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USGS Expert Analyzes Recent Fires at San Diego Senate Hearing


Santa Ana winds and drought, not the build-up of sage scrub and chaparral vegetation fuels, were primary causes that turned natural and human-induced fires into ravaging disasters in Southern California, according to a USGS scientist.

USGS fire ecology expert Jon Keeley testified on November 27 at a Senate Interior Appropriation field hearing in San Diego. Keeley told Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Wayne Allard (R-CO) and Congressmen Bob Filner (D-CA and Elton Gallegly (R-CA) at the hearing that the application of wildfire science about fuel buildup in forested areas does not assist in curbing wildfire in the coastal sage and chaparral shrublands that were destroyed-along with lives and property-in recent Southern California fires.

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Keeley noted that large portions of areas burned in 2003 re-burned in 2007, illustrating that these relatively-sparse, young fuels were incapable of stopping wind-driven fires and demonstrated that we cannot rely on fuel modification projects to stop catastrophic fires. However, it was emphasized that reduction of vegetation fuels around home sites was essential for the safety of first responders and homeowners.

One of the most important lessons from the recent fires and his scientific research, Keeley explained, is that land managers need to plan for fires as they plan for earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural hazards that can affect communities on a large scale. “Just as plants have adapted to living in a fire-prone environment, humans need to adapt.”

Some actions that were suggested in his testimony to reduce fire hazards include road closures in areas at high risk, such as some forest lands, to help alter negative human and vehicular impact, restrictions on use of power equipment in wildland areas during Santa Ana winds, and more widespread construction of fire-resistant barriers, such as the walls currently used to reduce noise pollution, along fire-prone roadsides. In addition, since several recent fires have been ignited or worsened by power lines downed in high winds, a more expansive program of underground power lines would also help, Keeley suggested.

With a projected population increase of fifty percent in Southern California over the next several decades, Keeley said, following the hearing, “these recent fires should be a wake-up call for future planning efforts. Pre-development decisions should put far greater emphasis on natural fire hazards. Science should inform the initial land use evaluation process at all levels, and aid in making sound decisions for everyone’s benefit.”


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