Can ‘Banana Buffers’ Save California From Wildfires?


California’s lethal, damaging wildfires worsen by the yr. The state’s naturally dry landscapes, parched by a altering local weather, have was tinderboxes. A stray match or lightning strike has the capability to incinerate forests, fields, and neighborhoods. Final yr noticed a summer time and fall of choking smoke and blood-red skies over large parts of the state.

To keep away from fiery catastrophe, native governments typically clear away dried brush from the hillsides and fields surrounding properties and streets. However one professor has a relatively bananas concept: Barath Raghavan thinks rising groves of banana bushes round cities and cities might assist halt these now-yearly tragedies.

Raghavan, it needs to be mentioned, doesn’t educate horticulture or a associated topic. As an alternative, he’s a pc scientist on the College of Southern California. He’s labored on networks and methods for establishments as giant as Google and as small as startups. However his different love is gardening. He’s a member of the California Uncommon Fruit Growers group, and he at the moment grows 150 completely different edible vegetation in his yard, in addition to the yards of his associates, household, prolonged household, and in any public patch of land he can discover.

A decade in the past, Raghavan mixed his pursuits by researching how computing might make agriculture extra sustainable. However he first hit on the concept of utilizing banana bushes as a firebreak two years in the past, throughout an October fireplace whose title he doesn’t even bear in mind, since they occur so consistently lately. (It was doubtless the devastating Kincade Fireplace.) After corresponding with Michael Kantar, an agricultural and plant breeding professor at College of Hawai’i at Manoa, Raghavan hashed out a principle: that banana forests in fire-vulnerable areas might function a inexperienced buffer towards the flames.

Banana bushes, Raghavan explains, are particular. For one, they aren’t wooden. The truth is, they aren’t even bushes; they’re herbs, albeit herbs that may develop 25 toes tall. With juicy, sap-filled stems relatively than trunks, they’re vastly extra fire-resistant than grass or bushes. The hearth resistance extends to different elements of the plant as nicely. “Should you go on YouTube and also you seek for banana leaves, you’ll discover movies of individuals taking a banana leaf and placing it straight over their gasoline burner,” Raghavan says. “The leaf will wilt, however it normally doesn’t catch on fireplace.”

These bananas are flourishing in less-than-balmy Berkeley, California.
These bananas are flourishing in less-than-balmy Berkeley, California. Courtesy of Barath Raghavan

Raghavan has theorized that groves of banana bushes, irrigated with recycled water, might defend fire-imperiled communities simply lengthy sufficient for firefighters to get a deal with on a blaze. The California wildfires of the previous couple of years have been sizzling sufficient to show even fire-resistant bananas to ash, however, Raghavan factors out, it might take a very long time for even a wildfire to sear by means of a dense banana grove. “Finally, as soon as the temperature will get excessive sufficient, something will burn as a result of it’ll fully desiccate,” Raghavan says. “Nevertheless it gained’t be a supply of gas, is the important thing factor.”

To listen to Raghavan describe it, it’s a plan with virtually no downsides. Planting protecting bananas might decelerate fires, pay for itself with the banana gross sales, and thrill native residents. Bananas, in any case, are “type of a charismatic species,” he says. “It’s the panda, the polar bear of the plant world or the fruit world.”

To show this might work, Raghavan constructed a pc simulation based mostly on the damaging Tubbs wildfire of 2017. Raghavan plugged in several figures, from how far the banana grove must be located from a neighborhood to what number of meters deep it must be for optimum safety. For a hearth the dimensions and pace of the Tubbs blaze, a wonderful “banana buffer” can be an orchard 300 meters, or 984 toes, deep. “You wouldn’t fully cease [the fire] as a result of ultimately sufficient embers would get thrown over,” he says. However slowing the fireplace would give firefighters extra time for containment and rescue efforts.

The subsequent step, he says, is testing the mannequin on some actual bananas. Rising after which burning a grove of bananas, he says, will happen in Hawai’i, the place allowing is simpler. As soon as the take a look at will get going, although, it shouldn’t take lengthy for the bananas to achieve maturity. “The return on funding is fairly fast, which is among the huge promoting factors of bananas,” Raghavan notes, imagining how municipalities might promote or distribute the precise bananas. However most significantly, he says, “the firebreak potential is sort of quick.”

Raghavan has years of experience growing fruit in Southern California, but his plan hinges on bananas.
Raghavan has years of expertise rising fruit in Southern California, however his plan hinges on bananas. Courtesy of Barath Raghavan

As for what bananas to develop the place, Raghavan has some suggestions based mostly on lengthy expertise. “I’ve fruited bananas on a road nook in Berkeley,” he boasts. (Berkeley, being in Northern California, is decidedly not tropical.) Southern California, he says, can accommodate nearly any banana, and he recommends the dwarf Brazilian, which he calls “the very best banana I’ve eaten.” For the elements of Northern California that don’t see a lot frost, he recommends the Goldfinger, whereas for the Napa area, which was flogged by fires in 2020, he recommends the cold-resistant California Gold.

No authorities entity has reached out about defending their municipalities with “banana buffers” simply but, however Raghavan doesn’t thoughts, as a result of he desires the information in hand to make his case first. It has been tried earlier than, although. Los Angeles’s “Banana Man,” Doug Richardson, who beforehand grew the one important banana orchards in Southern California, as soon as surrounded a buyer’s property with 1,500 banana bushes to guard it from potential fires.

Raghavan acknowledges that his dream of banana-based firebreaks may strike individuals, particularly fire-fighting professionals, as downright loopy. There are obstacles: the supply of water, the upkeep of the orchards, the potential for undergrowth to burn. However Raghavan is blunt. “It’s like, nicely, nothing else is working. We’ve obtained to attempt some loopy issues.”

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