Routine fires on San Bruno Mountain could help, environmentalist says

Brendan P. Bartholomew
Special to SF Examiner
September 23, 2013
link to original article

The recent grassfire that scorched more than 40 acres of San Bruno Mountain made headlines as one of the many burning around the state at the time, but it was not necessarily bad for the health of the mountain or the sensitive species that live on it, according to an environmentalist that works to preserve the open space.

San Bruno Mountain Watch Executive Director Ken McIntire said fires are a natural part of how wilderness systems periodically renew themselves, and he lamented the fact that routine, controlled burns are no longer done on the mountain.

McIntire said fire authorities are reluctant to do controlled burns — used in forestry management to restore habitats and to burn off vegetation that might otherwise fuel more destructive fires — on the mountain, because the last one, done several years ago, got out of control.

Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson said the last controlled burn on the mountain had been planned as a 7-acre burn, but had expanded to 14 acres. However, he said the fire had remained within control lines. Another controlled burn in 2003 also grew out of control and scorched more than 50 acres.

Sampson said the construction of new condominium complexes around the mountain has made it harder to do controlled burns without potentially endangering homes. He said, however, that if controlled burns are not done, those homes could be endangered by the accumulation of dry, combustible foliage.

"The city of Brisbane has been taking a significant interest in fuel conditions on that mountain," he said.

Sampson agreed with McIntire that controlled burns would be beneficial for the mountain's ecology, but that the decision not to burn is also being driven by stricter air quality standards, as well as the likelihood that smoke would interfere with planes approaching or leaving San Francisco International Airport.

Sampson said Cal Fire is not allowed to interfere with airport traffic. He added that when his organization fought the Sept. 7 blaze its air tankers had to fly low over Interstate Highway 280 in order to avoid airport flight paths.

San Bruno Mountain Watch restoration stewards Loretta Brooks and Chuck Heimstadt, who were working on the south side of the mountain when the fire started, said the fire and other controlled burns will be good for the mountain's flora and fauna – a position they hold despite their Toyota Camry Hybrid being partially melted by the conflagration.

Heimstadt said an endangered butterfly, the Callippe Silverspot, would benefit from controlled burns, which would clear out the coastal sage scrub that encroaches upon the animal's host plants.