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The 2007 Southern California Wildfires: Lessons in Complexity

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The 2007 wildfire season in southern California burned over 1,000,000 ac (∼400,000 ha) and included several megafires. We use the 2007 fires as a case study to draw three major lessons about wildfires and wildfire complexity in southern California. First, the great majority of large fires in southern California occur in the autumn under the influence of Santa Ana windstorms. These fires also cost the most to contain and cause the most damage to life and property, and the October 2007 fires were no exception because thousands of homes were lost and seven people were killed. Being pushed by wind gusts over 100 kph, young fuels presented little barrier to their spread as the 2007 fires reburned considerable portions of the area burned in the historic 2003 fire season. Adding to the size of these fires was the historic 2006‐2007 drought that contributed to high dead fuel loads and long distance spotting. As in 2003, young chaparral stands and fuel treatments were not reliable barriers to fire in October 2007. Second, the Zaca Fire in July and August 2007 showed that other factors besides high winds can sometimes combine to create conditions for large fires in southern California. Spring and summer fires in southern California chaparral are usually easily contained because of higher fuel moisture and the general lack of high winds. However, the Zaca Fire burned in a remote wilderness area of rugged terrain that made access difficult. In addition, because of its remoteness, anthropogenic ignitions have been low and stand age and fuel loads were high. Coupled with this was severe drought that year that generated fuel moisture levels considerably below normal for early summer. A third lesson comes from 2007 conifer forest fires in the southern California mountains. In contrast to lower elevation chaparral, fire suppression has led to major increases in conifer forest fuels that can lead to unnaturally severe fires when ignitions escape control. The Slide and Grass Valley Fires of October 2007 occurred in forests that had been subject to extensive fuel treatment, but fire control was complicated by a patchwork of untreated private properties and mountain homes built of highly flammable materials. In a fashion reminiscent of other recent destructive conifer fires in California, burning homes themselves were a major source of fire spread. These lessons suggest that the most important advances in fire safety in this region are to come from advances in fire prevention, fire preparedness, and land-use planning that includes fire hazard patterns.

Keywords: fuel-driven fires; southern California; terrain-driven fires; urban fuels; wildland‐urban interface; wind-driven fires

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-09-01

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  • The Journal of Forestry is the most widely circulated scholarly forestry journal in the world. In print since 1902, the Journal has received several national awards for excellence. The mission of the Journal of Forestry is to advance the profession of forestry by keeping forest management professionals informed about significant developments and ideas in the many facets of forestry: economics, education and communication, entomology and pathology, fire, forest ecology, geospatial technologies, history, international forestry, measurements, policy, recreation, silviculture, social sciences, soils and hydrology, urban and community forestry, utilization and engineering, and wildlife management. The Journal is published bimonthly: January, March, May, July, September, and November.

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