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Mark James Miller

At least eight fires are burning in California as I write this, large fires whipped on by powerful Santa Ana winds.

The state is in fire season, with thousands of acres of vegetation consumed, thousands of people having to evacuate their homes, and more than 2 million having had their power shut off. Pundits are wondering if this is California’s “new normal.”

With this as a backdrop, it seemed inevitable that wildfires would be a major part of the conversation when I sat down last week with Rebecca August and Bryant Baker of Los Padres Forest Watch.

Forest Watch is “the only local nonprofit protecting wildlife, wilderness and clean water of the Los Padres National Forest, the Carrizo Plain and all the other public lands on the Central Coast.” It was founded in Santa Barbara in 2004, Rebecca said, “because no one was protecting the Los Padres Forest.”

The Forest could have no better advocate, for in the 15 years since it came into being, Forest Watch has put together an impressive string of accomplishments, including protecting 52,075 acres of forest land from oil drilling in 2005; advocating for, and eventually winning, the campaign to make lead ammunition illegal in California, and in 2018 succeeded in getting the Forest Service to ban unmanaged target shooting in Los Padres National Forest; in 2017 they defeated a plan to eliminate protection for 200,000 acres of the Carrizo Plain.

Members of Forest Watch have hiked with Congressman Salud Carbajal in the Guadalupe Dunes, removed more than 30,000 pounds of trash from forested areas, and cleaned up illegal target-shootings sites. They have dismantled 15 miles of old fencing, eradicated invasive plants and stopped fracking in the Forest.

But with so much of the state in flames, fires are at the top of the agenda.

“Fires are inevitable,” said Bryant, who holds a master’s degree in environmental science. “They are part of the eco system.”

He is quick to point out, however, “the natural fire cycle is characterized by large and intense fires every 30 to 150 years.” In other words, not nearly as often as the fires we are seeing nowadays.

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Both Bryant and Rebecca feel it is vitally important that people understand methods currently being applied in dealing with wildfires aren’t working, and may be making matters worse. One especially salient example is brush clearing.

“The areas where wildfires typically burn on the Central Coast,” Bryant said, are covered with chaparral, “a unique shrubland ecosystem,” which, along with coastal sage scrub, is found in only four other places on Earth. Together they provide a habitat for birds, mammals and other forms of wildlife.

Chaparral’s deep root system holds the soil in place and prevents erosion. But when a native plant like chaparral is cleared away by bulldozers and masticators — powerful brush clearing machines — a process called “type conversion” takes place, wherein the chaparral is replaced by non-native grassland. Known as “flashy fuels,” these tend to dry out early in the year, thus becoming more prone to catching fire, and most fires start in grassland. A vicious circle is created.

What can be done to prevent this from becoming what a columnist recently called “California’s new normal”? Forest Watch advocates three steps that can be taken:

Retrofit existing homes with fire safe materials. An ember only two millimeters in size can set a house on fire.

Establish defensible spaces within 60-100 feet of homes.

Prevent new home construction in fire-prone areas.

You can find out more about Los Padres Forest Watch at https://lpfw.org/.

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Mark James Miller is an associate English instructor at Allan Hancock College, and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.

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