Published Mar. 9, 2023
By TERESA FRAHM
As Monterey County grows more fire prone, fuel management is a common concern among landowners, one which local experts say can take many forms and is frequently rife with misinformation.
Monterey County’s peak fire season, traditionally reaching from June to November, is rapidly approaching, and spring preparations are in full swing. Fuel management, a term which describes selective vegetation control around fire-prone areas to reduce the risk of ignition, is a tactic that has been liberally employed by landowners in parts of Monterey County in an effort to mitigate fire risk.
“That means you limb up trees to about six feet off the ground, you eliminate dead and dying weeds and brush, you eliminate trees that overhang the house and other measures,” says Gaudenz Panholzer, fire chief for Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Sand City and the Monterey Airport. “These are some of the actions that homeowners have immediately available to them to protect their homes from wildfires.”
Over the last five years the Monterey region has experienced a nearly unprecedented number of fires, causing evacuations, property damage and loss of life. Fortifying a defensible space has become not only recommended, but required under California’s Public Resources Code, which demands such measures as maintaining a defensible area within 100 feet of a structure and an ember-resistant zone within five feet, removing overhanging branches and clearing roofs of flammable debris among other steps.
Often overlooked by landowners attempting to fortify their properties is the ecological impact of certain fuel management approaches. Clear-cutting all vegetation has become increasingly common in attempts to entirely eliminate fire-receptive fuel. Though effective in the short term, it can ultimately have dramatic effects on local ecology.
“Certainly if you have no fuel and you clear everything down to dirt so there’s nothing to burn, that’s an effective measure,” Panholzer says. “But we all live in this area because we enjoy living in the natural environment. I don’t advocate completely clearing property.”
One of the main factors contributing to the popular use of this method stems from misinformation surrounding the type of fuel that poses the most danger in risk of wildfire.
“Recently we’ve been getting into the idea that forest equals fuel and fuel equals risk,” says Dr. Rodrigo Sierra Corona, director of ecological management for the Santa Lucia Conservancy.
Instead of removing vegetation and trees, experts recommend targeted limbing and maintenance as advised by an arborist. According to David Casarez, owner of Casarez Excavating Inc, which conducts fuel management projects on private land throughout Carmel Valley, seeking an expert’s opinion is important to avoid damaging land.
“The smartest and best thing you can do before you start is get someone to talk to someone who’s had some experience,” Casarez explains. “If you want to do your own project, mowing is the most important thing you can do.”
Instead of clearing potential fuel, the aim is to keep the vegetation healthy enough to fend off catastrophic fire, as it has evolved to do so.
“A healthy forest is a resilient forest, and a fire safe forest,” Panholzer adds. “There’s ways to manage the fuels and still have a healthy ecosystem in our yards while also protecting our homes.”
Far more dangerous than mature trees is smaller vegetation, referred to as ladder fuels, which is more likely to ignite larger structures such as buildings or trees, as kindling in a firepit ignites before the larger logs.
“That’s the biggest risk: fuels that we call receptive to fire starting,” Panholzer says. “If you mow grass down to four inches, you’ve eliminated a huge risk of getting a fire started.”
One of the most significant ecological changes that occurred as a result of increased human development is a change in popular perception of fire. Previous to the arrival of Spanish colonizers, Native American peoples such as the Esselen Tribe mitigated catastrophic damage in the event of a wildfire through regular, controlled burns. These traditional practices largely ended after colonization began.
“They stopped all burning,” says Tom Little Bear Nason, tribal chairman of the Esselen Tribe and owner of Ventana Forestry, a contracting company that focuses on Indigenous forestry and fire prevention and restoration work. “Now we’re faced with wildfire catastrophes that are burning whole towns and millions of acres of pristine wilderness because there’s no fire mitigation.”
In recent years, cultural burning methods, practices similar to prescribed burns, have become much more common among fire agencies such as CAL FIRE, often to great success.
“Because of human values, not natural processes, we decide that all fire is bad and we stop all burns as policy,” Sierra Corona says. “[Ecological] systems keep accumulating fuel year after year, reaching levels that it would not have reached before. When we have these fires like we’ve been having recently, they have so much power that they grow into these nightmare fires.”
Ultimately, one of the most effective ways to minimize risk is to know and follow the regulations and recommendations provided by the relevant authorities.
“The most important thing people can do is get educated and do their part in maintaining a defensible space around their home,” Panholzer advises.
Fire is increasingly becoming an unavoidable reality in California, and it falls to individuals to learn the best ways to protect themselves and their communities.
“It’s time for us to take action individually,” says Little Bear. “The fires are going to keep coming. We have to take action.”