The vast burning of the Thomas Fire did not surprise Rick Halsey, California’s leading expert on chaparral, but it frustrated him enormously.
“The loss of life and property in this last set of fires [in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties] is just unacceptable,” he said. “If we had been addressing these fire risks the way we should have been, and focusing on protecting lives and property instead of treating vegetation, we could have made a real difference.”
Halsey has been leading independent efforts to better understand and prepare for fire in Southern California for nearly 30 years as the founder of the nonprofit California Chaparral Institute. Along the way he trained to become a firefighter himself, to become “fire literate,” and worked the line several times, nearly getting trapped by flames at one point. He makes clear that he has great respect for the courage and skill of firefighters.
But he rejects the focus that wildland agencies put on reducing “fuels” as a means to reduce the risk of disastrous fires.
“If you talk to the wildland fire agencies, they will tell you that their primary means of fire damage control, which are fuel breaks and fuel reduction treatments, are effective for about 90 percent of wildfires,” he said, “but it’s the other 10 percent of wildfires that destroy almost all of the property and kill people. The bottom line is that we’re focusing on the wrong place. The chaparral itself is not the problem. The problem is flammable homes in flammable places.”
Halsey argues that it’s relatively easy to retrofit most homes to protect against fire in Southern California.
“If you’re handy you can usually do it yourself,” he said. “Beyond installing ember-resistant attic vents, external sprinklers that are connected to your pool or an independent pump are relatively inexpensive compared to the value of one’s home. Wet houses will not ignite.”
In Ventura, Halsey mentioned an area where he said residents had prepared their properties correctly, according to the current fire-safety requirements, but still saw their homes burn because they had no means of defense against the flames.
“Although most of the homes along High Point and Scenic Point Ways had proper defensible space, many were lost in the Thomas Fire,” he said. “External sprinklers could have made a significant difference in reducing those losses.”
Halsey argues that we as a society need to move from treating landscapes — including using enormous grinding machines to chew up the vegetation on chaparral-clad slopes — to focusing on making homes fire-safe. He also advocates for neighborhood fire councils, which in some cases can allow several homes to share a water supply in case of a blaze.
“Citizens must become fire literate,” he writes in Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California, his 2008 book. “This means not only understanding the fire environment in which we live, but taking personal responsibility to ensure our homes are capable of surviving a firestorm in order to protect ourselves and the firefighters we expect to save us.”
Halsey will appear in Ojai this Saturday, Feb. 17, from 1 to 3 p.m. to speak about the fire and chaparral, including a walk to identify and understand plants. After the Thomas Fire, an Ojai educator named Lanny Kaufer, who leads nature walks in and around Ojai, took a look at Halsey’s book and thought to bring him in to share his expertise.
“What really got me was reading the introduction to the book,” Kaufer said. “In it he described a worst-case scenario for Southern California and it was as if he was writing the day after the Thomas Fire. Halsey really has his finger on the pulse of California today. We need to inform ourselves on how to protect our homes, to build wisely in the interface with chaparral, and what, if anything, we should be doing about managing the chaparral around us.”
For Halsey, Ventura County and Ojai in particular offer an opportunity for a fresh start and a better understanding of our wild but volatile landscape.
“Ojai is a really special place because of the kind of people that live there and the culture that has been developed,” he said. “People are there because they like the environment, they’re sensitive to nature. This uncommon affiliation with the surrounding environment makes for a great possibility to leverage what’s happened with the Thomas Fire, to learn and do better.”
On Saturday morning Feb. 17, beginning at 10 a.m., Halsey will walk with Kaufer in a program co-sponsored with the Ojai Valley Green Coalition. The cost for the full workshop is $25 for adults, less for seniors or students. Admission for the afternoon session only is $15 for the general public. For more information visit the event listing at HerbWalks.com or call 805-646-6281.