Fire issues in California's Central Coast Region
- 1 Summary
- 2 Fire Management History
- 3 Ecological Benefits of Fire
- 4 Scientific Research with Regards to Fire
- 5 Major Fires since 1970 that Have Affected the Central Coast
- 6 Links
- 7 References
- 8 Disclaimer
Wildfire presents various challenges and benefits to the people and ecosystems of the Central Coast Region. As California's population grows, urban expansion into natural areas is becoming more commonplace, exposing people to increasing risk in the event of fire. Years of fire suppression, coupled with prolonged drought conditions, have changed the local fire regime, yielding an even greater challenge when it comes to mitigating damage to both ecosystems and man-made infrastructure.
Fire Management History
Historically, lightning fires and purposeful ignitions by indigenous tribes ensured rather frequent fires of low to moderate severity.
Due to the close proximity of different land jurisdictions in the area, fire management often involves multiple agencies on the Central Coast including but not limited to: the Forest Service, CalFire, California State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, individual counties, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, volunteer fire brigades and other entities that manage open space or rural areas.
In the early part of the 20th century, United States land managers generally believed that fire exclusion promoted ecological stability. It wasn't until the mid 1960s that fire was shown to provide ecological benefits, resulting in gradual shifts in fire management policy to allow more fires to take their natural course. As a result of changing policies and shifts in climatic patterns in the western U.S., large wildfire frequency and duration has increased and wildfire seasons have lengthened since 1970. Most recently, federal fire management policy has emphasized fuels management treatments such as prescribed burns and mechanical thinning to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
National Fire Policy
There are two pieces of legislation that dominate national policy regarding wildfire management. The National Forest Plan was a federal policy responding to the growing concern of dangerous levels of fuels in national forests. The main focuses of the plan are firefighting, rehabilitation, hazardous fuel removal, community assistance and accountability. The original plan released $108 million in funding for fuels removal in 2000; this number increased to $401 million by 2005.
To identify where funds were most necessary, the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy directed the collaborations of local, tribal, state, and federal land mangers along with scientific and regulatory agencies. The four goals of the plan are: improved information sharing, monitoring of accomplishments and forest conditions to improve transparency; a long-term commitment to maintaining the essential resources for implementation; a landscape-level vision for restoration of fire adapted ecosystems; and an emphasis on the importance of using fire as a management tool (10-Year Comprehensive Strategy 2006).
Cost of Fire Management
The cost of fighting wildfires is already exorbitant and is quickly rising. For example, in 2015 more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's federal budget of approximately $6.5 billion went to wildfire management, up from 16 percent in 1995. This change in funding allocation is directly responsible for defunding other Forest Service departments such as recreation, restoration, and planning.
In California, the state fire management agency budget is one of the highest in the nation. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, is California's fire response agency charged with managing wildfires on private land. Their budget for Fiscal Year 2016-2017 was reported at approximately $3.2 billion.
Ecological Benefits of Fire
- Growth stimulation of native plants: The chaparral, oak woodland, redwood forest, and grassland ecosystems - all characteristic of the region - are well-adapted to fire. Many plants in these ecosystems depend on wildfire for germination cues, restarting the succession cycle, protection against disease, and making nutrients available for uptake.
- Replenishment of sand for river and ocean beaches: Steep, fractured, granitic slopes characteristic of the coastal mountain ranges erode easily, especially when saturated. If a fire has burned the vegetation in the area, and damaged root systems that help stabilize soil, larger than normal debris flows and landslides can occur during the rainy season. Although these processes can pose inconveniences to humans living in affected watersheds, fluvial sediment transport is the main mode of beach sand replenishment on the West Coast. Therefore, fires play an instrumental role in ensuring beach sustainability.
- Creation of habitat: Fire generally burns in irregular patterns and varies in intensity. The mosaic that results destroys habitat for some animals while creating habitat for others. Cavity nesters, or birds that live in holes in trees, often benefit from fire. One such bird is the endangered California condor whose range is slowly being reestablished on the Central Coast. The wide cavities created by fire in the tops of redwood trees have served as ideal nesting spots for multiple condors on the Big Sur coast (Image 2).
Potentially Negative Ecological Impacts of Fire
Hot, dry conditions on the Central Coast during late spring, summer and fall contribute to fire risk. In the fall and early winter, it's not atypical for Santa Ana winds to fan and spread active fires. This combination of high temperatures and warm winds contributes to increasing flammability of dead and live fuel sources and is often exacerbated by drought conditions, which sometimes leads to "catastrophic" wildfires.
Wildfires can negatively impact ecosystems in a variety of ways:
- Ecosystem type conversion: Today's transportation technology allows for people to travel far distances in a relatively short amounts of time. Because of this capability, certain historical biogeographical barriers have been broken down, exposing native ecosystems to a variety of pathogens and exotic plant and animal species that would not otherwise be in a given location. Type conversion, or the conversion of chaparral ecosystems to nonnative grassland, is becoming more common in Central California in the wake of fire. This poses a threat to native flora and fauna because biological invasions have been documented to cause species extinctions and disruptive changes in ecosystem function.
- Increased turbidity: Turbidity, or the murkiness of water caused by fine, suspended sediment, increases during storm events. When large rainstorms occur on the Central Coast after fire has burned the land, affected watersheds often experience spikes in turbidity. Many of the coastal streams serve as important spawning habitat for endemic steelhead populations. Steelhead are sensitive to turbidity levels because fine sediment can interfere with gill function. Additionally, sediment transport during post-fire rain events can scour steelhead redds (egg deposits) or cover eggs with fine sediment and starve developing embryos of oxygen.
- Crown Fires: Crown fires are considered those that completely burn stands of trees, including the tops of trees (or crowns). Some forest types can take a very long time to regenerate after crown fires. Although crown fires can occur on the Central Coast, the effects of severe fires generally persist for a relatively short amount of time (about 2 to 3 years).
- Geologic changes: Vegetation plays a major role in maintaining slopes and drainage areas, keeping structure of the soil steady and providing overall landscape stability. Without this vegetation, processes like rock falls, debris slides and flows, dry ravel, surface erosion and gullying will worsen in accordance with burn severity during storm flows. Soil hydraulic conductivity can also be affected depending on the severity of the burn. Severely burned soils have a high degree of hydrophobicity which decreases the infiltration rate of rainfall and, in turn, increases erosion rates and overland flow. The eroded material has the potential to increase sedimentation in streams affecting water quality and flow.
Challenges for Humans in the Wake of Fire
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. experienced a number of wildfires in a short amount of time that caused multiple human fatalities, spurring the general view that wildfires are dangerous and unwanted. The loss of human life, infrastructure, and possessions that wild fire can cause presents many challenges. The following is a list of some of the difficulties that arise in the wake of fire:
- Increased burden of cost on California taxpayers for increasing fire management needs
- Loss in tourism for affected areas
- Mudslides and debris flows can impede access to whole communities and rural homes
- Home and life loss
- Increased flood risk post fire
- Decrease in air quality for duration of fire
Scientific Research with Regards to Fire
- The United States Geological Survey (USGS) regularly performs research to understand post-fire debris flows.
- There has been some research on the long term effects of fire on watershed processes.
- The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has developed a well-respected method for in stream fish habitat assessment.
- High resolution LiDAR and aerial photography can be used to detect erosion and debris flows after fire.
Major Fires since 1970 that Have Affected the Central Coast
- 2016 Soberanes Fire
- 2008 Basin Complex Fire
- 2007 Zaca Fire
- 1999 Kirk Complex Fire
- 1990 Painted Cave Fire
- 1985 Rat Creek - Gorda Complex Fire
- 1977 Marble Cone Fire
- Soberanes Fire
- Basin Complex Fire
- Zaca Fire
- Kirk Complex Fire
- Painted Cave Fire
- Rat Creek - Gorda Complex Fire
- Marble Cone Fire
- Santa Ana winds
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)
- California Chaparral
- Oak Woodlands of California's Central Coast Region
- Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
- California's Central Coast Region
- United States Forest Service (USFS)
- California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire)
- California Department of Parks and Recreation
- United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)
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- Keeley JE. 2002. Native American impacts on fire regimes of the California coastal ranges. Journal of Biogeography, 29(3):303-320.
- (NPS & USFS) National Park Service and United States Forest Service. 2001. Review and Update of the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. (Internet). (cited 2017 April 05).
- Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science, 313(5789):940-943.
- (USDA) United States Forest Service. 2014. Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Overview. (Internet). (cited 2017 April 05).
- (USDA) United States Forest Service. 2015. The rising cost of wildfire operations: effects of the Forest Service's no-fire work. (Internet). (cited 2017 April 05).
- (CalFire) California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 2016. CalFire at a glance. (Internet). (cited 2017 April 05)
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- Willis CM, Griggs GB. 2003. Reductions in fluvial sediment discharge by coastal dams in California and implications for beach sustainability. The Journal of Geology, 111(2):167-182.
- Burnett LJ, Sorenson KJ, Brandt J, Sandhaus EA, Ciani D, Clark M, David C, Theule J, Kasielke S, Risebrough RW. 2013 Eggshell thinning and depressed hatching success of California Condors reintroduced to central California. The Condor, 115(3):477-491.
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- Fire Ecology in the Santa Monica Mountains, National Recreation Area
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- Keeley JE, Brennan T, Pfaff AH. 2008 Fire severity and ecosytem responses following crown fires in California shrublands. Ecological Applications, 18(6):1530-1546.
- Schwartz JY, King A. 2016. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Assessment FINAL Specialist Report – GEOLOGIC HAZARDS, Soberanes Fire –Los Padres N.F.
- Rocky Mountain Research Station, Air, Water, and Aquatic Environments Program. 2014. Wildfire Impacts on Stream Sedimentation. Science Briefing
- Watson F, Angelo M, Anderson T, Casagrande J, Kozlowski D, Newman W, Hager J, Smith D, Curry B. 2003. Salinas Valley Sediment Sources. The Watershed Institute, California State University Monterey Bay, Publication No. WI-2003-06, 227 pp.
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