Living with Fire: Southern California’s Chaparral wildlands

Los Padres National Forest in California

Southern California is known for its mild Mediterranean climate where shorts and flip-flops are popular during the hot and sunny summer, sometimes right on through a balmy winter.

Not nearly as famous, but just as characteristic of the Southland, are its chaparral wild lands. Chaparral is a native plant community of many species, including  chamise, red shank, ceanothus, manzanita, scrub oak and other shrubby plants.

Chaparral provides essential habitat for many animals and plants. And it acts as Nature’s retaining walls – holding back the soil during heavy rains.

But the short stature of these shrubs, combined with the waxes, fats and oils in their leaves creates a highly flammable vegetation.  Add some hot southern California weather, steep mountain ranges and strong dry Santa Ana winds and sometimes large wildfires break out.

However, before you accuse Mother Nature of cruel intentions, here’s the good news about our unique chaparral landscape. Yes Southern California chaparral is fire-prone but it is also a fire-adapted landscape where fire is part of its natural life cycle.

Smoke plume in the background with old burn in foreground. Photo by Rich Fairbanks.Chaparral fires have been common for millions of years, and the cycle of fire includes periodic burning. The fires help reduce heavy growth and allow diverse animal and plant species to thrive. The blazes drive a continual cycle of removal and rebirth in chaparral.

In more modern times human-caused fires are igniting more frequently, while construction of wood-framed homes close to wildlands have increased the risk to life and property. Another fire factor: when chaparral burns too frequently, invasive and non-native grasses take over. These grasses are highly flammable and are often near communities, roads and highways.

In Southern California, the four national forests – Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland and Los Padres – are dominated by chaparral (about 89 percent). But because federal wilderness areas have no roads and just quiet, non-motorized recreation like hunting, hiking, camping and horseback riding, fire rarely starts in these areas.

Still, Southern California with its prolonged periods of drought, must develop long-term fire solutions, much the way residents plan for earthquakes (a fact of life here). We can adapt to the chaparral landscape.

The Wilderness Society’s California office advocates for state and local agencies to adopt plans to help the state adapt to the chaparral landscape. We recommend reducing wildfire hazards by:

  • Relying on science-based zoning for new home developments.
  • Creating a defensible space between homes and wild lands.
  • Using fire-wise building construction and retrofitting such as replacing wood shingle roofs with tile or metal and boxing in the eaves.
  • Developing coordinated Fire Management Plans with local, state and federal fire agencies.

Communities and individuals can do much to protect their homes. There are a number of fire safe councils and public agencies helping people clear brush near buildings and creating fire buffers along roads and between wild lands and inhabited areas.

Fire is inevitable in Southern California. The challenge is learning to live with it.

Photo: Smoke plume in the background with old burn in foreground. Photo by Rich Fairbanks.