Firefighters battle the 2014 Bernardo Fire. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

As California copes with major wildfire after major wildfire, several local environmentalists want to make sure the public doesn’t blame the wild for the fires.

The Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute is worried that chaparral – an ecosystem of shrubs – is getting a bad rap for being tied to big fires, like the Tubbs Fire, one of the recent Wine Country fires.

In a pointed blog post, the institute’s director, Richard Halsey, says people need to spend less time blaming burning bushes and more time blaming themselves. In particular, the institute is pushing back against the idea that fire agencies should go around removing chaparral in order to reduce fire risk in the backcountry. The institute says it doesn’t make sense to tear up an ecosystem when the ecosystem isn’t the major problem – the people moving into it are.

“The reason the Tubbs Fire was so destructive was not because of some kind of Frankenstein wildland created by firefighters, or climate change, or the failure ‘to cut down some trees and remove the underbrush,’” Halsey said, quoting a media report blaming uncontrolled brush for the fire. “The Tubbs Fire was so destructive because land planners have failed us, with firefighters left holding the bag.”

The risk of wildfires comes up a lot in San Diego’s backcountry, where several major housing developments have sought to build in fire-prone areas. Sure, over a third of the county is covered in chaparral, but the shrubs have always been there, the people and houses have not.

As KQED reported this week, even official maps that purport to show the high-risk fire zones in the state have shortcomings. Namely, neighborhoods that burned to the ground during the Wine Country fires were outside of the hazard zones drawn on those fire-risk maps.

In Other News

  • The Union-Tribune took a trip down to the San Diego River, where more homeless people seem to be living now. The San Diego River Park Foundation said the rise corresponds with efforts by the city to get people off downtown streets by stepping up enforcement against homeless people. It’s not clear if the mayor’s office accepts that theory because it recently pointed to a monthly homeless count that shows the average number of homeless people living downtown hasn’t changed much since last year. But the Union-Tribune interviewed a 27-year-old who seemed to buy the theory that city policy is simply shuffling people around: “With them cracking down downtown so bad, we’re getting over populated down here,” he told the U-T.
  • We’ve been writing a lot about sewage spills recently, turning some attention back to the San Diego River, which is polluted with bacteria. But the perennial problem for San Diego County is the Tijuana River. And last week we learned about yet another cross-border spill, one that seems to have sickened the mayor of Imperial Beach, who is an avid surfer. Imperial Beach and other local governments are trying to get the federal government to deal with the problems after decades, but whether it will remains to be seen.
  • Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor who published an eye-catching paper about the possibility of powering the country entirely with renewable electricity, is suing a professor who criticized his work. This bizarre case – litigating a scientific dispute in court rather than in the pages of peer-reviewed journals or at conferences – also has a San Diego connection. David Victor, a UCSD professor, was a co-author on the paper critical of Jacobson’s work, though he is not named in the lawsuit. “It is unfortunate that Mark Jacobson has decided to pursue this legally as opposed to openly, in the scientific tradition,” Victor told the Union-Tribune.
  • San Diego Coastkeeper is suing the state Water Resources Control Board for failing to identify and clean up polluted stretches of waterways across the state, including 30 in San Diego. The most interesting part of this case is that the State Water Board has declared it will make decisions about what waterways it considers “impaired” based on data that is at least seven years old; it won’t consider any water-quality measurements made after August 2010, according to the lawsuit. This old data issue is something San Diego Coastkeeper has been talking about for over a year, to no avail. It’s not clear what would happen if newer data was used – it’s possible some rivers are cleaner now than they were years ago, which means regulations could be relaxed, and it’s possible that some are dirtier, which means they would be subject to more regulation.

From the Actual Environment

Several friends in the Pacific Northwest were posting photos of a rare snow in Seattle last week. So, being from the East Coast, I started reminiscing about snow, which is one of my favorite things on earth.

In California, I get to see it often enough during trips up to the Eastern Sierra, or even occasionally closer to home, in small patches up near Laguna Mountain or Julian. But, since I’m not traveling all the time, I keep pretty close tabs on the Mammoth Times, a paper that says it’s been “covering the High Sierra since John Muir left.” Heading into the weekend, it told its readers to get ready for a snowstorm. It said, bluntly, “In other words, traveling is going to be … interesting.”

I also get updates from the Mono Lake Committee, which monitors and fights for the health of Mono Lake, which is affected by how much water the city of Los Angeles diverts from the watershed. Geoffrey McQuilkin, its executive director, took a look back on last year and the immense snows that fell across the Sierra.

“It is hard to fathom the scale of what happened,” he wrote. “In three weeks in January, scientists note, more than the equivalent of the entire average annual flow of the Colorado River fell as snow onto the Sierra Nevada.”

There was so much snow, some of it was still in the Sierra in July near Mount Whitney – and that’s just what you can see from the road. It’s hard to fathom, but it’s easy to look at.

A little snow in the Eastern Sierra in July. / Photo by Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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