Tapping a novel resource

UCI anthropology professor hopes to glean valuable insights on fire prevention and mitigation from weed abatement workers

California experienced its worst wildfire season ever in 2020 – with about 4.1 million acres consumed, according to the National Interagency Fire Center – and as of July 2021, three times more land had burned than at the same time last year. As officials seek solutions, Salvador Zárate, UCI assistant professor of anthropology, says that weed abatement workers are a valuable resource that remains untapped.

Salvador Zárate

Meet the Expert: Salvador Zárate, assistant professor of anthropology

"I am motivated by working alongside the racialized minority communities who in addition to having a stake in climate change debates actively create new and meaningful ways to live with a changed planet."

“People don’t understand the deep ecological knowledge these crews have,” he says. “In April, months before the fall fire season starts, weed abatement crews are out in the canyons, slopes and hills removing plants and grasses and clearing debris to help control the spread of fire, prevent fires from starting in the first place and create defensible spaces for firefighters. Their expertise should be brought to the table when formulating policy.”

Unlike the Northern California wildfires that burn vast expanses of forest, the threat in Southern California is to suburban neighborhoods built on hills and in canyons. These regions are known as the wildland-urban interface, the points of connection between homes and undeveloped areas of vegetation. Many of these communities were established decades before mandates requiring fire-resistant building materials and landscaping – and before regulations on the distance from property lines to wilderness.

“Fire is part of nature’s cycle, and we don’t want to be part of that, but it seems many people want to continue living in a natural environment.”- Salvador Zárate

“Between climate change and expanding WUI, the scope and scale of fires have changed, and property owners in those older communities are between a rock and a hard place,” Zárate says. “Fire is part of nature’s cycle, and we don’t want to be part of that, but it seems many people want to continue living in a natural environment.”

He believes that weed abatement workers – the first line of defense for suburban areas – can provide meaningful insights into which fire mitigation and prevention efforts can most effectively protect homes, lives and wilderness. Strategies include landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, hardscaping and building retaining walls to help contain fire.

Funded by a $12,000 grant from the Haynes Foundation, Zárate will be out alongside weed abatement crews in the canyons and slopes of Orange County in spring of 2022, observing and documenting their techniques.

– Pat Harriman, UCI