Balancing Fire Ecology and Fire Safety

As a trained fire ecologist, I see fires differently than most. My work in Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, California and other western states has shown me that fire is the keystone disturbance regime for most upland ecosystems in this region. The Wilderness Parks that surround Laguna Beach are no exception.  The habitats that exist in the Wilderness Parks surrounding Laguna Beach – chaparral and coastal sage scrub – are adapted to infrequent (every 30 to 100 years), high-intensity (generating flames 100 feet or longer) fires. Historic and current land management practices–such as fire suppression, grazing, and building more homes in the wilderness-urban interface—have altered fire regimes in most of these places.

In our neck of the woods, an increase in (human-caused) ignitions combined with a longer fire season (due to climate change) has led to fires becoming more frequent, and, increasingly, burning larger areas: for instance, three of the five largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the last five years, and all five of them have occurred in the last 15 years. These changes can lead to severe habitat damage, as well as impacts to surrounding human communities, including loss of structures, injuries to firefighters and/or residents, and even loss of life.

After the destruction caused by the 1993 fire, the Laguna Beach Fire Department (LBFD) implemented a series of fuel breaks to protect parts of the City from future wildfires using goat grazing to remove flammable vegetation in key areas. Laguna Canyon Foundation and LBFD have been collaborating on expanding the City’s fuel modification program to protect the areas of the City that are most vulnerable to wildfires in a way that balances the need for community safety with the need to preserve and protect the habitat quality in our wilderness parks and other areas preserved as open space.

Our first projects have been in Nyes and Oro Canyons surrounding the Arch Beach Heights and Portofino neighborhoods, in areas containing sensitive habitats and threatened plants. These projects showcase a “kinder, gentler” method of achieving fire safety objectives than creating wide-open fuel breaks through goat grazing.  And while we all love Agotilio and his goats, using them in the wrong places can impact native plants, cause erosion, and spread invasive species. Laguna Canyon Foundation’s work includes pre-project planning and neighborhood outreach, educating contractor crews, conducting photo monitoring and implementing sensitive species protection measures.

Laguna Canyon Foundation closely supervises hand crews to remove non-native, dead and dying vegetation and “ladder fuels” (the lower branches of larger plants that can allow the fire to climb from the surface in to the canopy) and to thin remaining healthy, native vegetation where necessary to reach the project objectives.  This allows us to maintain native vegetative cover, protect rare plant species, and reduce the potential for erosion or invasive weed problems. It allows us to protect wildlife habitat and aesthetic values, while giving firefighters and residents the extra time and space they need to evacuate and protect the neighborhoods more safely.

Laguna Canyon Foundation is currently working with LBFD to obtain Coastal Development Permits for fuel modification zones in the areas of Barracuda Way and Driftwood Drive. These areas will use a combination of goat grazing and hand crews. Additionally, LBFD recently received a $4.2 million grant from CalFire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, to implement fuel modification around the Canyon Acres, Castle Rock and adjacent neighborhoods along the east side of Laguna Canyon. Laguna Canyon Foundation will play a similar role in these areas, and additionally will be responsible for implementing habitat restoration projects on the west side of the Canyon as part of this grant.

But it doesn’t stop with our work, Agotilo’s goats’ work and LBFD’s work.  Each of us needs to be aware and do our share.

So, what can you do?

When it comes to protecting our homes and families from wildfire, research shows that what matters is how our homes are constructed and what is within 100 feet of the home. To learn more and to sign up for a free Wildfire Consultation with Laguna Beach Fire Department, please click here.

You can also donate to Laguna Canyon Foundation and volunteer with us doing trail and restoration work.

Let’s all #KeepItWild.