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Training and Education Command

United States Marine Corps
Preventing wildfires is impossible but we can prepare

By Cpl. Robert Beaver | August 15, 2008


Fire season seems to be year ‘round in California. In the fall, after a dry summer, fire season is at its peak. The plant community is nearly dried out from the lack of rain and the Santa Ana winds pick up momentum.

We cannot always prevent wildfires because they are nature’s way of replenishing itself but we can lesson their impact.

It only takes a combination of the dry plants, the Santa Anas and a simple spark to set half of California on fire.

I am from Southern California and I have spent most of my life here. I joined the Marine Corps hoping to see new things but returned to my native area.

I’ve had my share of black, smoke filled skies and burnt landscapes while living here. Fortunately, I have only been evacuated from the fires once.

I lived at the base of the Ortega Mountain in Riverside, Calif., in the late 1980s when my family was evacuated. Wildfires raged farther up the mountain in the pine forests making the dark sky rain ash upon us.

After firefighters won the battle, we returned to Ortega to see the aftermath and drove up the mountain to see the damage that was done.

There were burnt-down homes, and homes that were untouched even though the fire line blew straight through their property.

It was actually an unsettling and unique sight. The entire landscape was black except for some unaffected homes and a circular area around them.

The owners cleared all plant life several feet from around their homes. When the fires reached their property, there was minimal fuel left to cause their homes to ignite. 

As California residents, we must understand that we cannot completely prevent wildfires. Our best bet is to learn how we can protect ourselves, like the people did years ago when I lived on Ortega.

The type of destructive force an area experiences depends on the biome. Southern California is desert, where the flammable plant community, Chaparral, grows.

Some species of Chaparral need fire for seed germination while others need it to flourish. 

Chaparral is made of several species of brushy plants that have adapted to surviving in dry climates. One of the most common types of chaparral is Chamise.

Nicknamed Greeseweed for the flammable resin produced to reduce water loss, Chamise is excellent fuel for fires. The bush burns at a high intensity and should be cleared away from your home.

Chamise blooms small white flowers and can grown above 10 feet. The flowers turn reddish brown when the plant dries out and when the plant is most flammable. Chamise is also a significant component in biofuels.

So to prevent your house from burning down, don’t plant a garden of Chamise in your yard. If you already have it, remove it and other Chaparral 30 feet away from your home. reminds us to also cut our grass and trim our trees to help save our homes from fire, and to not forget to clean foliage from our roofs and remove scrap wood piles.

Educate yourself and your family about wildfires and the Chaparral community. Formulate an evacuation plan and practice it. Prepare a list with necessary emergency contact information and have it easily accessible for your family.

If you live in the depot barracks or in base housing, your home has little chance of being destroyed by a wildfire because you’re in an urban area. However, if you live in the desert regions around San Diego, take early action.

In my opinion, Smokey the Bear was wrong. We can have a safe campfire, but we can’t prevent all wildfires because nature needs them.

The best we can do is prepare for the worst and pray for the best. Protect your home, and more importantly, your family.

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