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Opinions differ about chaparral, wildfire, prescribed burns

From the Series: Wildfire County - Planning for the next big blaze series
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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.

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“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

Fire officials attribute Santa Barbara County’s high risk, in part, to its location in the wildfire “Goldilocks zone." The county sits far enough north to get good winter rainfall, but it’s far enough south to feel the Southern California summer heat that cooks fuels tinder-dry.


County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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