College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Wildfire Expert Speaks: Discusses the Behavior of Landscape Fires

February 2, 2011

By: Kiran Aulakh, The Santa Barbara Independent

Dr. Max Moritz delivered a lecture on the nature of wild fires at UCSB’s Buchanan Hall on Thursday, January 27. The colloquium was one of several mandatory seminars conducted by experts for graduate students, according to Micah Brachman, a graduate student in geography.

In the lecture hall, Moritz sipped from a Klean Kanteen as the crowd of approximately 40 people trickled down to their seats. Moritz received his Ph.D. in Spatial Ecology Research from UCSB and currently leads fire seminars at the Moritz lab at UC Berkeley.

His lecture was a survey of current thinking on fire. It also analyzed the likelihood of fires and their behaviors in ecosystems. A pioneer in the field, Moritz coined the term pyrogeography, and defines it as the study of spatial distribution of fire, or fire regimes, across the planet.

Moritz introduced a new angle to the debate over how human behavior affects natural fire regimes. One side holds that wildfires are affected by suppression efforts like clearing dry ground vegetation, a.k.a. fuel. The other argues that regardless of human involvement, climate will dictate the natural course of fire in an ecosystem. According to Moritz, these approaches are too black and white.

He argued that it is overly simplistic to say it is either climate or natural fuel build-up from a lack of land management that affects fire regimes. Instead, the natural distribution of fire relies on habitat suitability. Based on charts, topographical wind maps, and his own field studies dating back to the early 1990s, Moritz introduced a gray shade to the debate, claiming that fire regimes have an actual niche in ecosystems and depend on both fuel and climate.

During a brief Q&A after his lecture, Moritz answered how he thought the state of California could better allocate the $40 million dedicated to fire-safe grants. “I think there are ways to look at it that we’re not looking at,” Moritz claimed. The grants are proportionate to the amount of vegetation the receiver plans to remove, but Moritz suggested that perhaps that money should address home vulnerability and fire-safe structures instead.

In his closing comments, Moritz commended UCSB for teaching him to “borrow from other disciplines to answer questions.”

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