Introduction to Fire in California

The University of California Press continues to put out an exceptional series of introductory texts and field guides to the natural history of the Golden State. This latest could not be more timely. Following (hot) on the heels of his introductions to Air and Water, David Carle has addressed the subject that is on everyone’s minds this year—fire in the state’s forests, chaparral, grasslands, and, most importantly, along the urban wildland interface.

By tracing the history of wildland fire and mankind’s response, Carle helps us to understand why the acreage burned this year might be higher than in any recorded year. The native peoples had a profound impact on the evolution of the landscape by encouraging fires that refreshed the fields and forests, assuring a healthy production of food to be gathered and hunted. Early twentieth century foresters, however, believed that the land could hold a more productive crop of timber if fire were suppressed; the impact of this philosophy is now being felt more than ever, as the climate warms, the landscape dries, and the overly dense, long-unburned vegetation ignites with ease.

Carle helps us to understand the critical role that fire plays in nearly all the state’s—and the West’s—plant communities and, in turn, to understand our need to develop, build, and landscape in ways that will accommodate the inevitable fires without resulting in unnecessary loss of life and property. The solutions are not easy ones, and some remain controversial. But an understanding of the background may help us all to create more defensible spaces within and around our homes. An Introduction to Fire in California should be required reading for all those living in close proximity to potentially flammable landscapes.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor