The Misconceptions of San Diego Wildfires
Despite what many say, "fuel load" is not a factor in wildfires
The misconception of wildfire, chaparral, and “fuel load”
For the last hundred years, fire elimination and suppression have been the means of controlling fires in the United States. This strategy, ironically, leads to the buildup of fuels in the Southwestern forests, with the result being larger, and more destructive forest fires.
Scientists have proposed that this paradigm applies to the conditions of chaparral in San Diego County, that the county’s wildfires are the unnatural result of fire suppression.1 The press has echoed this idea. Just months after devastating fires whipped through San Diego in 2003, the Union Tribune, the local newspaper, had this to say, “City fire officials told the newspaper that urban canyons pose the greatest threat due to the heavy fuel load in unburned areas and in areas that did burn and are seeing a surge in new growth.”2
This thinking goes beyond San Diego to fire management of chaparral throughout the state. In 2012, in an article about wildfire, the Ventura County Star quoted Scott Holder, a hydrologist for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, as saying, "The fire-prone areas are the areas with a larger fuel load that have not burned. Areas like the Camarillo Springs Fire haven't burned in 20 years since the Greenmeadow Fire in '93."3 Managing large fuel loads has become part of fire management for the state of California, with prescribed burns being suggested for managing chaparral.4
Fire: a natural component of chaparral and coastal sage
For southern California, wildfire has been part of its ecosystems for millennia. Rain and snow usually come to southern California in winter and spring, usually from November through March, often into April. Six months of drought follow.5
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