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Station Fire 2009 Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Bob Ginn(with permission) --Photographer: Bob Ginn
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USGS Expert: Southern California Must Change Wildfire Mentality
MONDAY DEC 13 2010

In Southern California, fires are treated as preventable disasters that can be controlled through fuel treatments such as fuel breaks, prescribed burns and vigorous fire suppression. But with severe fire losses year after year and extreme fire weather conditions, is it time for Southern California’s communities to think more broadly about how to deal with fire hazards?

On Thursday, December 16, 2010 at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist Jon Keeley will propose an innovative approach for communities to reduce their vulnerability to wildfires.

Keeley's talk is at 5:30 p.m. PST at the Moscone Convention Center - Moscone West Room 3010 (click for full details)

“It’s time to reframe the fire problem and think of wildfires in the same light as earthquakes,” says Keeley, who has studied the fire ecology of California for over four decades. “We don’t attempt to stop earthquakes, but we emphasis good building codes and municipal planning to minimize community vulnerability. It’s time to think the same way for fires.”

Dr. Ross Bradstock (left) and Dr. Jon Keeley (right) --Photographer: Ben Young Landis, USGS
Based at our Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station, WERC lead scientist Jon Keeley (right) heads a research team investigating how to minimize wildfire risk in Southern California communities. The team includes bushfire expert Dr. Ross Bradstock of Australia (left). Image credit: Ben Young Landis/USGS.

Wildfire is among the focal areas of the USGS Multi-Hazard Demonstration Project. Keeley and other researchers are forecasting the pattern of urban wildfire devastation under different management scenarios.

Keeley says wildfires are natural phenomena for chaparral ecosystems like Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, and there is growing evidence we will likely never eliminate fires on these landscapes. They will remain a constant threat, so policy makers and citizens must adopt a mentality of fire risk management instead of fire elimination.

Under this new framework, Keeley says management of fires must shift from depending entirely on state and federal fire fighters in preventing fires from encroaching on our cities.

Instead, decision makers need to be proactive in addressing community vulnerability problems. This approach needs to be given serious attention in order to alter local planning practices and to commit greater attention to managing urban landscaping and housing design.

Lake Arrowhead Grass Valley Fire site --Photographer: Ben Young Landis, USGS
This community near Lake Arrowhead, CA, is densely developed, with fire-prone landscaping adjacent to housing and with power lines that may ignite wildfires. USGS research is investigating these and other factors that influence a community's wildifre hazard risk. Image credit: Ben Young Landis/USGS.

To assist decision makers with fire risk management, Keeley has assembled a team of fire risk experts to investigate how community vulnerability could be potentially minimized with changes in wildland management; placement of urban developments; and increased homeowner responsibility in managing landscaping and other urban fuels.

“We must accept the fact that we cannot eliminate fires. It makes the most economic and ecological sense to learn to live with fire by planning fire-adapted communities and managing risk -- rather than expecting we can eliminate risk.”

-- Ben Young Landis

Top: The 2009 Station Fire in Los Angeles lingers in the public memory. But USGS research suggests that wholescale changes to the public mentality towards wildfire planning and response is needed. Image courtesy of Bob Ginn.

NOTE TO REPORTERS:  Dr. Keeley is available for in-person interviews and telephone interviews throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. Also participating in the southern California project is Dr. Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at University of Wollongong, Australia. He also will be available Tuesday and Wednesday. Please contact Keeley and Bradstock directly:

Jon E. Keeley,, 559-565-3170
Ross Bradstock,, +61-419-269130

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