Thursday, July 30, 2015

We should manage our East Bay wild lands with controlled burns.

The Oakland Hills are in a 'fire ecology' biome. 
The brush and trees that grow here are adapted to fires that come on a mostly 3-7 year interval. 
Natural fires are mild enough not to kill our trees and plants, as they burn away the small buildup of dead underwood and then go out. Many of our native plants require such fire to open their seed pods. Fire season is normally followed by mild rains that germinate those seeds and soak the ash into the soil. 

 That is the natural ecology of a lot of California coastal hills, including ours. 

  I cannot imagine a harder thing to sell politically to the people of the Oakland Hills than to intentionally set a wild fire. But that is exactly how to keep us from having another big fire and how to manage what grows in these parks. 

  Right now Oakland is caught up debating between two really bad ideas. 

  This East Bay Express article will get one quickly to the source materials and to the different views folk have been expressing.

The official plan from FEMA, which is to cut out the eucalyptus and spray their stumps with herbicides is to continue the same kind of forestry practices that have caused so many disasters in recent decades, including the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. We will either end up with barren hills or a delayed disaster, or both after soil erosion, flash flooding and becoming too dry too quickly after rainy seasons. If followed and successful. the FEMA plan would give us an even more unhealthy watershed. That is the exact opposite of what we will need to handle climate change. We want more biomass and more water retention, not less. 

  The anti-plan most proposed does not include the herbicides and conserves bio mass, but it does not get us back to a managed forest that will survive a controlled burn, or a naturally occurring fire, without turning into an inferno. 

  Cutting out the eucalyptus is something we probably have to do eventually, at least in part. Eucalyptus is adapted to having different kinds of plants populate its biome back home in Australia where they have different weather and kinds of fires. Our natural plant cover is made of things like redwood, oak, madrone, manzanita, etc, that does not grow well together with eucalyptus. There is also an issue with what eucalyptus does to soils and how that affects the other needed ground cover. But it is not the most urgent issue. 

  The most urgent issue is the buildup of fuel that turns a light fire into a raging fire that will kill the trees, destroy the bushes and their seed and leave a dead zone. We have many square miles of California that look like the moon because by the time it burned, it burned hot enough to kill everything, even the worms.

The second most urgent problem is the lack of that native, fire ecology, underbrush so critical in controlling soil erosion and balancing soil nutrients. Our hills have suffered high temperature fires but before that they suffered cattle grazing. Both caused a lot of damage and much of the normal fire ecology bushes don’t grow here anymore in healthy numbers. For the seed pods to open and give us re seeding, the plants have to be growing there in the first place. Now they need to be restored to the area.

A realistic scenario would be to transplant in native, fire zone species, remove the fuel buildup, remove some of the eucalyptus more likely to burn or damage soils and then, when ready, do small controlled burns in segments. For it to work, it has to be done in fire season, and that requires serious preparation. 

  It would be costly and take years to do, but we would replace the failed forest management practices of our period with the fire management methods that the original native Californians used for centuries.

Eventually we would have a green belt that we could manage with controlled burns and no drama. Plants and trees not able to handle our natural fire cycles would get selected against and that would decide the fate of the eucalyptus and other immigrants on the long term. 

   We could cut out a lot of the drama with better building codes too. Why are we permitting homes to be built out of firewood in a fire zone with kindling for roofing materials? When this was Mexico, they built with adobe and had tile roofs. Ever hear of them burning down from blowing sparks? In the San Diego area a preponderance of homes have done a more modern version of those tile roofs. There is no reason to have the most affluent residents of our area live adjacent to a fire zone in homes made of two by four’s and plywood. A MAJOR opportunity was missed during the rebuild following the fire but a slow transition to fireproof materials is still very feasible. Some building code changes have already taken place and some rules about keeping the area around homes clear have made some progress. There is no reason not to have fireproof buildings next to the fire danger areas. 

  So I am saying that the Plan is OK as long as we get it through our heads that for our open spaces to be healthy and safe, we got to burn them down from time to time. 

  And the herbicides just have to go. They are plant poison and plant poison has no place in forestry management. It is intentionally polluting our soils and damaging the local ecosystem causing long term damage for short term gain. Established habits are hard to break especially when they cost less. But just as the fire fighting has caused these mega fires due to the buildup of fuel, herbicides cause problems that will haunt us and come back to bite us.

In forestry management we deal with communities of plants, fungus, and all kinds of bugs, birds, mammals, worms and more, living in a web, providing habitat and nutrients to one another. There are so many of them, we usually have no idea what they all are. Often restoration involves just moving whole squares of plants with their soil in the hope that we get a wide range of species to repopulate the gaps we do not even know exist. 

  Problem one with the plant poisons, is that we have no idea how much the kill, what they kill, how much they damage or what the changes are to the community of plants, fungus and animals after they are sprayed. All we are sure about is that things never come back the same. Herbicide today usually means soil erosion and poor growth later, never being sure of what you might be missing.

“The Plan” calls for small amounts of herbicide directly onto the trunks of the cut eucalyptus to make sure that they will not grow back. That sounds reasonable until you calculate in the contamination of the decomposition process. 

 If we have the regular controlled burns, the fire will scale back what is not adapted for this area. That may well mean that the eucalyptus would not grow back, especially if we have planted more appropriate trees and shrubs to hold that ecological niche. 

  Problem two, is when you spray with plant poison, the plants that can resist the poisons grow in number and size. You may also invite in genetically modified organisms. What? GMO's here? Yep. Take for example the Roundup Ready gene from Monsanto. It makes corn resistant to Roundup as you spray this poison onto the weeds in the fields. Since the Roundup Ready corn hit the market we have discovered that plants, such as those weeds, can aquire genetic material from another species, such as Roundup Ready corn. So now we have Roundup Ready weeds. It is a form or living genetic pollution and it is spreading around. We are all just hoping that this gene will not cause more problems as it becomes a part of the general environment. Where would the GMO's and other herbicide resistant plants come from? Our yards and gardens. Urban landscaping is some of the most polluted land in the world when you add up the fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, invasive species and GMO's. We already find a lot of our open "natural" spaces covered in ivy and other yard plants. Increase the use of herbicides and more herbicide resistant species will migrate in. Herbicide creates an ecological void.  Do we want the plants that will fill it?

  The idea of adapting to the natural fire cycles and nurturing a full range plant and tree forest community is not new and is well founded in science. 

 The national forest services and most state forest agencies have run tests and are changing their practices. 

  The East Bay should join the fire forestry management movement.