Local
10:01 am
Thu August 15, 2013

A Community Approach to Wildfires

The view from Chews Ridge.
Credit Doug McKnight
Dry brush surrounds the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy Observatory.
Credit Doug McKnight

Another dry winter has left the state of California under a heightened fire danger.  It’s a reality that hit close to home last month when a wildfire blackened more than 200 acres of land near the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center.  There’s a local organization that’s trying to take some of the uncertainty out of wildfires by bringing together firefighters, property owners and environmentalists to work out concerns before fire strikes. 

The brush on Chews Ridge in the Los Padres National Forest is so dry it crackles when you step on it. It surrounds the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy’s telescope. The observatory is about 10 miles from Carmel Valley Road in a remote part of Monterey County. Elizabeth Cameron is the observatory’s caretaker. She lives out here on this single lane dirt road that is the only way in and out. So for Elizabeth, last month’s Tassajara fire was a wakeup call.  “It got within about three-and-a-half, four miles of here. So it was definitely was a little close to home, and it was a little nerve racking I suppose because it was my first fire also being on top of the ridge, said Cameron.”

The Observatory does have a fire emergency plan, but coordinating it with fire officials has in the past been difficult, according to Cameron. It is on Federal land and sometimes just getting permission to remove that dry brush surrounding the buildings can be a headache.  “A lot of times, nobody wants to be the person that said the wrong thing. And you can’t really get an answer out of anyone because nobody wants to be the one that said the wrong thing,” said Cameron. So when she heard about Firescape Monterey she felt there might be an opportunity to get some answers.  The group’s goal is to develop a holistic approach to wildfires by involving all community stakeholders before the fire strikes.

At a recent meeting in Carmel Valley, Firescape Monterey hosted The Fire Learning Network, a national organization that helps communities across the country learn how to live with the reality of wildfire. Mary Huffman is Associate Director.  “Fire is a strong physical force, and it is increasing with climate change, and communities are really grappling with how they want their landscapes to look in the long term future,” said Huffman.  That means going beyond the traditional response to wildfires, which is put out the fire and protect people and property, and addressing concerns specific to this community.  Concerns like protecting the watershed and plants in the wildfire’s path, figuring out what rights property owners have when it comes to creating defensible space and even teaching out of town firefighters about the sensitivities of the local terrain.  They’re issues that can only be known when all the stakeholders are at the table. “The belief is that for complex problems when people come together from different perspectives, they arrive at better solutions faster,” said Huffman

Tony Zavalla is one of the stakeholders at the meeting.  He’s a Battalion Chief with the US Forest Service, and was the man in charge of fighting the Tassajara Fire.  He says by meeting with community members, he’s learned how important communication is during a fire. “It is not just the fire that is affecting the fields out there, but it’s also affecting everyone around the area.  Just hearing that, that’s really important.  You know having that relationship with the local people, letting them know what’s going on, taking that fear away from them,” said Zavalla.

As for Elizabeth Cameron, says Firescape Monterey connected her with someone who can finally tell her about clearing the dry brush around the Observatory. She says, by getting involved she got a new sense that while Chews Ridge is remote she is not alone.