After losing dozens of oak trees, a guesthouse and a garage full of her late husband’s memorabilia in the 2018 Woolsey fire, Nicole Radoumis dreads the arrival of severe fire weather amid severe drought in California.
Recently, however, Agoura Hills residents have grown even more worried after the Southern California Water Municipality imposed strict restrictions on outdoor watering one day a week for water-dependent areas. from the State’s Depleted Water Project. Radoumis now worries that her two-acre property will be filled with dead, dead vegetation that will fuel the wildfires.
In a city that is almost entirely in a very high fire hazard zone, Radoumis and her neighbors argue that watering restrictions could put their homes – and their lives – in jeopardy. the more increasing.
The 56-year-old said: “We have to take care of our property differently. “You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Based on similar concerns raised by residents in impacted areas, municipal water counties in Los Angeles and Ventura counties are now asking state water officials to allocate more water under the exception. health and safety to the drought rule, using the rationale that it should include minimizing the risk of wildfires.
But even as water agencies and their customers argue about getting more water to sustain vegetation, some drought and wildfire experts question the wisdom of a single move. such attitude. They say the best strategy to reduce wildfire risk is to build fire-resistant homes and clear large areas of defensive space around structures.
“We have a lot of people living in these high-risk areas with homes that aren’t designed to be fireproof,” said Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist. “If you have bushes and trees growing across from your house on a hot, windy day, it doesn’t matter if they are adequately watered. They will still burn. “
Public concern about how limiting drought will affect wildfire activity dominated a recent meeting at the town hall of the City of Las Virgenes Water District, which serves communities in and around the city. around the Santa Monica Mountains, including the Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, and Calabasas. Some say survived the Woolsey fire, which destroyed more than 1,600 structures from Thousand Oaks to Malibu, and killed three people.
“It’s okay to let the garden die in the city. But if you live in an area designated by the state as a very high fire hazard critical area, that’s not an option anymore,” said John Zhao, facility and operations manager for City Water District. Las Virgenes Street said. “That is why realizing our only need is to keep vegetation alive. … It’s part of the health and safety of living in this area. ”
Last month, Senator Henry Stern (D-Malibu) sent a letter to Karla Nemeth, the director of the California Department of Water Resources, citing the Woolsey Fire – even though no watering restrictions were in effect during that fire. Stern said he is “very concerned that there may not be an adequate water supply to maintain a fire-resistant landscape for bushfire protection and safety at the urban-wildlife interface,” adding that he hopes obtain favorable consideration of the requirements of the water districts.
Following its historic drought order, the Metropolitan Water District requested that the six member agencies be affected – Las Virgenes, Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity, Calleguas City Water District, Three Valleys City Water District, Water District Upper City of San Gabriel and Inland Empire Utilities – to assess if and how much they need more water.
“Metropolitan is working with local water authorities to understand the need for additional water supplies for wildfire safety and communicate this need to the state Department of Water Resources,” reads a statement from MWD. on this issue. “Agencies are in the process of determining how much additional water is needed to maintain landscaping critical to fire suppression in the urban wasteland interface.”
MWD will submit a request for an additional water supply to the state, which has indicated it is investigating, the statement said.
Nemeth, of the California Department of Water Resources, said her agency “is working closely with the Metropolitan and other agencies to determine their specific ongoing water supply needs.” Public safety is the department’s top concern, she said.
Exactly what constitutes safe and healthy water use is defined in agreements between the California Department of Water Resources and the agencies it provides, Nemeth said. “In this context, the need for health and safety means providing water for domestic use, sanitation and fire suppression,” she said.
David Pedersen, superintendent of the Las Virgenes water district, said wildfire protection should have been incorporated into each county’s health and safety needs, but it’s not.
“We are really working hard to change that,” says Pedersen.
Las Virgenes, DWP, Calleguas and Three Valleys Municipal are asking for more water.
Among other concerns, school districts want to make sure they have enough water during red flag days for firefighters to water down vegetation around homes and some open spaces.
But some experts worry that increasing outdoor watering this year is unsustainable and could lead to bigger problems. They say it’s time to enact long-term solutions.
“We have an arid climate and it could get a little drier over time,” said water expert Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “So asking for more water to get rid of fire problems is not a long-term strategy.”
Swain, of UCLA, questioned the effectiveness of pre-wetting areas of the wasteland-urban interface, because climate change has increased fire risk by increasing its tendency to absorb water. of the atmosphere out of the landscape. Under such conditions, a farmer could water deeply in the field in the morning and the soil would crack and dry out in the afternoon, he said.
Swain said green moats around people’s homes often don’t make a difference in determining the outcome of wildfires under the types of extreme weather conditions that are increasingly leading to these events. He noted that coastal fires have destroyed many homes in Laguna Niguel recently, despite the presence of bushes and verdant lawns.
“You can even imagine a scenario in the urban fire risk landscape where you push it in one direction by watering more and then you have less ability to actually deal with it,” he said. deal with fires that occur. “So it’s tough. I don’t think there are easy answers.”
However, concerns about water restrictions and wildfires remain.
In Las Virgenes town hall on May 11, there were dozens of questions and comments. One woman says her husband’s garden is “one of the only things that protects our home.”
“If it turns brown, we are at high risk,” she wrote. “We are planning to stay in the next fire to protect our home, but we are 83 years old and we need the green of the garden to protect.”
Another claimed that if her hill wasn’t watered, it wouldn’t comply with her fire insurance.
In an interview with The Times, Radoumis said her experience with the Woolsey fire left her traumatized.
“I went through it so painfully and just felt so helpless,” she said.
She still has oak trees on her property and fruit trees around her property — part of the space that is protected, she said. Those trees are several years old and “still settling and they need water.” Almost all of her plants are drip-irrigated, so is her vegetable garden.
But she also uses a regular sprinkler system to water the lawn and says, “If I don’t water enough to keep the lawn alive, all the other plants around will die as well.”
Pedersen emphasized that the intent of the request was not for residents to use fire protection as a means of getting more water for their lawns.
“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
While defensible space recommendations often call for a green, clean, and beautiful landscape – often requiring a fair amount of irrigation, depending on the type of vegetation – it is important for homeowners to provide Choose wisely about what and where to plant, says Susie Kocher. , a forestry and natural resource consultant with the UC Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra Nevada.
“I don’t care if you water or not, I always recommend that you don’t put vegetation within 5 feet around the house or under windows, where if a shrub catches fire, the heat can break the door. book,” she said.
It makes sense to use a limited water supply on plants because they live long and benefit from regular watering, she says. If the smaller vegetation cannot be watered enough to keep it from dying and creating a fire hazard, another option is to remove it altogether, she says.
“In general, most people don’t want just dirt, but it’s clearly a fire-resistant landscape,” she says.
Zhao acknowledged that the county could continue to educate residents not to plant too much vegetation and potentially rethink the landscape, but called it “a long-term goal.”
“Right now we are thinking about how to deal with the next fire season,” he said.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-03/will-california-water-restrictions-increase-wildfire-threat Will California water restrictions increase wildfire threat?