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USGS study casts doubt on role of fire suppression in causing catastrophic shrubland wildfires

It is well known that fire suppression in forests has led to an increase in catastrophic forest fires. The same has been assumed to be true for fire suppresion in shrublands. However, a recent USGS study has found that urban sprawl -- not fire suppression -- is largely responsible for the wildfires that occur in the shrublands of southern and central-coastal California.

The study has major implications in this region of the state because of the rising loss of lives and property due to shrubland wildfires, which has caused the state's resource managers and the public to become increasingly concerned with solving the problem of wildfire destruction.

A recent article in the journal Science refutes the view that fire suppression in shrublands of southern and central-coastal California has led to catastrophic wildfires. To the contrary, in "Reexamining Fire Suppression Impacts on Brushland Fire Regimes," U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jon Keeley of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center in Sacramento and his colleagues C. J. Fotheringham of California State University, Los Angeles, and Marco Morais, formerly of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, reinforced an earlier view that the problem of wildfire destruction started with population growth into the foothills.

The authors found that fire suppression plays a role in limiting the impacts of shrubland wildfires. In the last 50 years, humans have greatly increased the frequency of fires, beyond the limits of the ability of the native shrublands to rebound from the effects of these fires, said Keeley. Consequently, native shrublands are being replaced or converted to nonnative or exotic grasslands. Fire suppression counteracts this impact by extinguishing the many fires started by people.

In their article, the authors concluded that wildfire management should focus on strategic locations instead of on the chaparral landscape at large. Intensive management, said Keeley and his col
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Contact: Gloria Maender
gloria_maender@usgs.gov
520-670-6896 x1
United States Geological Survey
10-Jun-1999


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