Yellow fire hoses still snaked through Westmont College’s campus in Santa Barbara, California, more than a week after the Thomas fire nearly burned through the campus.
The flames came within a few feet of Page Hall, one of the freshman dorms, and burn patches dotted the surrounding vegetation. Lines of fire retardant stained the ridges overlooking the school red, and behind lines of yellow caution tape cleanup crews used cranes and chainsaws to remove trees and shrubs from the burn area.
On the night it started, Westmont students could see the glow of the Thomas fire from 40 miles away. Soon thereafter, the school sent students home, conducting final exams remotely.
By the time the fire reached campus two weeks later, most everyone had already left.
School administrators set up shop in a building downtown, and firefighters escorted staff and faculty back and forth so they could get grade books and payroll information to keep the college running.
It was the third time in less than a decade that the campus had evacuated because of a wildfire. In 2008, the Tea fire destroyed several buildings on campus and forced everyone there to take shelter in the gym. The Jesusita fire in 2009 got dangerously close without burning any buildings. The Thomas fire burned some of the same hillsides as the Tea fire, but didn’t cause much damage – some charred paint and a lingering campfire smell.
Westmont managed to survive those close encounters with fire despite its proximity to the brush-covered hillsides of Santa Barbara’s coastal mountains.
Many of its neighbors can’t make that claim.
Over the course of December, the Thomas fire destroyed more than 700 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. It was the largest fire ever recorded by the U.S. Forest Service in California, burning an area roughly the size of Los Angeles.
As communities in Southern California advance closer to wild areas, land managers must find strategies that help residents coexist with fire. In many conifer forests, where state and federal agencies have suppressed wildfire for decades, that often means cutting down trees, using controlled burns or allowing natural fires to burn.
But Southern California has much more fire than it used to, and many of the strategies for living with fire in conifer forests don’t apply because the amount of fuel doesn’t always determine the frequency or severity of coastal brush fires.
Here, many scientists say living with fire will mean coming up with solutions that take into account the environmental characteristics of the state’s shrublands, rather than trying to borrow strategies from conifer forests.
Before the Thomas fire even stopped burning, fire scientists Jon Keeley, from the U.S. Geological Survey, and Alexandra Syphard, at the Conservation Biology Institute, came to Ventura County to see the burn site for themselves.
It took days to see even a small portion of the burn, but Keeley said people shouldn’t be surprised by the massive fires because they’ve been around for a long time.
In a 2009 paper published in the journal Ecological Applications, Keeley and his coauthors slogged through historic newspapers to find reports of huge fires before the Forest Service started keeping records. They found reports of an 1889 fire in Orange County that was even bigger than the Thomas fire.
While large fires have burned in California for a long time, there are many more fires than there used to be. Most scientists estimate that before Europeans arrived, chaparral burned once every 30 to 90 years.
Now, a study by the U.S. Forest Service found that, on average, that number has dropped by about 20 percent since the beginning of the last century. The chaparral burn cycle has shortened.
Alexandra Syphard said Southern California’s increased fire frequency has happened in part because there are more people living here. In Southern California, humans start almost all wildfires.
“Every single year, there are prime conditions for wildfire in Southern California,” she said. “The more people you have, the more chances that a person is going to start a fire at that serendipitous time at which all the necessary ingredients line up together.”
In conifer forests, fire managers often use fuel reduction to reduce the risk of fire and return forests to a more natural fire regime. But according to Jon Keeley, that doesn’t work very well in Southern California because fires driven by strong winds can easily jump over patches of young fuels.
“A good example is the Thomas fire,” he said. “We have a fire history map and it shows that there was at least 1,000 acres of prescribed burns done within the last decade within that perimeter. It made no difference.”
Instead of treating fuels in the wild areas of California, he said, managers should focus on protecting an area of about 100 feet around every house. That open perimeter makes a significant difference in whether a house burns down; it gives firefighters space to mount a defense.
However, Nic Elmquist, the prescribed fire and fuels specialist for the Los Padres National Forest where much of the Thomas fire burned, said fuel treatments can make an important difference.
“A lot of our fuels management is trying to give suppression resources a strategic place to access and anchor on these fires,” he said. “Very rarely do fuel breaks on their own just stop a fire.”
Elmquist argues that prescribed fire can give firefighters a better chance of stopping fires when they get really big.
Of course, modern-day Californians aren’t the first people to try and manage fire. Native Americans used fire for centuries to change the landscape of Southern California, and in a paper published in the Journal of Biogeography Keeley argued that they had a profound impact on the land.
The shrubs that dominate California’s chaparral ecosystem didn’t provide many resources for Native Americans, but native grasses provided both food and construction materials. Keeley examined charcoal deposits, letters from Spanish conquistadors and the distribution of archaeological sites to understand how the native people used fire.
His theory is that they would burn areas of chaparral to encourage native grasses to invade. That made it easier for tribal members to gather and eat the seeds from native grasses – and easier to hunt deer and small game.
According to Keeley, creating a blackened zone around their homes may also have protected native tribes from huge fires driven by Santa Ana winds, such as the Thomas fire.
But now, using fire to reduce the fuel load in chaparral can have a detrimental effect because the vegetation has since evolved with large, infrequent fires rather than frequent fires.
Some plants – including California sagebrush – regenerate after fires, sprouting new branches from their burned stumps. Others require heat or chemicals from fire for their seeds to germinate. The adult plants die off, but the seeds produce their replacements.
The problem is that if fire is too frequent, those plants won’t have enough time to produce seeds to replace themselves. When the shrubs start to disappear, non-native grasses take their place.
That’s part of why Max Moritz, a fire scientist with the University of California extension program who lives in Santa Barbara, said land managers shouldn’t treat chaparral like it’s a conifer forest.
Fuel treatments are an important part of the equation for protecting homes, he said, but it makes more sense to focus on building in areas that burn less frequently and building with materials that won’t catch fire.
“I think that we’ve focused so much on the fire hazard part … but we’ve spent so little time on where and how we build our communities,” Moritz said. “If it weren’t for that, these issues wouldn’t even really be ‘problems,’ at least not in the same way.”
Simply building in areas where there is less fire risk isn’t as simple as it sounds. People want to live in Southern California’s coastal mountains because of the warm climate and proximity to the coast.
Moritz said rather than prohibiting building in those areas, land managers should map the fire danger so city planners know how much risk developers are assuming when they build each new subdivision.
Even if land managers can agree on a set of solutions to prevent homes from burning in Southern California, it’s not always easy to get people to buy in.
Sarah Anderson, a political scientist who studies wildfire at University of California Santa Barbara, said her research has shown that government agencies are more likely to implement fuels reduction projects near communities that have recently had a wildfire.
Her theory is that immediately after fires many people are enthusiastic about clearing the brush or retrofitting their homes with fire-resistant materials. But as time goes on, some of those projects start to get neglected.
She lives in Santa Barbara, so it’s a cycle she has seen firsthand. Right now, everyone in Santa Barbara is talking about the fire.
“You cannot talk to anyone without starting with, what did you do during the fire? But the flipside is that conversation does not last very long,” she said. “People pay attention, and they get really motivated and they do a bunch of stuff, but then they forget.”
With the Thomas fire now extinguished, she said the next challenge is figuring out how to make people remember. She sees an opportunity.
“Is that a moment to think really hard about land use planning, about infrastructure to deal with fire?” she asked. “Managers at all scales, all the way up to federal, can take these moments and really push on them to get better preparedness.”
Right now, there are signs all over Ventura County thanking firefighters and first-responders, but there are fewer (if any) signs thanking those neighbors who diligently cleared the brush from their property each year.
The flames attract a lot of attention, but figuring out how to live with fire really starts once the flames die out.
That’s when city planning commissions must decide where to build new homes – and how those homes should be built. In between fires, property owners must remember to clear the brush around their homes and clean the flammable debris out of their rain gutters.
Before the fires arrive, schools, communities and families must come up with a plan for what to do when a wildfire advances on a neighborhood, a subdivision, the city.
Those actions – the work that happens between fires – will determine whether the people of Southern California can live with fire.
Matt Blois is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Treesource. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana.