Is prescribed fire in chaparral “irrelevant”?

Prescribed fire near Pine Valley, California, 1987
Prescribed fire near Pine Valley, California, 1987
Prescribed fire in chaparral, near Pine Valley, California, 1987. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Some of the opinions of Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, are again in the news. A web site called OurAmazingPlanet has quoted him in a lengthy article about prescribed fire, titled “Fighting Fires: You’re Doing It Wrong”. While admitting that prescribed fire in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park “is extremely necessary”, he goes on to say:

In most of Southern California, [prescribed fire] is completely irrelevant. There is overwhelming evidence we’ve never come anywhere close to excluding fire on this landscape [through prescribed fire].

Mr. Keeley believes that manipulating the vegetation in chaparral-covered areas by masticating and prescribed fire, replaces the native vegetation with invasive species like cheatgrass. He thinks that instead, we should concentrate on planning and reduce the number of people that are put at risk.

This is not the first time Wildfire Today has written about Mr. Keeley’s opinions. In 2009 we covered his research that indicates it is unlikely that changing the age class of chaparral can prevent large fires. The details are in his papers HERE and HERE, and in a brief article by John McKinney HERE.

Conventional wisdom was that younger chaparral, less than 20 years old, had fewer tons-per-acre of vegetation than older stands, and also had a much different live/dead ratio, with fewer dead stems and plants. Less flammable fuels (higher green content with higher fuel moistures) meant fires would spread more slowly and should be easier to suppress.

Totally preventing or excluding fires in chaparral will never be feasible, but… it is hard for me to give up the idea that creating a mosaic of chaparral age classes does not have a significant effect on fire size and resistance to control.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

9 thoughts on “Is prescribed fire in chaparral “irrelevant”?”

  1. I’m with you, Bill. My research does not support the opinion of Dr. Keeley, or others such as Rick Halsey, who dismiss the benefits of the age-class mosaic that we have in southern California for moderating fire behavior. I’ve been studying the thermal imagery of chaparral wildfires for a dozen years, and examples such as the 2002 Troy Fire burning into the area of the 1989 Thing Fire and stopping, or the 2006 Esperanza Fire behavior moderation as it moved through areas burned by the 1999 Pine Fire, 1974 Soboba Fire and the 1968 Poppet Fire persuade me otherwise.
    Wildfire thermal imagery and vegetation age class polygons available for your own study at http://www.fireimaging.com.

  2. Keeley makes an interesting case. My dad fought fires in the California chaparral; I never have. (He said it was not a fun experience.) I would like to know more.

    I do know that the Gambel oak brush here, which is our equivalent in southern Colorado, can burn down to the dirt in July and be calf-high in September. It burns, grows up, and is ready to burn again. So prescribed fire does not seem to be a viable option.

    1. Chas: most vegetation will burn again. Grass will burn within a year, Lodgepole pine is ready to burn again in 300 years. Some of the questions are: at what point after a fire will a particular vegetation type burn again; will a mosiac of different age classes retard the spread of fires, or make them less resistant to control; what is the live/dead ratio at various time frames after a fire; what is the tons/acre; what is the live fuel moisture.

      1. Indeed. My point was more that if the vegetation comes back so fast, why have a prescribed burn? I cannot speak to the invasive-species issues in California, but they certainly should be factored in.

        I do hope that all the horehound at Wind Cave was not encouraged by prescribed burning!

        1. Chas: You make an excellent argument for not mowing the lawn.

          In precontact time people burned millions of acres in the western US every year. Tarweed (“Indian oats”) was burned annually; beargrass and hazel every 2-3 years; huckleberries every 7-35 years; lodgepole every 80 to 240 years. And it keeps growing back, which is the point.

          Current wildfire problems are almost entirely a result of poor fuel management, which is one major reason that the largest fires typically take place on federal lands during the past 25 years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most catastrophic-scale wildfires took place on private lands.

          Depending on fuel type and management objectives, there is abundant evidence and documentation that prescribed fires can do much in the way of managing future wildfires.

  3. Bob Zyback writes: “Depending on fuel type and management objectives, there is abundant evidence and documentation that prescribed fires can do much in the way of managing future wildfires.”

    I think we are moving away from talking about chaparral ecosystems here. Never said that all prescribed fire was dubious. I have seen its benefits, obviously, within a mile of my house — in pine and doug fir.

    Oak brush? Not so much.

    1. Chas:

      My statement “depending on fuel type” includes chaparral. My experience in western Oregon is that scrub oak is an opportunistic invader that can become (fairly) quickly established following the elimination of regular burning, grazing and/or mowing.

      What was the vegetation like a mile from your home 150 years ago? 300 years ago? I’m guessing it wasn’t oak brush, and that you are dealing with an invasive (albeit native) weed that can be readily controlled with regular burning.

      1. I am guessing that it was Gambel oak, which forms dense thickets in drier parts of montane forests in southern Colorado and parts northern New Mexico.

        Given that it grows in clone thickets and comes back quickly (as in “two months”) after fire, I think it has been here a long time.

        Older photos of the area show fewer ponderosa pines than today, and the oldest photo I have of the area near my house (taken 1975) shows only oak brush and a few little pines.

        What the oak brush/meadow ratio was, I cannot tell.

        1. Chas, the prescribed Burning or Control Burning policies are ideologically and philosophically driven and back by horrible science. If you really want to know about Fire Ecology and chaparral ecosystem maintenance, then follow the information from the Chaparral Institute with Biologist Richard Halsey. Here is the link:

          http://www.californiachaparral.com/

          I was just out in the field with Rick and his young College Grad assistant viewing the horribly botched San Felipe Ranch Control Burn which got out of control and destroyed more than they intended. There was no reason to burn this area. The 2002 Pines Fire in this same region was caused by a Marijuana seeking Helicopter, but of course the Chaparral was blamed for the intensity. Most of these devastating fires have human origins, but it’s the chaparral that gets the blame.

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