Bill Lynch: Could we plant a green firewall?

European study of cypresses could be blueprint for keeping Sonoma safe.|

If we could plant vineyards wide enough between us and the hills around our valley, it would probably go a long way in stopping the devil-wind-blown fires from threatening our neighborhoods. Vineyards don’t seem to burn as completely and rapidly as our native trees and plants.

Vineyards, however, are expensive to put in and maintain. Still, they may be part of an overall “green solution.”

Out of curiosity recently, I searched for information about using natural plants as fire barriers. I found articles about “Cypfire,” a research project sponsored by the European Union. It proposes using green barriers of cypress trees to reduce the spread of wildfires.

Spanish and Italian researchers studying the flammability of vegetation have shown that Mediterranean cypresses are capable of tolerating severe droughts and high temperatures, and could be an effective barrier due to their low degree of ignition.

The European study seeks to verify if the use of cypress barriers can be an effective tool in preventing fires from spreading in a feasible, ecological and economical way.

The fact that a particular species of cypress was fire resistant was first noted in the 1980s, when researchers in Spain were working on plant pathogen studies when their entire test forest study area was burned to a crisp in a late summer wildfire. All of the native oaks, pines and junipers were completely burnt, but there, in the middle of all that devastation, was a grove of Mediterranean cypress trees left virtually undamaged.

The reason appears to be the cypress tree’s ability to store water in its leaves even in drought conditions. This led to a hypothesis that strips of Mediterranean Cypress fire barriers 25 to 50 meters (80 to 160 feet) wide could be effective against the control of surface fires, even trapping air-blown embers. It was also stated that the trees, which can grow to the height of a two-story building, do not require a high level of maintenance.

From what I could tell, the Cypfire studies are still underway. The challenges include finding disease-resistant varieties of the cypress, and looking at all possible unintended consequences.

Californians need only look at the eucalyptus trees planted by the thousands starting in the mid-19th century to understand that the introduction of a non-native species is a questionable undertaking that can have a disastrous down side.

As our state looks for solutions to runaway wildfires becoming what many people are calling the “new normal,” it would be interesting to see if our own highly capable research universities, like UC Davis, have been looking at the Cypfire study to see if there are any green fire barrier solutions for California.

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