Recent newspaper commentary linking California's coastal protection program and the Big Sur fires does a great disservice to the public. Some are saying that the Coastal Commission's effort to protect sensitive coastal habitats in Big Sur has prevented residents from doing what is necessary to reduce fire risks to their property. Such commentary shifts reader's attention to a critique of government and away from the more fundamental issue – our desire to live and build our homes in known hazardous areas.
We usually think of Big Sur as an idyllic coastal environment, with magnificent views, dramatic shorelines, and incredible beaches. But Big Sur also has much in common with the coastal zone of New Orleans and the flood plains of the Mississippi. Much of Big Sur consists of forest and coastal habitats that exist in dynamic equilibrium with the forces of nature, including fire. The scientific evidence is clear: fire has been an integral part of Big Sur's ecology for millenia.
The maritime chaparral that at least one recent editorial focuses on is a good example. Maritime chaparral is a fire-dependent habitat. It has evolved over thousands of years in tandem with naturally-occurring fires, such as those caused by summer lightning. This specialized native plant community needs fire to maintain its competitive edge over other plant communities.
It is true that the Coastal Commission is required by law to protect the sensitive coastal habitats of California. And there is no doubt that the central maritime chaparral of Big Sur is a rare plant community. In contrast to recent commentary, which suggests that this habitat is ubiquitous, maritime chaparral in fact is a distinct and rare subset of chaparral that only occurs patchily within the fog zone on specific soil types quite close to the coast. This rare habitat type is characterized by specific indicator species of manzanita and ceanothus as well as a number of associated species that are principally limited to the maritime zone. Maritime chaparral includes multiple endemic plants found nowhere else in the world. The California Department of Fish and Game's Natural Diversity Database has listed central maritime chaparral as a rare habitat type. Given its limited distribution, we estimate that less than 0.1 percent of the more than 200,000 acres in the Big Sur Coast area could potentially involve conflicts between this sensitive habitat and developable residential building sites. But protecting this habitat doesn't prevent us from taking reasonable measures to reduce the risk of fire.
The Coastal Commission does not require permits for necessary brush clearance around existing buildings in Big Sur; nor has it interfered with brush clearance that may be ordered by fire officials. In fact, Commission staff worked closely with Monterey County and Cal Fire on an emergency approval for clearing dead oaks from Big Sur last year to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
But no amount of brush management can save rural, inaccessible homes when massive wildfires rage out of control. That is why the Commission is focusing more on approaches that require new development to avoid hazardous areas. Unfortunately, many property owners are reluctant to fully acknowledge the severe dangers of building in high fire risk areas. Rather than locating a new home in a less hazardous place, they attempt to create a defensible space around their new buildings within the hazardous area. In these circumstances, the Commission has requested that applicants record a legal document acknowledging that they are locating their new house within a known hazardous area and that they assume this known risk.
That said, Commissioners and staff recognize the tragic loss of homes and property that has affected so many families in Big Sur in recent days. The fact that fires are a natural phenomenon does not in any way minimize the emotional distress and financial hardship suffered in their wake. Rather, times like these cause us to reflect upon and work even harder to find ways to live in harmony with our environment, so that future tragedies may be avoided.
Protection of the Big Sur Coast has been and will remain one of the Coastal Commission's highest priorities. But as the ability of individuals to develop in this challenging environment has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to strike the appropriate balance between private property interests and protection of the environment. By developing in inherently hazardous areas, and attempting to suppress the fires that are an integral part of the Big Sur landscape dynamic, we have fragmented and disrupted the natural regenerative cycles of Big Sur's habitats. If we continue to pursue development in fire-dependent habitats, in the end we may lose both.