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Essay: Living in a Wildland Urban Interface Undergoing Climate Change
October 17, 2013 - By Megan Williams
I cannot help but comment on both letters published in the Oct 3, issue of the Messenger, Destruction of Our Trees and Animal Encounters. The first letter refers to the removal of hazardous fuel loads from non-native vegetation for the purpose of making safer the emergency evacuation routes. The other letter questioned lightly why so many animals are moving in closer to residences, probably due to the severe drought conditions we are experiencing.
It has been alleged by many local experts that climate change is affecting our beautiful Mediterranean eco-system. Seasons are shifting and reflects a change as to when plants will produce seed and when rains will come, possibly reducing the chances for native plants to propagate themselves. Terrifying wild fires have arrived alarmingly early this year. All of these changes indicate a threat to this special climate systemwarm summers and wet winterswhich we know and love. Thats why I listened intently when the California Fire Alliance, LA County Forestry and the National Park Service conducted public forums about the wildfire protection plans being developed in 2009. The goal was to educate the public about the increasing danger of wildfire in what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI ) where human population is expanding rapidly. The conversation started there and grew in depth and understanding. Members of our community have spent countless hours learning about fire hazard assessment and how to mitigate the danger to homes and property. A living document called the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) was created for the Santa Monica Mountains. It was later edited and streamlined and is available online under the California Wildfire Protection Plan. The Messenger covered every public meeting and provided valuable information to its readers. The California Fire Alliance/cwpp website explains the origins of the process beginning with the U.S. Congress, Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
During the public draft process, I read quite a bit of the early expansive (local Santa Monica Mountains) CWPP document with great interest. It contained documentation about every species that makes up this remarkableand rareeco-system in which we have the pleasure to reside. For the first time, I took seriously the idea of citizen scientists who have real knowledge of the natural world and aid in preserving it. I began to notice the flora and fauna in a new way. Stands of oak trees are indispensible and provide what is known as a fuel break for wildland firefighters.
The knowledge provided to the public throughout the CWPP process was empowering and included details about the fire history, the safety performance of the utility companies, the road access on tiny streets and explanations of the most current studies of wildfire behavior (fire science).
Too many firefighters are losing their lives trying to defend private property, which is not hardened against unpredictable fire behavior. The truth is that if your home does not have defensible space around it, it will likely not be defended. The new expectation is that we must harden our own homes against fire if we wish to live in the WUI.
GARDEN YOUR CHAPPARAL
When referring to our trees, Mr. Pugliese is pointing to the non-native ignitable trees, which no one has had the funds to remove previously. Typically, when aggressive imported species, such as Brazilian Pepper and Australian Eucalyptus are removed, it allows the native trees to return to health. Native trees are better adapted to the environmental extremes of a Mediterranean eco-system. Many Coast Live Oaks around the Canyon struggle to survive underneath Aleppo Pine and varieties of eucalyptus, which thrive, unstoppable, due to their size and mass. The fuel loads in the Canyon have become frighteningly dense, especially given the reduced ability to subdue wildfire. Please, remove that cape ivy, and the rats will also move. Cape ivy is strangling the life out of oaks. Ivy is also considered to be a ladder fuel which causes fire to spread into trees. Not good.
The chaparral and oak woodlands still have a chance to thrive the way they have for many centuries so long as we let them. We arent like the old Mediterranean world. In Italy most native trees were supplanted by varieties from the Middle East a millennium ago. The wildlife, birds and butterflies in these mountains dont need palm trees, they require sycamore, ceonothus, cottonwoods and arroyo willow. BTW, the host plant for the monarch butterfly is milkweed, which is regularly weed-whacked and eliminated by unwitting weed abatement companies. Brush Clearing is an outmoded term. I prefer garden your chaparral.
These are serious environmental issues, which anyone residing in Topanga should try to comprehend and delight in learning about. I long for the day when oleander bushes, which contain toxic fuel (deadly when burned), are replaced with toyon, which is fire resistant, and shrubs that provide for wildlife habitat. Perhaps a crew of citizen scientists can learn to spot the dreaded Gold Spotted Oak Borer, which is spread through imported firewood from Arizona and possibly originated in Central America. The pest has killed more than 150,000 mature oak trees in San Diego County. If it ever arrives in our county, an eventuality that L.A. County expects will happen, it will be devastating for the old trees. Let the young ones live, just in case!
Oak trees are the most important species we have in Topanga and people cut and chop them regularly and at will.
Forget the expansive mountain views everyone finds fashionable. Sit under the canopy of an oak grove and you will witness all that is glorious in nature.
Attitudes about how to live and co-exist with wild land are evolving. Which brings me to comment on the charming letter regarding animal encounters. Anyone living near wild land should expect, perhaps even long to have such encounters. These animals were here before we moved in and with any luck theyll continue to survive.
This horrible drought we are experiencing is stressing wildlife beyond anything Ive seen in my many years living here. Birds are flocking to the tiniest available water source. Deer appear to be starving. They dont have water delivered to them. We piped the water underground all over Los Angeles, which used to be one big alluvial fan. It must have been paradise.
And a brief word about bats, who shouldnt be batted around. They are amazing pollinators that keep the insect population in check. Lets just try not to harm these struggling animals.
Citizens of Topanga must harden their homes against wildfire and soften their hearts to the creatures around us. We should learn from the other species that so beautifully adapted to survive drought and fire.
Lets try to proceed together, armed with knowledge and respect for this glorious land.