In the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire and other extreme fire events in southern California, there has been significant community interest in fire safety and how the management of vegetation on our local open spaces can contribute to community safety. As land managers, we take our stewardship responsibilities seriously and strive to carefully balance our land management priorities to promote a healthy and safe environment. COSCA’s land management as related to fire is based primarily on scientific approaches along with meeting the requirements set forth in the Ventura County Fire Code.
Earlier this week the CA Insurance Commissioner announced a new partnership between multiple state agencies to create state standards for home hardening. The value of doing so would give insurance companies a benchmark to establish standards for fire insurance. This is anticipated to assist homeowners that have implemented home hardening standards to more easily acquire home insurance, and may bring fire insurance rates down.
One hundred feet is the distance prescribed by the Ventura County Fire Department and is supported by abundant scientific literature showing that, in chaparral and sage scrub habitats, additional vegetation removal does not yield additional protection for homes. COSCA also has a responsibility to protect the environment within our open spaces, and our vegetation is what defines habitat and nature within our open spaces. Retaining this vegetation protects habitats and prevents excess soil erosion.
We note that in wind-driven fires, 100 feet of defensible space may not be enough to protect a home. In the recent Woolsey Fire, blowing embers / firebrands easily jumped 8 lanes of the 101 freeway, as well as igniting homes far from our open space areas. In these cases, winds were a greater contributor to fire spread than fuel volume. See below for information about blowing embers.
In wind-driven fires, embers are often the primary source of home ignitions. Therefore, the actions taken by homeowners in the immediate vicinity of the home are the most important in protecting the home. In these extreme fire events, embers blow well out in front of the main fire line and can ignite homes more than a mile away. No practical amount of vegetation removal from open space can prevent embers from blowing into homes. Therefore, it is very important for homeowners to take the steps necessary to make their homes fire safe. The Ventura County Fire Department has prepared a "Ready, Set, Go" guide for homeowners to help prevent embers from starting fires in their homes. You can download a copy here. Additional information from the Ventura County Fire Department can be found here. Protecting larger neighborhoods requires all homeowners to work together as a single home ignition can rapidly spread to adjacent homes.
Wildfires Can Attack Your House From the Inside — Here's How to Prevent It – KQED, 10/30/2017.
Wind-driven glowing embers pose a greater threat to homes than fire itself – LA Times, 8/3/2008.
The choice of methods used to manage vegetation depends largely on the specific goal for vegetation management, and different methods yield different results. COSCA’s primary goals in our open space is to steward the natural landscapes that create wildlife habitats, provide stability on steeper slopes, and to do our part in creating defensible space. In the defensible space buffers, our goal is to reduce the density of vegetation to prevent radiant heat and flames from impacting homes.
Goats can be very efficient at removing vegetation, but they do not differentiate between the native plants we want to protect and the weedy plants we’d want to remove. Our human crews can be more selective. Our defensible space areas are also mostly small areas and the logistics of moving animals in and out would be logistically difficult and more costly than human operators, especially in years when we have so much re-growth that multiple treatments of some areas are required. The ideal minimum size for a grazing unit is about an acre.
We are not using goats over larger acreages because they would cause damage to recovering native plant communities and negatively impact the recovery after being burned. When significant vegetation is removed from a hillside it leads to greater erosion. Even the weedy plants that sprout first after the fire help stabilize soil while native plant communities recover. In many places we are seeing re-growth of native plants among these weeds, but it will take 5-7 years to see a significant recovery following the Woolsey Fire.
While COSCA does not use goats for annual fuel modification related to fire safety, goats and other livestock can be viable tools in land management when the goals of the project are aligned with the capabilities of the animals. For instance, goats are often used to remove weeds on remote and steep hillsides where it is logistically difficult to deploy people. This can be helpful when weed management is integrated into a restoration effort. The difference between using them for restoration and fuel management is that restoration would use the animals for short durations and include re-planting or casting seeds for native vegetation. The intensity of grazing would then be modified as native plants return. When COSCA has the resources to implement larger area restoration projects, we will certainly consider livestock as a tool for these projects.
No. While these habitat types are resilient to fire, they do not need fire to persist and more frequent disturbance will cause them to convert to weedy herbaceous landscapes dominated by vegetation that is more flammable. Learn more about chaparral and wildfire from the Chaparral Institute here.
The conversion of one habitat type to another is called type-conversion. A brief description of this process can be found here. COSCA manages land to prevent type-conversion because there are so many species of wildlife that depend on chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats for their survival.
Here is a short video explaining why COSCA and other conservation agencies value our chaparral ecosystems.
More Articles and Links About Land Management and Wildfires:
Fuel Management and Wildfires - LA Times, 9/11/2019.
Will Cal Fire’s plan to rip out vegetation in San Diego lead to an explosion in flammable invasive grasses? - The San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/30/19.
Wildland Fire Safety Starts in the Home – University of California Cooperative Extension
S.A.F.E. Landscapes – University of California Cooperative Extension
Fire Safety Information and Education
National Park Service wildfire ecologist Dr. Marti Witter presented, “Fire History, Climate Change, and Wildfire Recovery in the Santa Monica Mountains” on November 12th as part of the Conejo Open Space Foundation speaker series for 2020. For more information and presentation slides, click here.
Your Wildfire Action Plan must be prepared, and familiar to all members of your household well in advance of a wildfire. Each family’s plan will be different, depending on a variety of issues, needs, and situations.
Ensure you plan with COVID-19 in mind. Ask friends or relatives outside your area if you would be able to stay with them, should the need arise. If you do need to evacuate and plan to stay with friends or relatives, ask first if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have people in their home at higher risk for serious illness. If that is the case, make other arrangements. Check with hotels, motels and campgrounds to learn if they are open. Also get set by learning about your community’s response plan for each disaster and determine if these plans have been adapted because of COVID-19.
Over the past several months, in response to COVID-19, staff has been working with the American Red Cross (ARC) and County OES on a modified approach to sheltering during a wildfire. In addition to reducing shelter facility capacity to 30 percent, the use of a facility to temporarily house evacuees is secondary to the ARC’s use of local hotels and motels. The County and ARC are now employing the use of Temporary Evacuation Points (TEPs) at pre-designated sites where evacuees will arrive to be greeted, assessed and advised where to shelter. The ARC has secured agreements with hotels throughout the Conejo Valley that have agreed to provide rooms via a voucher system.
Being prepared for an evacuation is as important as ever since additional items such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves should be included. Learn more about how to prepare for an emergency sheltering or evacuation situation here.