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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus
Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

The Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness

Monterey County deserves a professional fire prevention plan

August 2010

Recent fires have spurred local activity in producing fuel reduction plans with the goal of receiving federal funding for effective protection of life and property from wildfire.

These plans are referred to as California Wildfire Prevention Plans or CWPPs. The Chapter supports this funding source for fire protection and has been actively involved in this process. For the past year, we have retained and consulted with attorneys, fire ecologists, other scientists, and fire consultants to review and assess several fire plans. Jodi Frediani, Forestry Consultant for the Chapter’s Santa Cruz Group, diligently studied and contributed to several CWPPs in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. However, when Chapter members, environmental organizations, neighborhood groups, and other interested parties attempted to participate in the Monterey County CWPP (MCCWP), their efforts were rebuffed.

The MCCWPP, while initially drafted by a professional wildfire planning consultant, was completed out of public view by a handful of rural residents and released in January. The scientific and conservation community was effectively excluded from the development of this Plan. Chapter comments submitted last August were rejected. Now, the Chapter and other environmental and homeowners groups oppose the Plan on four general points:

• The MCCWPP was not a collaborative effort as required,
• there is inadequate science applied for fire prevention and fuel reduction,
• the emphasis is on wide scale clearing of public parkland and neglects guidelines for private property fire protection, and
• the document calls for broad exemption from environmental laws.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on adopting it next month.

Poor science
The Plan has no scientific basis for most of its claims for fuel reduction, and best available, peer-reviewed science appears not to have been considered. It essentially declares all rural lands in Monterey County as being in a “state of emergency” and that over-mature chaparral is the problem.

CWPPs allow taxpayer dollars to be used for fire risk reduction projects in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) zones established near federal lands, and the Plans specify the areas of WUI. Incredibly, this MCCWPP designates 1,266,110 acres (a whopping 60% of Monterey County) as WUI when in fact, peer-reviewed, nation-wide WUI analysis by experts concluded that only 153,786 acres or 7.6 % of the County qualifies as WUI.

Using this high figure the MCCWPP furthermore advocates for modifying over a million acres of native habitat in 20-year rotation cycles that will lead to the degradation of native shrubland plant communities. For instance, the Plan calls for over 60 miles of permanent bare-soil firebreaks, up to 30 feet wide, on National Forest lands, half of which would be within the Ventana Wilderness Area, and 200-foot wide firebreaks on the former Fort Ord.

This degradation could result in their conversion to non-native, flammable weedlands.

Irresponsible fuel removal and damage to native shrub land as recommended by this Plan seriously underestimates the potential of herbaceous and grassy fuels. Non-native, weedy fuels can create extremely dangerous fires because they dry out sooner than native shrubs, ignite more easily, and create massive amounts of heat instantly. Fires fueled by dried, non-native, invasive grasses have caused deaths to fire fighters in Sacramento in 2008 and in Riverside County in 2006. One of the common factors in firefighter fatalities is the presence of highly-flammable grassy fuels.

The MCCWPP also compares unfavorably with other CWPPs adopted in California. It relies nearly exclusively on removal of native vegetation on public lands for fire prevention rather than providing private property owners with additional guidelines for reducing ignitability of structures and recommendations for escape and avoidance in the event of fire. There should also be a discussion of limits to building new development in areas prone to wildfire and more information explaining the role of traveling embers and urban fuels in home ignition.

This emphasis on clearing over a million acres of native plants also includes recommendations that environmental laws such as the Coastal Act, CEQA, NEPA, and Federal and State Endangered Species Acts be changed to allow this fuel reduction work without permits, studies, mitigation, or other requirements. These important laws have been established over many years to protect citizens and the environment from poorly planned and/or capricious actions by private and governmental entities.

Indeed the extreme nature of the Monterey County CWPP becomes most evident when compared to CWPPs from neighboring counties. Other CWPPs were largely prepared and completed by professional wildfire planning consultants and specifically recognize the importance of complying with existing environmental laws. The Santa Cruz/San Mateo CWPP has 11 pages on Sensitive Habitat and permitting.

In addition to the above broad description of major flaws in the current MCCWPP, the plan is rife with smaller errors, is poorly organized, and does not adhere to basic CWPP guidelines. It contains off topic references to other fire documents, sets out unclear vegetation management proposals, invents terminology, misinterprets some laws, cavalierly eliminates others, and often states demonstrably false information regarding implementation of environmental law.

The Chapter has retained the law firm of Lippe Gaffney Wagner, which has formally contacted the Fire Safe Council and the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We have requested that good science, an accurate reflection of on the ground conditions, guidelines for property owners, and lawful language be included in the MCCWPP so the Board of Supervisors can approve a revised plan well in advance of the December federal fuel reduction grant cycle.

The safety of our hardworking fire personnel and the people in Monterey County should be the priority of any CWPP. The County deserves a professionally drafted MCCWPP that reflects the best science available and truly protects the community from wildfire.

To view the Chapter’s legal and scientific responses to the MCCWPP, read this PDF of the document.

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