Extremists Unwanted in California Firefight

Sensible arguments exist about how to tackle nature's fury in "chaparral country."

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Do an online search for San Diego fires, and you'll see a left-punch/right-punch international game of fisticuffs consuming a large chunk of cyber real estate. It's taking place between environmentalists who blame the San Diego fires, in part, on climate change (for boosting the effect of the Southern California drought) and antienvironmentalists who never miss an opportunity to beg for weakened government regulation of logging in old-growth forests.

Consider, for example, this missive filed yesterday on the Fox News website by Steven Milloy, who runs something called JunkScience.com:

Global warming, it seems, also makes a good excuse for federal and state bureaucrats and politicians who have failed to properly manage high-risk areas, at least in part because of pressure from anti-logging and anti-development environmental groups.

We can be better prepared for drought and wildfires by improving forest management—as this column previously suggested in the aftermath of the deadly California wildfires of 2003.

Wait a minute, Mr. Junk Science. There's more than a bit of junk science in the above claim as there is in claiming global warming is responsible for the San Diego brush fires.

My environmental coach (and good friend) Tim Ahern, who was former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's press secretary, represents a new breed of environmentalists who take mainstream positions. Extremes of any nature are detrimental to environmental progress.

The San Diego fires are not forest fires—they're brush fires. Protection of old growth trees takes place in northern California, not Southern California. Tim Ahern E-mailed me:

Southern California, from L.A. down to Mexico, is essentially desert terrain and the vast, vast majority of material which burned this week was known as chaparral, which includes all the shrubs, small plants, and bushes which cover the area. That's why you saw the fires called simply fires, as opposed to forest fires—there is no forest there. And wildland fires are part of the chaparral ecology and life cycle—some of those plants need fire. And within a few months, the chaparral will grow back in the areas burned this week.

And the reason the fires were news is not because there are fires in California, but because people have moved into the chaparral. In fact, the largest single fire in California this year was known as the Zaca fire and burned for several weeks this summer. It burned a quarter-million acres in the Los Padres National Forest, north of Santa Barbara, but it was almost all wilderness, and people don't live there. It got relatively little media attention, even in California, because very, very few people were impacted.

Ahern goes on to note that San Diego is California's largest county without a county fire department, voted down by local communities unwilling to pay more in taxes to fund it. County residents can expect similar fires in the future as the same area burned in 2003 and does so regularly during the windy fall.

So why is there continued development in "chaparral country"? Because it's cheaper than closer in to the city. It's not unusual to drive through Southern California and see miles and miles of chaparral on one side of the road and a new housing development right on the other. And behind the housing fences—miles and miles of chaparral.

Both sides should avoid promulgating junk science in this debate.