Monday, 08 August 2022

Lyons: Chaparral is habitat, not ‘fuel’

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. — With the current push and extensive funding available for “brush” clearing I have to point out something that is missing from the conversation.

What is being labeled “brush” is an important and natural plant community called chaparral, and it is unique to California.

It is valuable habitat for numerous wildland creatures, providing shelter, food and nesting habitat for our declining bird populations and mammals.

For some birds like the California thrasher and the wrentit, chaparral is their primary habitat. chaparral is a shrub community composed of many different shrub species, including toyon and old-growth manzanita that provide berries for birds and mammals, and numerous other beautiful native California plants including the blue and white displays of various California lilac (ceanothus) species that cover our hillsides in spring.

The green hills surrounding Clear Lake are mostly carpeted with chaparral. It is what makes Lake County beautiful. It seems like with all the discussion regarding fire safe communities the fact that our chaparral ecosystem is a valuable and unique resource is never mentioned.

Chaparral is not brush or fuel but is an ecosystem unique to California. And it is not indestructible.

Numerous myths abound about chaparral. One being the idea that it is “overgrown,” or “decadent.” These are terms that are not carelessly slapped on other natural systems. Do we talk about old growth redwood forests being “overgrown”?

Old growth is a natural and essential component of chaparral ecosystems, and it is just fine to have stands of old growth chaparral just like in forests and Redwoods. No one speaks of “clearing” redwood forests the way they speak about “clearing brush.”

Let’s look at some facts.

The most effective way to protect lives and communities from wildfire is to focus on making homes fire resistant, reduce flammable materials within 100 feet around them, and prevent developers from placing neighborhoods in harm’s way.

This focus is critical because the most devastating fires in California are wind-driven, casting billions of hot embers miles ahead of the fire front. It’s the wind-driven embers that destroy a majority of communities, not flames from burning shrub lands.

Maintenance of existing fire breaks, maintaining low vegetation along evacuation routes, and focusing on firebreaks near communities are also reasonable approaches. However, completely stripping hillsides of vegetation using masticating and bulldozing is not.

Also, too-frequently burning chaparral will kill it. It is not “meant to burn”; this is a myth that is often promoted about this unique and vulnerable ecosystem.

Lake County’s chaparral represents California’s most extensive and most misunderstood ecosystem. Chaparral can recover from occasional fire, but it is threatened by too much fire.

Also unmentioned is the role of chaparral in climate change. Chaparral plays an important role in carbon sequestration. Does Lake County have a climate change policy that clearly addresses how destruction of natural communities will impact climate change? No, it does not.

Various federal and state agencies have recognized the threat to chaparral: California’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the state’s terrestrial vegetation predicts chaparral will likely disappear within the next century if current trends continue.

The United States Forest Service established a new leadership intent to protect chaparral in California because human-caused fires have increased fire frequency to the extent that chaparral can no longer survive and is being replaced with non-native annual grasses.

The California Board of Forestry’s Vegetation Treatment Program states that, “coastal sage scrub and chaparral are experiencing fires too frequently resulting in changes to their ecology.”

The California State Legislature amended the Public Resource Code to mandate additional consideration for chaparral plant communities that are being increasingly threatened by fire frequency.

The concern for conservation of chaparral includes acknowledging the critical ecosystem services it provides, especially watershed protection, soil and hillside stabilization, as well as intrinsic value to biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Vegetation management for the purpose of fire risk reduction should focus on thinning vegetation along evacuation routes, within 100 feet of structures and removing flammable invasive species, which are the primary ladder fuels, to reduce ignitions. Preventing roadside ignitions makes great sense, as this is exactly where many fires start.

Clear cutting, masticating, or excessive burning of chaparral is not a solution. This will create large swaths of unsightly cleared hillsides that will soon revegetate with flammable non-native grasses. These grasses can ignite with a single spark and rapidly carry fire into whatever wildlife habitat is left.

Large cleared open areas also create wind tunnels that can funnel fire at high-speeds, thereby creating wind-driven fires even when the weather is not intrinsically windy.

Please don’t call chaparral “brush” or “fuel”. Call is what it is and recognize it for what it is: an endangered unique California ecosystem that is important for the birds and animals that live here.

Roberta Lyons lives in Lower Lake.

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