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Home > Natural Resources > Disaster Resources

Pre-Seeding the Fires to Prevent Ecological and Property Damage

I'm suggesting that after fires, that an investment be made by the local homeowners, to purchase and sow the proper local native species of native perennial grasses

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grass native species Craig Dremann surveyed the fire damage to Southern California, and he offers four observations to consider regarding the Santa Ana driven fires in the region:

  1. Missing perennial native grasses, that regrow after fires. I was able to find in coastal scrub habitats (Artemisia-Salvia-buckwheat) that had been unmolested by cows, as much as a 20% native perennial grass understory, like the water tower hill of Oak Park, that is near Thousand Oaks.

    Pre-seed Burned Properties with Native Perennial Grasses

    I'm suggesting that after fires, that an investment be made by the local homeowners, to purchase and sow the proper local native species of native perennial grasses.

    The County governments could create special Districts out of the canyon areas, where an annual fee is added to everyone's property tax bill, to pay for the seeding. The minimum cost of "preseeding" for fires is $5,000 (five thousand) per acre, especially in steep canyons.

    "Pre-seeding the fires".

  2. When I taught my classes to the Forest Service, the plan for fires, was always an "after the fact" process. What I have been suggesting, is to "Pre-seed the Fires", by sowing back the proper local native perennials into a fire and mudslide prone area, so when a fire does occur, there will be perennial native grasses to slow down the fire and hold the soil after the fire.

  3. Look more closely at the annual exotics, and what is the lowest threshold that can carry fire? I drove out to the Mojave, and looked at an area along Hwy 14 and Agua Calaente road that burned sometime this summer. What I found was a totally toasted ecosystem, with only about 50% of the Mojave yuccas left standing, even burning the riparian forest trees to the ground. What carried that fire from shrub to shrub was a very thin understory of annual weed grasses, like red brome and Schimus grass.

    The fact of weed grasses carrying fire isn't new, but was surprising is how little did so much damage. If you weigh one square foot of the unburned grasses, it only weighs 0.1 oz., or only 250 pounds of biomass per acre.

    The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Barstow is in the process of renewing all the cattle and sheep grazing allotments this year. Their plan for management, isn't to monitor the native species and their health, but just measure all edible biomass. That could mean good health in the desert is a thick stand of red brome and schimus, which if caught fire, could cook all the native desert species that live out there.

  4. If we don't reseed with local natives after fires, are we just leaving spaces for the exotics to come in? Especially in coastal southern California, fires seem to favor some of the weeds to colonize where natives formerly grew, like the annual weed grasses, the weed mustards, and especially the evil fountain grass.

Plant Recovery in the Weeks Following the Fire

If you go out and look in the next month in the burn areas, you will see the native perennial grasses, with a high percentage probably surviving---maybe 80-90% of the stands---whereas the shrubs may resprout at a very low 1-5% survival rate, helping cause the mudslides, if there is rain this winter.

The other good quality that the local native perennial grasses provide--if a fire goes through, it burns significantly cooler than a pure-shrub fire.

Perennial native grasses sprouting in Southern California after wildfires

Perennial native grasses sprouting in Southern California after wildfires

Finding Help After a Fire

Within a month or two after any fire that occurrs in a wildlands situation, local home owners should hire a professional botanist or ecologist, who can do a survey of the burn area and make a list of the plants that were fire resistant in the area.

Estimating the proper density of the fire-resistant plants is useful information to gather, also. Those plants could be replanted as fire-breaks, for example.

Having a list of these native plants that have proven fire-resistant provides homeowners with practical options to increase the density of those specific plants around their homes and in the canyons to resist future fire damage. Sometimes as few as a couple hundred widely-spaced, fire-resistant plant per acre, can lower the overall impact of wildland fire, and retain survivors that are still growing in the ground to hold the fire-ravaged area against mud slides.

After these many decades of fires in the Southern California coastal shrub areas, have professional botanists or ecologists ever gone out after any of those fires to conduct a botanical survey of the surviving and still-thriving native species?

The usual after-fire routine is that shrubs in the native ecosystem, lacking an adequate density of native perennial grass understory, burns to the roots, rain comes, bare soil is saturated, and without any living roots to hold the soil, causes the mud to slide with massive amounts of mud ending up covering roads such as the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) in Malibu.

Thinking ahead is an important part of fire management. Pre-seeding with locally native perennial grasses is one strategy available to both homeowners and public land managers.

Redwood City Seed Company
Craig's seed company does not sell any native seeds for this purpose, but what they have been working on, mostly with the US Forest Service, is inventing and teaching planting methods to get the native plants successfully established, like through the workshops listed at
P.O. Box 361, Redwood City, CA 94064
(650) 325-7333

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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