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Firefighters Take Expertise To The Urban Edge

It was cool and foggy along the Santa Barbara Channel coast in early June. So the delicate layer of ash coating everything outside and the faint smell of burnt sage seemed a bit incongruous. In fact, the coastal fog season arrives at the same time as sweltering inland temperatures. And in the middle of what will probably be the driest year since the 19th Century in southern California, the fact that the Wolf Fire was busy consuming 23,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest, only 15 miles inland from the cool waters of the Pacific came as no surprise to Ventura County residents. Thankfully, no urban area was directly affected � other than the temporary closure of Ojai's largest park so that it could serve as a firefighter encampment.

As it has turned out, the Wolf Fire and its Colorado cousin the Hayman Fire � which consumed 138,000 acres � were the first in a rash of headline-grabbing blazes plaguing the drought-stricken West this year. With development spreading up the slopes of California's mountains and foothills, land use conflicts associated with wildfire hazard must be growing, right? Not necessary, says Rich Schell, Staff Chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). Fire suppression infrastructure and techniques � such as high-pressure water pipelines and brush clearance practices � have moved along with development into the "wildfire urban interaction zone," fire professional jargon for the urban edge. Local government has long addressed wildfire planning, primarily through the general plan's safety element, which requires delineation of wildfire areas within an agency's planning area.

Through the years, fire protection of structures has become more and more codified. Requirements for fire-resistant roofing and siding materials, interior sprinkler systems, water pressure thresholds, and brush clearance specifications have all combined to blunt the effect of fire cycles within the urbanized edge. Currently, the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is revamping the safety element guidelines, and has invited Schell and other state fire officials to the table to assist in the rewrite. As part of CDF's input, Schell plans to introduce the Wildland Fire Template, a fire protection policy document put together by the Regional Council of Rural Counties, an organization that represents more than half of California's counties and whose land receives primary fire protection from CDF.

But the excellent ongoing work on fire protection and safety planning may be forcing California's wildlands into a corner � in effect, competing with natural resource management trends on BLM and Forest Service lands. First, by building solidifying the perception that fire protection techniques make it safe to build structures and reside in forested areas, government officials foster the relentless march of exurban sprawl into wildfire zones continues. The burden on firefighting agencies then increases, at least in part because of a necessary shift in firefighting techniques from fire management to protection of lives and structures. This then leads to more out-and-out fire suppression in nearby wildlands, thereby interrupting the natural cycle of burning that the forests and the grasslands of the west need to remain healthy and diverse.

According to the University of Northern Arizona's Land Use History of North America project, the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies are entering their sixth decade of fire suppression to respond to omnipresent fire threat in the West. These efforts have resulted in far less frequent fires, disrupting the natural cycles of the region's forests and resulting in many damaging ecological effects. The practice has led to an increase in trees as a proportion of the forest botanical community. Therefore, when wildfires start, the fuel is more potent.

As with any planning endeavor dealing with natural hazards, balance is the goal. The latest season of wildfires reminds us that, like with earthquakes, floods, and other cyclical environmental phenomena, wildfire should be part of our thinking when planning for the exurban fringe. And with the integration CDF expertise into the general plan guidelines rewrite process, the opportunity to achieve balance has improved. At the same time, however, the fate of wildlands as natural areas in California may be placed further in question.

Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.

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