by Franklin (Fred) Frank, Former San Luis Obispo Cal Fire and County Fire Chief, and Fire Captain at the Cal Fire Paso station
Overhead fire photo Courtesy of Joseph Wheaton (Utah State University) Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
As the former San Luis Obispo Cal Fire and County Fire Chief, and Fire Captain at the Cal Fire Paso station, I responded to many fires in and near the Salinas River. We saw the river as a nuisance, a threat and/or a firebreak, depending on location and conditions.
Then a friend introduced me to the beavers in the river near Atascadero. As an old fireman, I was impressed by how beavers greatly reduce the fire hazard in the river. I’ve seen several beaver ponds that are more than a hundred feet wide and many times that length. By building dams and channels that radiate out from the pond into fields, beavers back up water and hold it on the land, promoting growth of fire-resistant riparian vegetation in the riverbed that is a significant barrier to fire.
Under extreme burning conditions, fires can jump several hundred feet or more in front of the main fire. Beaver ponds and green vegetation are of great value on the flanks of fires burning under extreme conditions.
Cities along the river face a difficult, complex problem with fire in and around the riverbed, exacerbated by homeless occupancy. However, during one public discussion, I was surprised to hear managers say that beaver occupancy is also a problem. It was difficult for me to see the slides showing their fuel management plans. Cities would benefit from fuel management work along the river if carefully planned and supervised.
I spent several years providing technical advice on watershed and fuel management in Cal Fire’s coastal region and can offer some suggestions:
• Remove dead and dying trees and brush along the river banks. This would assist firefighters by reducing potential for spread and providing better access.
• Minimize heavy equipment use, because disturbance of riverbanks leads to serious stream bank erosion. Vegetation within the river channel helps reduce the velocity of the flow, therefore reducing erosion potential.
• Remove very little vegetation within the riverbed, and target highly flammable invasive species such as phragmites and arundo reeds.
• Consult with a stream hydrologist during the planning of this work.
With climate change and COVID 19 adding complications to an already serious problem, City Councils are being called upon to make some critical decisions. The liability associated with river disturbance cannot be overestimated. I hope my suggestions will be helpful.