Fire

Fire Safe Homes on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

Expect Wildfires

Wildfire is a natural phenomenon on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County, and there are things we can do to be better prepared. The Lockheed Fire (2009) followed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire (2020) illustrate the extreme danger of wildfire as well as the potential return interval. Wildfires can repeat over the same landscapes quite frequently. Until we figure out how to use prescribed fire across our landscape to reduce the chance of wildfire*, we should plan on big, catastrophic wildfires at least every 10 years, especially because global warming will most probably increase the frequency and intensity of wildfire in California. If our infrastructure is well built and well maintained, we will be happier and nature, the land around us, will be better stewarded. To this end, we have much to learn and much work to do.

Protecting Houses

For most of us, our most expensive burnable item is our home and its contents. What can we do to protect houses? Our State’s wildfire agency, CALFIRE, starts with a simple message: “Clear to 100 feet!” But, what does this mean?

The hundred foot clearance guideline is meant to provoke questions about how to create a fire-safe envelope that will help to protect houses and the firefighters whose help is needed while a wildfire is blazing. (more about what that work entails in another essay) “Clearance” doesn’t mean every bit of everything needs to be removed from a one hundred foot radius around your house: it means vegetation must be “managed” within that area. Too much of the wrong vegetation in the wrong patterns can create flames that will set fire to your roof or siding, or break your windows and light the inside of your building. But, mostly poorly managed vegetation endangers fire fighters. 100’ of vegetation management is not always enough, but it is the beginner’s guide to getting started.

There are diagrams with written descriptions and checklists as well as videos, about what 100’ of clearance means. Unless you’ve been trained to interpret those resources, it is almost certain you won’t be able to apply them to your landscape. Just as a person new to cooking is unlikely to have success from a written recipe for chicken cattitore, someone who hasn’t learned about vegetation management directly from professionals is unlikely to get it right. Even if you aren’t doing the work yourself, if you are hiring landscapers claiming to know what to do, it is best if you have a basic understanding of the science behind firescaping before you waste time and money going it on your own. Take a workshop, occasionally offered by the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council, visit guided demonstration sites, and seek advice from knowledgeable people, especially anyone who is experienced and whose work has demonstrably saved other homes during wildfires. Count on at least 40 hours of training to develop the necessary basic understanding and a day of continuing education each year to keep up on the latest information.

Protecting Other Stuff

It is important to understand that the house itself is rarely your only infrastructure needing wildfire maintenance- there are normally a lot of other things that require similar attention. These include: fences, outbuildings, water systems, power systems, lawn furniture, gardens, etc. Everyone understands that wood burns, but so does plastic…even metal can get damaged by fire. All of these things are costly and preparation can save you money when wildfire happens. If all of this other stuff is within your zone of 100’ of clearance, your plans in that zone must account for those, even there. If they are outside that safety envelope, they will need special attention in those other locations.

If you live in the country, roads and driveways are important to think about in case of wildfire. If you are lucky enough to live in a forest, creating shaded fuel breaks along those transportation corridors will be relatively easy to maintain annually but can be costly at the outset. If you live in shrubby or grassy areas, you will have to work several times each year to reduce fuels- annually, these take much more time and effort than in forests. Take note: most roads have culverts under them to carry rain runoff; hopefully, those culverts are concrete or metal, but if they are plastic they will easily burn and are expensive to replace, so those will need fire maintenance plans, as well.

Next Steps

Using an aerial photograph, create a map of all of the critical stuff on your property – your house, power, roads/driveways, and water infrastructure. Make a separate map of the other “stuff.” When you get those maps right- clearly marked and easily read, keep a set with your ‘go’ bag– the bag you grab when you evacuate during a wildfire. Keep another set next to your front door to give to firefighters as orientation for your site. Over time, as you are working with others to develop a fire safe landscape, you can use a set of these maps for planning purposes. These maps are also good reminders about what you need to protect each year while working on vegetation management.

* footnote: Chuck Striplen’s research for this region provides strong evidence that Native Peoples applied fire based on their Traditional Ecological Knowledge every 4-6 years. The catastrophic nature of fire after 11 years provides evidence that they understood when to apply fire to avoid such conflagrations.

The Narcissi-ists versus the Tenders of Native Bulbs

An essay about living in place using a recent example of ego-logical management of our common landscape

Opening

Every moment, we face personal choices to work against or with nature. Some of those choices have more, some have less, impact. In sum, those choices reflect how we see ourselves in the world. In this essay, I contrast two cultures from the North Coast of Santa Cruz: those who embrace the widespread planting of daffodils versus those who favor the wide ranging management for native species of bulbs. I illustrate how cultural norms of the former are indicative of a wider dis-ease of our species, which is dooming future generations to reduced standards of living and increased poverty of the spirit. And, I outline how a contrary world view can lead us to increased prosperity in a world with clean water, plentiful wildlife and happy, healthy children.

Transforming Nature or Transforming Ourselves

Some people feel most at home only after the landscape is transformed away from nature. Others are transforming themselves to settle comfortably into what is more natural. Managing our yards, our cities, our parks, our landscape against, or away from nature seems easier and its certainly more common. This process might even be called “normal.” Managing our yards, our driveways, our farms, our parks and our citiscapes to be in harmony with nature is unusual, harder, and is a Big Continuous Adventure- an opportunity for clearly unending work. And yet, transforming our landscapes away from Nature does not serve our interests over the long run. Managing WITH nature is the only hope for future generations. Which way will you go? Let’s walk together for a moment towards these two destinations and see what feels more right..

To avoid quibbles, I’ll first admit that we can’t help but transform nature whatever we do…but whether we choose to manage our lands with or against nature is more than a matter of degree. I see a philosophical division in these approaches, a way we choose to be, that is vastly different depending on what you intend to do. And yet, there are many paths, many vehicles, to work for or against nature when managing our land. The future is uncertain…. 

To illustrate the choice between the two approaches. I ask the simple question:

Are you in favor of widespread planting of daffodils? 

The Narcissi-ists Project

My community recently faced this question. And the debate became quite nasty. But, the words and ideas were very telling about how people living on the same mountain see our common landscape. There are diametrically opposed approaches to land stewardship at work simultaneously on Ben Lomond Mountain. I predict who will win: the culture that is managing against nature. And, I suspect how that dominant paradigm turns out: global warming, a world on fire, not enough food, not enough clean water, miserable people, extinct wildlife, air pollution…etc.

A little context and back story for the local situation is in order.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire blackened our landscape last August and, in response, some people thought it would be nice to color that blackened landscape with splashes of cheerful color. This was their way of recovering from a traumatic disaster where people lost homes, pets, and their belongings. The green forests, lush shrublands, and moist stream corridors were transformed in the course of a week to crispy dry blacks, browns, and ashy grays. Wouldn’t it be nice, they thought, if daffodils would brighten this bleak landscape come spring? More than just art or gardening, to them this was building community and healing.

And thus, The Narcissi-ists Project was born. Bushels of daffodil bulbs (genus Narcissus, many cultivars; plural of the common name, Narcissus, is Narcissi) were purchased and people were urged to buy and plant them along roadsides and wherever visible to the public. Many people warmly welcomed this community project, proudly announcing their plantings on social media and urging their neighbors to participate.

To understand whether The Narcissi-ists Project was a choice towards the transformation away from Nature or towards Nature, one has to understand how daffodils might or might not ‘fit’ into the ecology of the area. So, here’s some natural history…

Daffodils in California? Nooooo!

Daffodils don’t belong in California, and they don’t fit in. They are toxic, their colors are strikingly foreign to the landscape, they compete with native plants, reduce pollinator communities, they present an increased fire hazard, and they are nearly impossible to remove once established…there’s no going back.

Narcissus species have the poison called lycorine, especially concentrated in the bulbs. Ingestion of the plants can cause seizures, abnormal heartbeat, pain, and/or convulsions. Apparently, pet dogs are routinely hospitalized for ingesting the species. Even exposure to dust from the dead bulbs or sap can cause problems. People say that adult dogs might be as smart as 5 year old humans. I wonder how many people would put daffodil bulbs where their two year old toddler might ingest them? Probably no one would wittingly do such a thing. And so, why would any kind person put these poisonous bulbs where baby wildlife might encounter them?

Aesthetically, daffodil bulbs stand out in our local landscape: nothing in nature looks anything like them. Those yellow trumpets add to the seas of non-native yellows created by French broom and Bermuda buttercup. The Big Yellow daffodil trumpets appear in early spring, visually shouting above any of the more subtle wildflowers that naturally occur at that time. At Daffodil Time, there are numerous subtle white-pink native wildflowers: manzanitas, madrone, milk maids, sorrel, and star lilies to name a few, more common species. How is the Narcissi-ists project transforming the aesthetic of our common landscape? What will this screaming yellow do for our children’s expectation of the spring landscape…will those yellow trumpets change their ability to engage with the more subtle and diverse native wildflowers? Will this New Color make them want to further transform and brighten the landscapes of their future, to make them even MORE COLORFUL?

One bulb planted begets seeds and bulblets and yet more plants over time. The process is slow and site specific. Some dry, sandy soils are poorly suited for some Narcissus cultivars and those die out without additional ongoing care. Other, more moist ditches, meadows, seeps, cliffsides, or dunes are more conducive to daffodils. In those places, over time, the species is proving to be slowly invasive, edging out native plants and spreading from where they were introduced. A home site high up in the meadows of Wilder Ranch State Park has hundreds spreading from where they were once planted. A bulb field above 4 Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch has hundreds of daffodils clinging to rocky cliff edges and down into ravines adjacent to the fields they were once cultivated for cut flowers. There are escaped daffodils near Scott Creek Beach, perhaps from a memorial planting or from cultivated fields or homesites nearby. All of these populations are spreading and removing them would be impossible without concerted toxic herbicide work in difficult to reach places with follow up over many years. Meanwhile, those daffodils are doubtlessly causing wildlife poisoning. And, wherever they invade, daffodils displace native plants with their flowers that support pollinators, which we desperately need to conserve due to declining honey bee populations.

(Oh, and by the way, daffodils die back in the spring and leave a relatively large amount of papery, easy to ignite fuel, creating a fire hazard – be sure to rake that stuff up and dispose of it appropriately)

That was a lot of information about one type of landscape manipulation- one project of the Narcissi-ists in our area, taking steps to transform our landscape away from nature with all the concomitant repercussions.

The Other Way: Tending the Wild Bulbs

But, there is another way…to live with nature. For clarity of contrast, I use another bulb culture analogy. There is a burgeoning movement of people wanting to learn how to tend the wild. Our local naturalists, primitive skills practitioners, wildlife trackers, native plant gardeners, and weed warriors are exuberant about the relearning of the Amah Mutsun, gleaning lessons from them and other tribal peoples about how to live with the land here in California. We practice what we learn where we live, where our friends live, or where we can help conservation lands managers. We get to know the native geophytes, our native bulbs, some of which have been important native foods to the indigenous peoples. 

Many native bulbs respond very favorably to tending, even to fire. Star lilies bolt ten times as big after fire. Randy Morgan draws our attention to a narrowly endemic, endangered bee he captured pollinating the native star lily in the UCSC meadows. Native checkerlily and globe lily bound abundant when the forest understory is tended. There are many stories of people tending grasslands with digging sticks, harvesting and cultivating native bulbs for food.

(An aside- native bulb leaves are not very plentiful, are largely edible to wildlife and so do not accumulate as a fire hazard)

We steward native grasslands, woodlands, and redwood forests to tend our native bulbs. After fire, we must patrol for jubata grass invasion and control broom and ivy. With more light on the forest floor, bulbs will do better, but so might the weeds. 

Native bulb stewards work to figure out how to live on this fire adapted landscape so that we have native bulbs in the future. Scientists forecast more frequent, more intense fires and wind storms with increased global warming. In California with more frequent more intense fires, forests give way to shrublands and those to weedy grasslands…the bulbs disappear. And so, native bulb stewardship requires political action to end fossil fuel consumption and to transform agriculture and improve building and transportation efficiency. 

Of the two bulb cultures, which one do you want to join?

(and, its not about just bulbs)

Scaling Up: the Ego-Political Landscapes of Narcissi-ist Types Across our Common Planet

I wonder if those who would affiliate with the Narcissi-ists have similar notions about transforming Planet Earth in other ways. One suggested that they believe daffodils to be different than French broom, the latter being a problem but not the former. Here, we meet abandonment of the precautionary principle, which is inherent in managing with nature: how do we act so that no harm is irreparably done? This is why managing for nature is ongoing and full of observation. Those who think that the precautionary principle should only apply to human bodies and not the body of life that supports humans are being short sighted, they may be either faithful in technological solutions or believers in an inevitable apocalypse (which I have found is depressingly common). Would those types of people have us make swift uninformed decisions for relatively short-term and minor outcomes, in general?

Another of the Narcissi-ists has pointed to their own (inexpert) online research to show that daffodils are not invasive. This notion was presented despite local and very experienced experts testifying (in a signed letter) to the contrary. And so, those who would transform nature appear to not only abandon the precautionary principle but also to embrace a world where group expertise is rejected in favor of individual experience. Science denial writ large is just one step away from that approach. Dismissal of indigenous knowledge is another outcome of that way of thinking. In short, I wonder how the Narcissi-ist types are thinking life will thrive in seven generations, and who do they think should guide us towards the best outcome?

Saving the Coastal Prairie on the Santa Cruz North Coast, Thanks to California State Parks Ecologists

On Tuesday, December 27th I hiked onto the Gray Whale section of Wilder Ranch to see the prairies where the smoke was coming from back in October. I first visited these meadows in the late 1980’s while the property was privately owned; cattle were grazing the meadows, and there were abundant native grasses and wildflowers. Santa Cruz preservationists fought hard to protect the property from a proposed housing development, it went to State Parks, which removed the cows and took many years to start managing the prairies, which were starting to disappear to weeds, shrubs, and trees. Luckily, things were to change…

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Postburn strikingly green meadows.

This past October, I knew that big plume of smoke I saw while driving on Highway 1 meant that State Parks was continuing their work at maintaining the meadows that I love so much. Fellow ecologist Jacob Pollock and I hiked from Twin Gates on Empire Grade down the Long Meadow ‘trail’ and into the strikingly bright green resprouting native grasses and wildflowers growing from the charcoal blackened ground. We found many types of native grass and a few wildflowers in the burned areas. Purple needlegrass, California’s State Grass, dominated the burned area, its dark green, rough leaves now 6” long and ubiquitous- a plant every square foot! These bunchgrasses promise a beautiful spring of silvery-purple flowers swaying 2’ high in the breeze. Patches of California oatgrass were less plentiful in the burn area than in the adjoining unburned area. This is the wet meadow loving indicator species of coastal prairie, and, in the many years after grazing and before the fires, it’s bunches grew taller to get to the sun- these tall bunches are susceptible to fire, but some survive.

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Fire recovery of California oatgrass

Patches of the leaves of wildflowers dotted the meadow and promise much more in the months ahead. Most abundant were sun cups, purple sanicle, and soap plant all long-lived perennials with nice flowers. Sun cups will be the earliest to bloom, maybe as early as late February, with simple, 4-petaled yellow flowers. Purple sanicle will be next to bloom in earl April with it’s small, purple spherical clusters of flowers. Soap plant blooms in late spring with evening blooming, white flowers that attract a variety of bumblebees.

Besides the obvious revitalization of the meadow plants, we marveled at other aspects of the handiwork of State Parks’ expert ecologist land stewards. Unlike many of our area’s meadows, there wasn’t a single French broom plant, a super-invasive non-native shrub that obliterates meadows, overruns trails, and is a major fire hazard. A many year program with State Parks partnering with volunteer groups has controlled that and other weed species at the park. We also saw dead coyote brush both in and out of the burn area- this native shrub can completely overrun meadows, closing bush-to-bush canopy in 15 to 35 years, depending on the soil. State Parks killed the coyote bush to maintain the prairie, and then burned the skeletons of the bushes so that there are now wide opened expanses of meadows, which are attractive to hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and prairie-loving songbirds like meadowlarks. The ecologists also sent the fire into the adjoining and invading forests, maintaining the sinuous coast live oak ecotone that so beautifully frames the meadows.

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Fire maintains prairie ecotone

Today, I’m celebrating environmental heroes- 2-3 State Park Ecologists who manage over 18,000 acres in Santa Cruz County. They are motivated and hardworking. They need more support, more staff, more funding- please tell your State Assemblyperson/Senator! Without their dedication, our prairies would disappear. Thank you!

June 2017 Addendum: Portia Halbert sent me this photo (from State Parks Ecologist Tim Reilly), taken recently. The unburned portion of the coastal prairie in Long Meadow turns out this year to be dominated by Italian thistle, an invasive plant, whereas the fire from last fall seems to have more-or-less obliterated the species in the adjoining meadow. Thistles are especially bad this year in many meadows that haven’t been well stewarded. This discovery, that fire might help with thistle invasion, is a complete surprise to me- it deserves some careful scientific investigation! Long meadow italian thistle