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Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel: Who should be blamed for the Station Fire?

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Posted: September 5, 2009 5:20 p.m.
Updated: September 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Whenever there is a fire that originates in wild lands, everyone from homeowners to elected officials look for someone to blame.

In the case of the Station Fire, blame this time has been erroneously placed on the Forest Service, the federal government, firefighters and environmentalists.

Fires in Southern California are a way of life.

Fire is a part of the natural cycle of our local ecology, and our forests can be regenerated by periodic fire. There are many seeds that need fire to sprout and grow.

There are plants called Fire Followers that only grow after a fire.

Fires, on the other hand, are harmful when they claim lives, burn homes, create unhealthful air and decimate the population of animals that live in the forest.

Environmentalists believe in prescribed burns under the correct conditions to maintain the health of the forest and to help keep lives, homes, and properties safe.

Safety is always the first priority with the Forest Service, the fire fighters, and the environmental community.

Many people are claiming that there are not enough fire breaks, the Forest Service didn't perform the number of prescribed burns that it had permits for, and that undergrowth vegetation should have been removed.

Fire breaks are created when there is a threat of fire. After the fire, these areas are left to regenerate themselves.

Unfortunately, when they "regenerate," most often these areas are invaded by fast-burning non-native grasses and plants that cause more problems in a subsequent fire than the native plants would have caused.

Fire breaks are an effective way to stop a fire. But they can also lead to subsequent erosion and non-native species taking over.
However, when faced with the loss of life or home, it is one of the better alternatives.

Forest Service personnel take into consideration certain aspects of the environment and weather, among other things, before they decide to perform a prescribed burn.

Drought, heat, wind, humidity and topography play a huge role in whether or not they can successfully do a prescribed burn. If brush is too dry, the heat too high, the wind too strong, the wind direction is wrong, the humidity is low or the topography too steep, they cannot set a fire.

To do so would be dangerous to the entire forest and the surrounding communities, and the effect would be similar to the fire we are all currently witnessing.

When conditions are right, prescribed burns can protect people and property, restore the forest, and save taxpayers money.

Removing brush/underbrush by hand is usually not feasible. There are too many square miles of forest, too few rangers and volunteers, no funding, and most of the terrain is too steep to access.

Our local forest is primarily chaparral.

Chaparral is a significant habitat for rare and endangered species. It is an important habitat that must be protected and preserved.

The reason the Station Fire spread so quickly, despite the absence of Santa Ana wind conditions, is the continuing drought that California is suffering. Under these conditions, everything in the path of the fire will burn.

Homeowners within the urban interface of the forest and open spaces can help to protect their homes and property by removing brush from the area around their homes and keeping it clear.

They should not plant trees or any foliage that could catch fire immediately next to their houses. Community planners can make sure there is adequate distance between buildings and open space areas.

Clearing wide swaths of open spaces and forest perimeters of brush can lead to "type conversion," a growth of non-native species such as grasses which are highly flammable and can travel to urban areas more quickly than native growth.

Most fires in wild lands are started in urban areas and travel into the forest. An example of this is the recent Sylmar fire.

Fires that are started in forests that spread to urban areas are caused by lightening, and by humans. Fires that are caused by humans are usually from machinery or arson.

The Station Fire was caused by arson, not the Forest Service, and not environmentalists. If you're looking for someone to blame, blame the person who deliberately set this fire.

He is now guilty of murder, and much, much more.

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is a Santa Clarita Valley resident, volunteer, and leader of the SCV Community Hiking Club. Her column represents her own opinions and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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