Open Space Authority lands contain the three landscapes where fire intensity is predicted to increase most: grasslands, chaparral and oak woodlands. Human use for housing, recreation and agriculture is also growing in these areas. Mixing people and open space – the wildland-urban interface – raises the chance of significant losses due to fire: Human activity is the cause of most wildland fires, and damage is usually measured in terms of lives lost and property destroyed.
But fires also destroy wildlife habitat and put endangered species at risk. They can cause soil damage, lead to erosion and consume old-growth, fire-resistant trees. Fires also cause air pollution and destroy cultural artifacts.
Almost all wildland-urban interface fires are extinguished before they grow to more than a few acres. But those that escape control can turn into raging monsters, consuming land by the square mile and creating severe risk to life, property and the natural environment.
Managing open space in the wildland-urban interface means preserving plant and animal communities while keeping a close eye on the fire safety of the environment. The Authority works to prevent fires through fuel management and also maintains resources that can aid in fire containment. Water sources, roads and staging areas all contribute to defensible open space lands.
But it’s the management of flammable fuels that has the best chance of preventing fires or, when they do occur, of limiting their spread. Reducing fuel loads, whether through grazing, brush thinning, tree removal, prescribed burning or other means, does have habitat impacts. That’s why the use of any method is always considered as part of an overall land management plan.
After huge fires consumed millions of acres of the West in 2000 the federal government began a multi-departmental effort to reduce fire risks through a National Fire Plan. One plan component provides funding to communities that face significant fire danger on federal lands.
Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) identified 14 at-risk communities in Santa Clara County including San Jose, Milpitas, Morgan Hills and East Foothills. To address this danger, the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council (one of over 150 throughout the state) has brought individuals and agencies together to help people protect their homes, communities and environment. By focusing on defensible space, fire-resistant building and preparedness residents of the wildland-urban interface can help reduce the impact of future fires.
Improving safety in a fire-prone landscape requires the cooperation of homeowners, land managers, fire agencies, utility companies, open space visitors and government leaders. Because computer studies suggest that climate change will increase the number and intensity of fires in the years to come, fire safety needs to be a priority for everyone.