‘Brush clearing’ won’t solve problem
Another beautiful morning in paradise … aside from the sound of the gnawing of wood by a mechanical monster. It’s just “brush clearing.” … Go back into the house.
While selective and thoughtful clearing up to 100 feet from structures is reasonable, what we are observing now in our Sierra foothills is acres of land being completely cleared of the native undergrowth with the subsequent permanent creation of park-like landscapes. Older growth oak and ponderosa pine are being cut. Old-growth trees without the side (“ladder”) branches are not serious fire hazards. Why are they being cut down?
Your tax dollars are being used to subsidize logging operations and pesticide spraying in the name of the rather amorphously defined term of “brush” or “fire clearing.” What exactly is the definition of “brush clearing?” I bet if you ask a biologist this question versus California Department of Forestry versus a forester versus an insurance underwriter, you will get four different answers, and therein is the problem.
The underlying premise is after eliminating this evil ecosystem from our properties, we will be “fire safe,” right? You will never be fire safe in California no matter what you do, and we are taking a damaging and simple-minded approach to a very complex problem.
“Brush” is slang for shrub ecosystems. The two main native ecosystem types are chaparral and sage scrub. Native shrubs not only support numerous wildlife species, but they supported the native peoples of California up to about 100 years ago. Oak trees were, by far, the most important plant to the Native Americans in California and like our economy relies on oil, so did theirs on the oak from which they prepared an acorn meal as the staple of their diets.
At least 96 wildlife species at some point in their life cycle rely on oak and scrub oak. There are 57 species and 38 subspecies of manzanita in California. California native people dried and powdered manzanita berries which was then mixed it with water or the powder was used like flour. The wood was used for nearly everything including huts, eating implements, and tobacco pipes. At least 19 wildlife species depend on manzanita at some point in their life cycle. There are 43 species of our native wild lilac, ceanothus. Native uses included use of wild lilac to make acorn granaries, stirrers, digging sticks, medicine, and basketry. Lilac capsules or “berries” were used as food. At least 18 wildlife species rely on ceanothus. I could easily add more to the list.
In our culture, we perceive these species and this ecosystem as a threat to our survival but to the cultures preceding us, it was the key to theirs.
Wildlife we may be threatening or eliminating by excessive “brush clearing” include: towhees, wrentits, bushtits, thrashers, rabbits/hares, small mammals, fox, raccoon, coyote, deer, mountain lion, scrub jays, migrant warblers, and all species that need forage, nesting, denning, and/or cover at some point in their life cycle
What about taking real steps to prevent catastrophic fires such as:
• Modifying human behavior (the number one cause of fire)
• Dealing with the people that toss lit cigarettes out of car windows especially during high fire season, ensuring power tools used during high fire season are accompanied by a fire extinguisher, and admitting the truth about arsonists. A “firefighter” from La Cima Fire Station in San Diego County almost burned my neighborhood down. His favorite pastime at the fire station was setting his pants on fire when he was bored. Funny no one thought this was a problem until arson became his favorite hobby.
• Planning for global climate change which has catastrophic implications
• Ceasing the permitting of new homes especially in high-fire prone areas including on steep slopes
• Providing governmental incentives for folks to switch to metal or concrete shingle roofs. Flying embers burn a lot of homes down without the fire even reaching the property.
• Providing governmental incentives to build new homes out of brick, cinder blocks, adobe or other non-flammable materials instead of wood.
(I wonder how many roofs could have been converted from asphalt shingle to metal using the public money spent on the Nevada County “Fire” Plan and the public money reimbursements for clearing private land?)
You may argue that I obviously don’t know a thing about what it is like to experience a fire. In 2002, I was evacuated twice from my home in San Diego County. A third time a fire came within a half mile of my home. After this, I cleared more intensively 30 feet from my home and selectively 30-100 feet from my home (per the reasonable San Diego County Fire Ordinance), but I also knew that I owned a home in chaparral.
I accepted the responsibility for moving into this kind of ecosystem. In 2003, the firestorm that raged through San Diego County took my home and thousands of others. My neighbor created an eye sore in the neighborhood when he cleared “to dirt” (and even cut his oaks). His home burned to the ground just like mine did. The main factor that cost us our homes was the wind, not the chaparral.
A baby brown towhee approaches my birdbath. Nearby neighbors have “brush cleared” the towhee’s habitat. As the towhee moves toward the birdbath, it looks at me cautiously. I whisper to it that I understand. I consider its hesitation about me and my kind entirely appropriate.
Virginia Susan Moran has been an environmental professional for 20 years. She holds a B.S. in Field Biology and an M.S. in Botany (1986) from the Botany Department (now the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology) at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She works as an independent ecological consultant in Grass Valley.
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“There is a cult of ignorance in this country … nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov, 1980.