Biologists, botanists, ecologists and fire scientists generally embrace the concept that fire is a necessary part of the natural life cycle of chaparral and other ecosystems.
They say that without fire, Santa Barbara County’s chaparral habitat becomes unhealthy, with the ratio of dead to live plant material becoming unbalanced.
Historically, wildfires at regular intervals were found to improve the health of ecosystems and reduce the incidence of massive, high-intensity fires that damaged the environment.
Some wildfires were sparked by lightning, but Native Americans were aware of the value of fire and used it to their advantage. In the late 18th century, the Chumash were observed intentionally burning the native vegetation to promote growth in certain plants.
However, not everyone agrees that wildfire is necessary for chaparral’s health.
The California Chaparral Institute lists that as one of five myths about the habitat that it exposes on its website.
“Old-growth chaparral is a beautiful, healthy ecosystem. It does not need fire to ‘renew’ or clean out ‘built-up’ or ‘overgrown’ vegetation,” the institute says.
“Old-growth chaparral continues to be a productive ecosystem, growing fresh, new growth in its upper canopy every year,” the institute continues. “In fact, some chaparral plants require the leaf litter and shade provided by older chaparral stands for their seeds to germinate successfully.
“Instead of becoming ‘trashy’ or unproductive, as some have claimed, old-growth chaparral (in excess of 40 to 50 years) is actually just beginning a new cycle of life.”
To read more from the California Chaparral Institute, visit www.californiachaparral.com.
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Steve and Renée O'Neill consider their 70-acre ranch near the top of Tepusquet Canyon one of the most beautiful properties in Santa Barbara County.
While Santa Barbara County's fire marshal Rob Hazard doesn't believe wildfires are becoming more unpredictable in their behavior, he does acknowledge conditions are changing making them bigger, longer lasting, and being more difficult to contain.
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“Firenado” sounds like the title for a campy science-fiction flick, but it’s a real phenomenon that firefighters say they’re seeing more often as wildfires worldwide become more intense.
The Cave fire that erupted Nov. 25 was a textbook example of Santa Barbara County wildfires, encompassing virtually all the elements that, in one combination or another, have characterized the South Coast’s most significant blazes.