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Palms, Eucalyptus: Fire Spreaders in our Urban Forest

Need for New Look for California Landscape

Robert Chianese (Sent to LA Times Letters Dec 3, 2019)

The LA Times Editors' series on reducing our wildfire tragedies has presented some very well established procedures to curb the fires and lessen the damage when one occurs. Limiting new building in the high-risk suburban-wild interface and hardening houses against embers and flames will surely save many residences and businesses. Part of the hardening measures would require vegetation to be kept far from the actual structures, which involves new forms of landscaping, a small price to pay for avoiding loss of homes. Some don't want to do it.

One key overlooked element in revising our landscapes is the prevalence of palm trees and eucalyptus throughout the state as iconic markers of California's semi-tropical highly-diverse climate. Both species of these trees are non-native and are dangerous firebrands in wildfires--palm canopies ignite and spread embers far and wide from their heights. Eucalyptus are oil-soaked, drop flammable debris at their base and some are also shrouded in an oily mist. Assaulted by fire, they can explode. While some argue that eucalyptus have adapted to fire and can resist it, we would be wise not to trust that possibility.

Burnt Eucalyptus

The problem is getting the public, civic groups, and all levels of government to make efforts to remove both palms and eucalyptus from our urban forests. This is an inherent problem with trying to adapt to global warming--we resist measures that would result in the loss of the familiar. California art and photography still celebrate this dangerous familiar. However, our climate-changing carbon emissions are speeding up that process in so many unpleasant ways.

New forms of houses and buildings, new strategies for landscaping them, and removal of the most dangerous trees and flora in our landscapes will actually require what amounts to a new aesthetic for California and elsewhere. We would do well to encourage a new climate-change sense of beauty to emerge from the ashes of our former ways

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