consequences for future generations by creating unproductive, "my
expert" vs. "your expert" politicized debates in the press. Although
each of the experts are assumed to have equally valid viewpoints
supported by objective data, one or more are solely interested in
promoting their own individual cause or agenda regardless of the facts.
Often these causes are pushed by narrow, special interests in a
consciously dishonest manner. Or alternatively, the promoter honestly
believes his or her own view of the world so strongly that he or she is
unable to objectively evaluate contrary data. Instead, everything is
seen in light of a favored theory and seemingly obvious contradictions
are dismissed (often unconsciously). Consequently, when the cause is
continually taken to the popular media instead of being objectively
discussed within the framework of science, it becomes impossible to
ignore the messenger. This is why a number of well-know fire scientists
spoke out in 2006 about Thomas Bonnicksen who was disregarding
scientific fact to promote politically motivated policies dealing with
The June 17, 2007, San Bernardino County Sun news article "Forests Need
to Burn" was a signal to many of us in the wildland fire and fire
science communities that the time has come to directly address Dr.
Richard Minnich's promotion of incorrect and potentially damaging
notions about wildland fire management.
In his insistence on focusing on only one variable (chaparral age),
Dr. Minnich does not appear to have a clear understanding of wildland
fire. Wildland fire risk in Southern California is not the fault of the
fire service, or the result of old stands of chaparral, it is an
inherent part of the landscape. Laying more fire on the ground on a
landscape level or allowing fires to run is unacceptable in Southern
California for both safety and ecological reasons. The Baja California
fire mosaic model originally described by Dr. Minnich in 1983 and
elaborated in 1997 is not applicable to Southern California. The best
and most efficient way to reduce wildland fire risk is through proper
community design, fire-safe building construction, adequate vegetation
management around structures and strategically placed fuel treatment
A Closer Examination
As both a biologist specializing in chaparral ecosystems and someone who
has taken the time to get to know fire up close and personal, I find
much of what Dr. Minnich says to be in direct opposition to reality.
To put these theories in perspective, it is important to understand that
Dr. Minnich has been a major critic of the fire service for years and
has blamed us for causing the conditions that have allowed large,
devastating fires to occur. He has claimed that fire suppression has
allowed an "unnatural" level of chaparral fuel to accumulate, leading to
unstoppable wildland fires in Southern California. This is based on a
paper he wrote in 1983 comparing fires in Baja California with those in
Southern California, two radically different environments not suitable
for comparison for a number of reasons (different climates, different
soil types, different vegetation patterns, and different cultural and
land use perspectives).
Research over the past twenty years has clearly shown that large,
wildland fires in Southern California are not the result of past fire
suppression practices, but rather a function of severe fire weather
conditions: drought, low humidity, and Santa Ana winds. If you would
like a more detailed analysis of the Baja California mosaic theory,
please go to our Fire & Science page on our website at
In the Sun article Dr. Minnich was quoted as saying,
"So, right now ... if you go from Santa Ana River
and west of Cajon Pass, the fire hazard is nil because it burned in
'03. It's three-year-old brush, and nothing is going to carry there
for another 20 years - you don't have a problem."
Immediately after the 2003 Old fire in San Bernardino,
Dr. Minnich repeated similar perspectives by saying that the area
wouldn't burn again in our lifetimes. After the Griffith Park fire in
May of 2007 he also said, "There's 800 acres of Griffith Park which
have just burned, and that's the good news. There's no fuel there and
those areas are unlikely to burn for years if not decades to come."
Let's look at the data:
On Saturday (June 16, 2007), the day before the Sun
article appeared, there were 4 fires in the Cajon Pass area, all of
which could have evolved into major incidents under the right
weather conditions. One required extensive use of aircraft to
control. It is unfortunate the article's reporter did not adequately
check out the facts before publishing as news unsubstantiated
On Monday (June 18, 2007), the day after the
article, a fire occurred in the Lake Arrowhead in an area that had
burned 3 times since 1994.
The first 20,000 acres that burned in the 2003 Old
fire was a patchwork of fuel that was generally less than ten years
old. Most of what burned during the first couple days had burned in
the 1980 Panorama fire or subsequent fires. The Old fire also
re-burned 1,000 acres that burned during the 2002 Arrowhead fire.
And it wasn't a chaparral fire that was responsible for destroying
most of the homes burned in San Bernardino during the Old fire, but
a grass fire that came roaring off the mountain. Embers igniting
palm fronds and other ornamental vegetation were major contributors
to the fire's spread into the city.
Many areas in the front country of the San
Bernardino Mountains burn repeatedly, sometimes once a year. This is
because the fire return interval has been so great that chaparral
and coastal sage scrub plant communities have been completely
eliminated and have been replaced by highly flammable, fine, weedy
fuels. These weedy fuels create conditions that allow fires to
return frequently because they quickly accumulate each year and can
be ignited easily. To say that these areas present an "abnormally
low" fire hazard is a clear misinterpretation of the fire
In another quote, Dr. Minnich says,
"The area that was involved in Esperanza, the
stands that burned, a lot of them previously burned in 1974, about
32 years before that, and that's actually rather young chaparral.
The fire, even in the Santa Ana wind, was kind of struggling getting
through that. ... It managed to consume it. But within the
(Esperanza) fire, there were islands of unburned vegetation, which
were far older than 32 years, and this structure was in it. The
chaparral was at least twice as old ... so it resulted in much more
intense fire behavior, in that small area, and that's where these
people went into."
Every chaparral stand is different. Many young,
post-fire recovery chaparral stands have plenty of fine fuels to carry a
fire. This comes from invasive grasses and some natives such as deerweed.
After 10 years, many chaparral stands close their canopies and create
perfect fuel beds to carry a fire. The 2006 Esperanza fire started in
grassy fuels near the desert floor. The Cabazon area where the Esperanza
fire began has burned so many times over the last 30 years it is almost
completely covered with cheatgrass. To say that the fire was "kind of
struggling" to get through 32-year-old chaparral during the Esperanza
fire indicates data was not collected from USFS firefighters who were on
scene and who really understand fire in the San Bernardino National
Yes, chaparral systems provide ready fuel and can pose serious threats
to poorly designed communities. This is why vegetation clearance
recommendations are critical to follow as well as efforts to correct
unsafe building designs in fire prone areas.
During a May 9, 2007, FM radio interview on the KCRW program "Which Way
LA", host Warren Olney referred to how LA County fire officials had
blamed the recent fire in Griffith Park on record low rainfall and
drought conditions. He then asked Dr. Minnich "If there's more to this
than just a dry rainy season and low humidity, what should people be
concerned with the most?"
Dr. Minnich responded,
"Well, it depends on what kinds of vegetation
you're working with. If its chaparral, the flammability of it
depends on the accumulation of fuel over decades, not how much it
grows or how much it's stressed by one year's deficiency of
rainfall. I was looking at a video of this fire and its pretty
mature looking chaparral and its ready to burn and that's the nature
of the beast with this kind of vegetation. It's the old stands that
burn, those areas that haven't burned in a long time, and not the
young ones. And drought really doesn't have the specific
relationship to fires other than to lengthen the individual fire
season, which started a little earlier this year."
The fact that drought and low fuel moistures lead to
dangerous fire conditions is one of most significant variables in
determining whether or not a wildfire gets out of control. It's not just
about fuel, but how dry the fuels become and how fast the winds blow. To
ignore such variables is to create a perception that native ecosystems
are "the enemy" and the only way to stop wildland fires from burning
homes is to eliminate or drastically compromise the natural resources
Californians value and wildland firefighters risk their lives to
Warren Olney later asked, "So in other words, it isn't so much that
it is drier than usual, it's that there's more fuel than usual, it would
burn under any circumstances?"
Dr. Minnich replied,
"Well, there was sufficient fuel for the fire to
take off and once chaparral gets 30 to 40 years of age throughout
Southern California you have a big fire threat. On the positive
side, those areas which are grassy hardly had any growth at all so
the fire hazard is far less than usual this year."
Important variables are being ignored. Yes, over time
chaparral does accumulate fuel, but it is highly variable depending on
type, location, and prior rainfall levels. No one questions the fact
that fire intensity is lower in grass than in chaparral. But the issue
Dr. Minnich neglects to communicate by focusing on only one variable
(chaparral age) is the impact of fine, flashy-fuels (grasses and weeds)
on fire risk, firefighter safety, and ecosystem health. The likelihood
of an ignition increases with the introduction weeds and grasses. The
deadly October 3, 1933 Griffith Park fire was quickly moving through
large patches of dried grass when workers tried to outrun the flames.
Twenty-nine were killed. Temperatures over 100 degrees F., a long period
of drought, Santa Ana winds, and dry, weedy fuels created the dangerous
situation, not old chaparral.
Also being ignored is the dramatic impact non-native weeds like
cheatgrass and brome are having in the low deserts. In a July 13, 2006,
Desert Sun newspaper article Dr. Minnich was quoted as saying that
native wildflowers carried the 2006 Sawtooth fire's sweep across the
desert when in fact native wildflowers have little to do with it. He
predicted the area would not burn again for "another century or so,
depending on heavy rainfall."
Fire size and frequency in desert areas has been increasing rapidly over
the last few decades. Cheatgrass has an incredible ability to grow with
minimal moisture. It has been responsible for carrying abnormally large
fires in the Great Basin over the past 20 years as well as in the
Southwest. The same pattern has been occurring in the Mojave Desert.
These areas have the potential to burn frequently since cheatgrass and
brome grass can create suitable fuel beds to carry flames on an almost a
How have Dr. Minnich's misconceptions impacted public
and agency perspectives? During a ranger-led tour of the Griffith Park
fire area in June, 2007, tour participants were told, "Look at this
burned area. It is a moonscape and totally unnatural as it is a result
of fire suppression. Historical fires burned in small patches."
What should have the Park's managers done? Maintained a checkerboard of
masticated/burned vegetation throughout the Park? Large, intensely
burned "moonscapes" are a natural part of the chaparral's crown-fire
regime. Fire suppression has nothing to do with it.
This is what concerns many of us in the wildland fire and scientific
communities about Dr. Minnich's commentary; he perpetuates harmful
misconceptions about fire in the public's mind which can transfer to
public policy. These misconceptions not only create a climate of blame,
but can encourage poor land planning decisions that can cause serious
damage to our natural resources, eliminate opportunities for families to
enjoy natural landscapes, and complicate fire management activities.
Old-growth stands of chaparral represent one of California's most unique
natural treasures. Very few old-growth stands exist in Southern
California anymore due to increased fire frequency. Promoting
perspectives that devalue such resources or worse, cause the public and
policy makers to think all older chaparral stands should only be seen as
dangerous sources of fuel, will further compromise the region's
important watersheds, native habitats, and natural recreational areas.
There are a significant number of qualified foresters and experienced
wildland firefighters within Southern California who do have the
knowledge and experience to provide an accurate assessment of wildfire
danger and chaparral ecology. The US Forest Service and the US
Geological Survey can offer well qualified fire scientists as well. It
is my hope the local media will begin paying closer attention to them
and stop giving time to personal opinions that do not reflect our
current understanding of wildland fire in Southern California.
Richard W. Halsey
California Chaparral Institute