Firestorm of confusion

Author laments fact that public agencies promote native, drought-resistant plants, but at the same time call them ’fuel’ for fires

Indian paintbrush in a sea of smoky blue sagebrush, just two of thousands of beautiful “drought tolerant” California native plants.

Indian paintbrush in a sea of smoky blue sagebrush, just two of thousands of beautiful “drought tolerant” California native plants.

Photo by Virginia Arthur

Native plants—whatever that means—are all the rage. It means you are supposed to tear out that crap you bought at Home Depot (horticultural plants from Europe, the Mediterranean, Australia—not here, in other words) and replace it with “drought-tolerant native plants.” Except that Home Depot and similar stores, along with many local nurseries, don’t sell them. If they do, it’s a limited offering.

Then we have the confusion about native flora being called “fuel.” It used to be called habitat—forage and cover for wildlife. Now, every native plant is called “fuel” and it’s all out to burn your house down.

It breaks my heart to see my neighbors chopping down their oak trees, thinking they are doing the right thing. That now they are safe from fires while their home with that nice cedar shingle siding (or cedar shingle roof) sits blazing in the hot summer sun, the shade all gone, and nothing blocking the wind anymore. It’s even better if the house is on a steep slope. This is a house now all tricked out to burn in a fire. Good job.

On the one hand, public agencies want everyone to tear out their lawns/horticultural water-sucking plants from the other-lands and put in native plants, but then Cal Fire and other public agencies tell Californians those same native plants are “fuels” that will burn their houses down. Well, guess what? California is an arid place. Under its current climatic regime, it has always had fires. It always will. Human arrogance has the audacity to blame our amazing, unique and beautiful native plants.

It’s a mess.

I can speak to this from a lot of different perspectives. As a professional plant ecologist who has been gawking at California’s native plants for over 35 years, I know we have some damn beautiful and unique drought-tolerant native plants. The idea that I can run down to Kmart and be home in 15 minutes with a flat of water-demanding petunias (native to Brazil and South America) versus a flat of native “pussy toes” (Antennaria rosea) is nothing less than just plain stupid.

In 2003, I lost my home; my entire neighborhood in San Diego County went up in flames in the Cedar Firestorm. We’d brush-cleared our little hearts out and our homes still burned to the ground—and my neighbor who did not participate? His house was left standing. (Still have the photo.) Our houses were made of wood. Our houses were the fuel. My neighbor’s house caught my house on fire and my house caught my neighbor’s house on fire, etc., etc. But no, it’s all the oak trees’ fault. Chop ’em down.

If you demonize native plants, you avoid all the nasty real work of preventing fires, like conducting a statewide audit of counties that allow new wood homes on steep slopes (some counties, under pressure from developers, have made it easier to build new wooden homes on steep slopes while saying they are very “concerned” about fire safety). You avoid ushering in a new set of strict building standards that require fire-safe materials like brick or adobe, requiring cement shingle roofs or fire-safe metal roofs. You avoid having to, God forbid, change design standards for fire-prone areas. This is the real work for fire safety, but it might piss off a bunch of people and we just can’t have that. Let’s just keep dumping this on the backs of our young firefighters who only have their lives to lose for that BMW in your garage. Yes, that’s the ticket!

What’s more, if you focus on protecting the structure, you don’t have an excuse to log or clear brush anymore, to drag that vegetation masticator around up there on the hill, even if removal of the woody “fuel” just results in flammable nonnative grasses coming in. Let’s not talk about that.

When it comes down to how California now deals with its own nature, state agencies are just plain wrong and lazy. Maybe add greedy because as one Cal Fire firefighter admitted to me, “cutting shit down is where the money is right now,” courtesy of the oxymoronic Bush Jr.-inspired Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which included nothing for evaluating or improving fire land planning, or building fire-safe structures.

None of the public agency definitions mention that the primary “fuels” are homes and structures themselves, 99 percent of which are made out of wood, even in light of the fact that one of their own, Jack Cohen—with the USDA Forest Service and the pre-eminent researcher on wildfire and home ignitions—has come out and said this multiple times in multiple papers. “Home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires. Key items are flammable roofing materials (e.g., cedar shingles) and the presence of burnable vegetation (e.g., ornamental trees, shrubs, wood piles) immediately adjacent to homes.” So why not add this to the legal, official definition of “fuels”?

Rightfully, the public is confused.

So, what can we do about this? First, box stores, like Home Depot, Lowes, etc., need to sell California native plants over and above any other species. They need to start mass production of these plants. Then the state and feds need to put their big leadership and safety pants on and do an audit of any county that allows new development on steep slopes or in dangerous high fire-prone areas (call it a “hypocrisy sting”). Firefighting services and related subsidies from the sate and feds should be withdrawn from these counties.

The state needs to put on demonstrations in cooperation with contractor associations on how to build with new fire-safe building materials. How to build with brick, advances in these materials—put on workshops and trainings.

The state needs to offer incentives, tax deductions to big box stores and local nurseries to begin mass production of California native plants appropriate for/native to each bioregion. There are jobs in this, too, for native plant botanists, wildlife biologists, ecologists and conservation biologists. Currently, much of the legislation has language targeted only for the forestry industry or requires “foresters.” Language should be changed to include far broader nonresource extraction-based professions/disciplines.

State agencies are not engaging the public in these kinds of conversations. We need to be having these conversations. Fire is the driving force in California. It affects many things. When are we going to start talking about this?

We need to keep and preserve our California native plants. They are our plants. Our history. Our heritage. We must stop blaming our native plants for our horrible “planning” decisions, and take responsibility for facing the fire problem where it lies.

But maybe I am just being silly. Go ahead. Go outside and chop down that manzanita, then go back to watching TV in your wooden tract home on the steep slope. You’re “fire safe” now. After all, the fire risk in California? It’s all manzanita’s fault.