Wildfire Home Loss: "It's the position, not the chaparral"

Wildfire photographed from our deck (with zoom lens) June 30 2012
I'm reposting this interesting finding from the Chaparral Institute's Facebook page. You can also access it directly via this link (there are more links to other related articles and to the research paper on the original post):
In a new research paper concerning why homes burn in wildfires, fellow Chaparralian Alexandra Syphard (a research scientist with the Conservation Biology Institute) concluded, "We're finding that geography is most important—where is the house located and where are houses placed on the landscape."
Syphard and her coauthors gathered data on 700,000 addresses in the Santa Monica Mountains and part of San Diego County. They then mapped the structures that had burned in those areas between 2001 and 2010, a time of devastating wildfires in the region.
Buildings on steep slopes, in Santa Ana wind corridors and in low-density developments intermingled with wild lands were the most likely to have burned. Nearby vegetation was not a big factor in home destruction. 
Looking at vegetation growing within roughly half a mile of structures, the authors concluded that the exotic grasses that often sprout in areas cleared of native habitat like chaparral could be more of a fire hazard than the shrubs. "We ironically found that homes that were surrounded mostly by grass actually ended up burning more than homes with higher fuel volumes like shrubs," Syphard said.
And - yes we are in one of the worst positions for fire: on top of a ridge, with chaparral to the south of us, and wind corridors to fore and rear. 

Strangely I feel more comfortable with this precarious situation as time goes by. It's comforting to know that our responsible community has established two emergency routes off the ridge, in addition to the road, and that we support our local volunteer fire department to the max. I'm also glad not to have livestock to deal with - just one ornery dog who doesn't like cars.

It is pruning and clearing season here on the Central Coast of California. The weather is dry, and - I hope - the birds have finished nesting. Though I did see an oak titmouse - I think that's what it was - nesting on a patio cover support beam (hard to describe) on a neighbor's house just a couple days ago. So I'm going to go carefully.

I always wonder how much is enough - and if any of it really matters. If a big fire comes - we're outta here, and we'll return and live with the post fire situation. In a tent if need be!

Yet, if a small fire breaks out - we want to be sure we can manage it. A wildfire broke out within three miles or so of us just a week or so ago. We watched anxiously as the helicopter ferried buckets of water and dumped them all afternoon, till the smoke diminished, while the ground crew did their work.

Dumping water on the wildfire. Thank you fire fighters!
 So I thin the natives near the house, and do what I can to keep the fuel load low, and keep the vegetation near the house irrigated (once or twice a month is enough for the plants here).

In general, I follow these guidelines provided by the folk at Las Pilitas native plant nursery - their web site is a mine of valuable information: Landscaping your home in a fire area.

But I still have too-large shrubs too close to the house, and I have some hard decisions to make.

I'll think about it while I prune the dry vegetation back from the edge road that passes through our property, and hope we make it safely through summer to the welcome rains of fall and winter.


When we watch our firefighting helicopter, they are either heading to the mountain. Or somewhere along the road where an idiot has discarded a cigarette end.
Whoa! I guess every area has their hazards but I think I prefer worrying about wind and flooding from my area's hurricanes and nor'easters, than to have to worry about home-eating wildfires. Best of luck to you this summer and always.
Interesting that a home surrounded by grass would go up. You would think it would provide a barrier. Just goes to show, I guess.
Country Mouse said…
Most of the fires are caused by careless humans. I tried looking up natural causes but other than lightning didn't find any. I think I read that natural objects can have a focusing lens type effect too - not sure how. Susan, I think they meant long dry grasses. Lawns kept short are probably not a problem as far as fire - only as far as water usage, and chemical pollution of the ground perhaps. And lots of work for the gardener. And loss of habitat for wildlife. But for kids to play on - hey a bit of lawn is nice, I have to admit!
Thanks for your comments all!
Desert Dweller said…
Thanks for this great information from areas that would know! Here, people are justifying their dislike of desert and want for lawn by saying we should firescape with lawns...lots of that in Los Alamos, years ago after their fire. Pathetic...

I can't wait to read more about this chaparral issue, since I am starting to suspect that is not the problem it is claimed to be.