Fire and Chaparral - Some Questions

This picture makes it look like our house is up to its decks in chaparral!
I chose a dramatic image!

Long-time subscribers may note that our blog has taken a break since around early summer. Sorry for our absence. I'm back. I hope. With a theme: wildfire.

The recent "Camp Fire" has shocked everyone with is devastation and loss of life. It has killed 88 at last count and obliterated the town of Paradise, which is about 200 miles north of my home. In Southern California, the "Woolsey Fire" in Malibu killed three people and burned thousands of structures. FYI, here is the Wikipedia page listing all California wildfires of 2018, so far. There are a lot. And it ain't going to get better.

As a ridge-top dweller, I am motivated to explore the topic of improving my chances of surviving fire.

Much has been written about the causes of these recent fires, not all of it accurate or insightful. This blog post from the Chaparral Institute looks their causes in depth, and provides links to more information. It also talks about how houses themselves are a big part of the problem. But I'm not going to talk about that here. I'm not even going to think about how flammable our house is. I'm not I'm not I'm not.

At a recent neighborhood meeting we discussed how we can improve our chances of "driving off the ridge" if we are caught in a quick-spreading inferno. I'm sure you have seen videos of people driving cars through the roads of Paradise with flames all around. It's beyond scary. So one item we agreed on was cutting back vegetation along our road. Especially called out were the the areas where "brush" comes to the road edge.

A longish stretch of the road runs through our property, and it's bordered by chaparral on both sides.

We cleared vegetation from the edges of the road some years ago with the help of a crew. We kept up with it pretty well after that, but this year a shoulder injury put me out of the game. It's definitely in need of another visit from the crew.

As you can see from the screenshot of our south facing slope, taken from Google earth, chaparral comes pretty much right up to our doorstep.

According to Google Earth tools, we have about 100 feet of chaparral above the road, and about another 160 feet of chaparral below the road (which is also on our property).
I'm not assuming a high degree of accuracy using this tool, however. 

Ours is not the only property with chaparral. It covers many south, southeast, and southwest facing slopes below the ridge on either side, though not necessarily along the road.

Other types of vegetation on our properties include redwoods and mixed evergreen forest on northerly slopes, as well as various gardens, orchards, and vineyards. All need to be tended for fire safety in appropriate ways. You never know which way the wind will blow!

I have to say that reducing natural habitat, in and of itself, is a cause for sorrow for me. It keeps me awake at night.

Nothing supports birds, pollinators, and other wildlife better than the native plants they evolved with.

But the reality is that I and my neighbors want to survive wildfire. I need to arrive at a clear plan for our chaparral, and act on it before the next nesting season begins.

I want to know how flammable are the various plants that compose our chaparral--such as coyote bush, chamise, manzanita, toyon, coffeeberry, ceanothus, coastal woodfern, golden yarrow, sticky monkeyflower, scrub oaks, and many more besides.

Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery has an interesting page on leaf burn times of various plants that I've used before. Here's a quote from Bert that will probably surprise you:
For the most part, unwatered natives did better than watered non-natives.
I'd like to find more sources of information on the flammability of various plants. It's more than the leaves that burn, after all. For example, Ceanothus is called out on various pages as being one of the more fire resistant shrubs. I'll provide a list of resources I find and recommendations - in a future post.

I want to know what's the best way to "thin" the chaparral, and by how much. (By which I mean how little!) I want to know how we can avoid erosion where we clear, and how to keep dry non-native weeds from taking over where we've removed native plants. What kind of mulch might be helpful, and how can you keep mulch on our steep slopes. 

My starting point for information about wildfire is the Las Pilitas web site's fire pages. Bert Wilson, a nurseryman and also a volunteer firefighter (now deceased), wrote much about the topic of fire. Some of it might surprise you:
Removing all 'brush' and replacing it with grass, is dumb. The brush trade off is higher, less flammable fuels versus lower, more flammable fuels and more erosion. 
But his advice on thinning within 100 feet of a house is draconian (and standard):
[In the area 30' - 100' from the house]  basically, as a general rule, this area needs to be cleared of 50-60% of the vegetation, leaving 40-50%, with large, mulched open spaces in between, weed-free. 
(My emphasis added.)

I want to find and read more information resources so that I can find a way to go forward that maximizes the natural environment while keeping fire danger to acceptable levels (whatever that means).

For example, I'll read through the California Chaparral Institute website, whose many pages and links I have not fully explored. Their Chaparral Facts page is an interesting starting point.

If you know of a resource to recommend, please do leave a comment for me to follow up on.

To cheer us all up after this not so uplifting topic, I'll close with some pictures I've taken of our chaparral's "little brown birds". Did you know that some of them (wrentits especially) seldom venture beyond the protective canopy of intertwining chaparral shrubs?



Pine Siskin (I think) - seasonal visitors

Anna's Hummingbird
California Thrasher. My favorite.
Bewick's Wren. My other favorite.


Unknown said…
I'm doing a similar study of the 'Preserve' area near my home. I decided to do much the same as you~ I need to learn about what needs to remain far more.
But I also want the neighborhoods to be safe from a fire moving quickly through dry brush in these Preserves in late fall and winter.
What is native, and what is not?
And how do we manage all of it to have safe homes for humans, and for wildlife?
Thank you for some good links.
I was directed to the Chaparral Institute as well. Working my way through it all.
Country Mouse said…
Great -We can compare notes as we both progress in learning more!
donna said…
Best info here:

And Rick Halsey's book is wonderful.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks, Donna--I'll include that link to the fire page of California Chaparral Institute in the next post on this topic. It's actually t he one I was looking for but I lost track of it. I agree Rick Halsey's book, with the info contributed by so many, is excellent - and I need to re-read it!