The recent outbreak in California of two devastating fires - the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and the Camp Fire in Butte County - are being covered extensively by the news media. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources fire scientists provide a valuable service by making themselves available to share their expertise during these tragedies. Below are a sampling of recent fire stories with comments from UC ANR sources.
Why Wildfires Are Burning So Hot And Moving So Fast
(NPR) Kirk Siegler
…One recent study predicted several million homes built in the West are at immediate risk. Susie Kocher is a forester with the University of California's Cooperative Extension service here in the Sierra.
“We haven't caught up, and to retrofit our existing housing stock to fend off embers is a long-term, expensive proposition.”
These wind-driven fires often carry air and embers that land on a roof or get sucked into a vent long after the main wall of flames has passed through. In fact, that's when most homes actually burn in wildfires.
“Even areas like Paradise that have been inhabited for 140 years as more vulnerable than they used to be. And that's not because there's new development but because there's a new climate around the old community.”
And that brings us to one of the biggest factors: climate change. Droughts are longer and more severe. The snow is melting quicker. The fire seasons are longer if not year-round.
As wildfires grow deadlier, officials search for solutions
(Associated Press) Matthew Brown and Ellen Knickmeyer, Nov. 14
…"There are ... so many ways that can go wrong, in the warning, the modes of getting the message out, the confusion ... the traffic jams," said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension program.
As deadly urban wildfires become more common, officials should also consider establishing "local retreat zones, local safety zones" in communities where residents can ride out the deadly firestorms if escape seems impossible, Moritz said.
… In the mid-20th century, California ranchers burned hundreds of thousands of acres annually to manage their lands, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
That was phased out in the 1980s after California's fire management agency stepped in to take over the burns, and by the last decade, the amount of acreage being treated had dropped to less than 10,000 acres annually, Quinn-Davidson said.
Former agricultural land that rings many towns in the state became overgrown, even as housing developments pushed deeper into those rural areas. That was the situation in the Northern California town of Redding leading up to a fire that began in July and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. It was blamed for eight deaths.
"You get these growing cities pushing out - housing developments going right up into brush and wooded areas. One ignition on a bad day, and all that is threatened," Quinn-Davidson said. "These fires are tragic, and they're telling us this is urgent. We can't sit on our hands."
Trump and Brown stir up rhetoric on wildfires but overlook pressing problems
(LA Times) Bettina Boxall, Nov. 14
… Similarly, UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens said that although climate change is playing a role in wildfire growth, he worries that a focus on global warming can leave the public thinking that “there's really nothing to be done.”
In fact, he said, “Communities could still be better prepared.”
How Does California's Wildlife Cope With Massive Wildfires?
(Atlas Obscura) Anna Kusmer, Nov. 13
While many animals are indeed displaced by wildfires, it's important to note that fire is not wholly bad for landscapes in an ecological sense. In fact, many California ecosystems rely on fire to thrive. “Fire in the human sense can often be catastrophic, but it's not necessarily the same for animals,” says Greg Giusti, a retired University of California researcher and an expert on the relationship between wildfires and wildlife. He says California wildlife have evolved to respond to fires, and can even sometimes benefit from the disruption. “It's harsh out there, but you know these animals have evolved to survive in that hostile environment.”
There are a variety to survival tactics that California wildlife will use, says Giusti. For example, birds are easily able to fly away and are usually not impacted as long as fires don't occur during the spring when they are nesting and raising their offspring.
The Manmade Causes Of California's Endless Fire Season
(OnPoint) Meghna Chakrabarti, Nov 13
California's endless fire season. Whether it's climate change, development or forest management, we'll look at the causes — all manmade.
Scott McLean, deputy chief, chief of information for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Ryan Lillis, reporter for the Sacramento Bee who has covered most of Northern California's fires for last 12 years. (@Ryan_Lillis)
J. Keith Gilless, professor of forest economics at University of California, Berkeley and chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection on Cal Fire's policy board.
Glen MacDonald, professor of geography at University of California, Los Angeles who has spent decades studying climate and the effects of wildfires. He and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated their homes because of the Woolsey Fire. (@GlenMMacDonald1)
California Must Better Prepare For The Inevitability Of Future Fires (reprint of The Conversation originally published in August)
(Pacific Standard) Max Moritz, Naomi Tague & Sarah Anderson, Nov 13
Wildfire has been an integral part of California ecosystems for centuries. Now, however, nearly a third of homes in California are in wildland urban interface areas where houses intermingling with wildlands and fire is a natural phenomenon. Just as Californians must live with earthquake risk, they must live with wildfires.
Forest management debate
(KTVU) Heather Holmes, Nov. 12
In a live interview, Bill Stewart, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley, said,
“It was actually on the private land that we saw better performance in terms of being able to put out the fire quicker and a lot less smoke being produced. There is a package of vegetation management and fire suppression on private lands that have proved to be more effective than what's being used on federal land.
“What we found is about half the difference comes from the private land managers do more aggressive timber harvesting and some of that profit they spend to reduce the shrubs and fuels that are on the ground because they have that cashflow. They're protecting their long-term assets. The other half is CALFIRE is much more aggressive when it comes to fire suppression in forests or shrublands.
Trump's Misleading Claims About California's Fire ‘Mismanagement'
(New York Times) Kendra Pierre-Louis, Nov. 12
…Mr. Trump is suggesting that forest management played a role, but California's current wildfires aren't forest fires.
“These fires aren't even in forests,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
…“We have vulnerable housing stock already out there on the landscape. These are structures that were often built to building codes from earlier decades and they're not as fire resistant as they could be,” Dr. Moritz said. “This issue of where and how we built our homes has left us very exposed to home losses and fatalities like these.”
California's year-round wildfire threat: Why aren't communities doing more?
(SF Chronicle) Peter Fimrite and Kurtis Alexander Nov. 10,
…“To have a president come out and say it's all because of forest management is ridiculous. It completely ignores the dynamic of what's going on around us.” said LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at UC Merced, who blamed the increasing number of fires on rising temperatures and more variable precipitation, leading to longer spells of dry weather.
…“It's like a tragic replay of last year, with strong winds in both Northern California and Southern California blowing fire,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, recalling the 2017 Wine Country fires and the Thomas Fire, which burned through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December.
…“We had a lot of discussion after the fires last year about the liability issue with utilities, but it's interesting to see what didn't happen,” Moritz said. “Nobody has talked about mapping neighborhoods and homes in fire-prone areas like they do in flood plain hazard zones, engineering resilience into communities, or building a little smarter.”
…Everybody agrees the situation is dire. Fire officials blame shorter winters, hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, but very little is being done to improve the situation, said Scott Stevens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley.
“There is an under-appreciation of fire risk in a lot of communities,” Stevens said. “It feels like we can do better at allowing local communities to access information, reduce their vulnerability and understand their vulnerability a little bit more.”
Stevens urged the creation of cooperative programs at his and other universities that would allow local government officials to collaborate with fire experts on safety planning.
California's most destructive wildfire should not have come as a surprise
(LA Times) Bettina Boxall and Paige St. John
…“We have these Santa Ana-like events happening in places that are appearing to catch people by surprise,” said Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara's Bren School. “But they shouldn't be catching people by surprise.”
“These are areas that have burned before,” he said. “And if we were to go back and do the wind mapping, we would find that at some intervals, these areas are prone to these north and northeasterly Santa Ana-like events.”
… “We have all kinds of tools to help us do this smarter, to build in a more sustainable way and to co-exist with fire,” he said. “But everybody throws up their hands and says, ‘Oh, all land-use planning is local. You can't tell people that they can't build there.' And the conversation stops right there.”
For millennia, fires periodically burned through California forests, thinning trees, reducing shrubbery and clearing out downed branches and debris. Without periodic fire, the forests became more dense, with spaces between large trees filling in with a thick carpet of duff, seedlings and shrubs.
As a result, today's forests are prone to more intense and damaging fires, like the Rim Fire, King Fire, and — most recently — the Camp Fire in Butte County. These fires are burning with unprecedented severity and speed, threatening large swaths of forest, towns, and even urban areas.
Using fire as part of forest management is not a new concept. Native Americans were known to burn brush to open up hunting grounds and clear shrubbery for gathering. Decades ago, iconic Berkeley forestry professor Harold Biswell said, “Fire in the Sierra Nevada is as important as rain.”
Competing forces, however, pushed foresters and fire officials toward fire prevention and suppression, particularly the cataclysmic fires of the early 20th century that leveled entire towns and left dozens of residents and firefighters dead. The fear of out-of-control blazes and the perceived damage to timber resources launched a war on fire that has lasted a hundred years. Some forest managers are urgently trying to negotiate a truce.
Making peace with fire and turning it into a useful tool, rather than a raging threat, was the objective of an October meeting in Shaver Lake of UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources scientists, Southern California Edison forest managers, CALFIRE officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives.
The event also raised awareness of “pyrosilviculture,” a new forest management term coined by UC fire scientist Rob York to emphasize the importance of fire in silviculture, the management of forests for wood.
Forests have myriad benefits – recreational, environmental and economic. Nature lovers value the whisper of pine trees in the wind and green shade over hiking trails and ski slopes. Owls, bears, deer and other wildlife make their homes among firs, pines, oaks and cedars. Forests stabilize mountain slopes, which store water as snow for agriculture and drinking. People build their homes, businesses and schools out of the planks and boards cut from the straight, soft wood of conifer trees.
The value of California forest products was about $429 million in 2017, according to the USDA. Because fires can damage and destroy trees, the timber industry has historically been reluctant to use fire as a tool. That's changing.
“Fire is such an important ecological process, you can't manage for timber without fire,” York said.
York is the manager of the Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC Berkeley's 4,000-acre mixed conifer and oak forest near Georgetown where researchers study forest management practices for increasing timber yield while taking advantage of fire to enhance forest health and make forest stands more resilient to wildfire.
Controlled burning can be used to treat fuels and reverse these trends, but it has been inhibited by a number of barriers, including landowners' concerns about liability, risk aversion among fire management agencies, narrow burn windows, air quality limitations and other regulatory challenges. Now, public demand for prescribed fires is growing.
“I believe what moved the needle was, for several years in a row, there were high-severity fires in the news,” York said. “Wildfires were in the pubic zeitgeist. People began asking, ‘Why aren't we doing more prescribed fire?'”
Climate change is also intensifying the interest among the public and silviculture professionals. Because California is getting warmer and fire seasons are growing longer, high-severity fires are expected to increase.
“There would logically be a tipping point. Even though we reduce the growth of trees when we use fire, if it can prevent the loss of the forest entirely, it would be meeting the timber objective,” York said.
The vast tree die-off during the 2011-2016 drought was another jarring sign that the Sierra Nevada ecosystem is out of balance.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of forest in California, is using prescribed fire to reduce fire risk on federal forestlands, but scientists say it's not nearly enough to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. CAL FIRE is ramping up its controlled burn efforts, but it will take time to address far-reaching areas of overgrown forestlands. The agency sometimes uses mechanical measures such as mastication and chaining before burning to pre-treat fuels and prepare units for burning.
“We need to work around communities first, and then move out to the wider landscape,” said CAL FIRE division chief Jim McDougald. “If a prescribed fire moves into a subdivision and burns houses, we take 100 steps back.”
“Burning is a key element of forestland management and it can be safe if done properly,” Kocher said. “We provide classroom instruction and invite participants to join a live prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest as part of their training so they become familiar with the process.”
At the training sessions, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said that in some cases, private landowners can conduct burns themselves. In her hometown in Trinity County, many ranchers and landowners conduct small broadcast burns to reduce fuels and improve forage. These burns are typically quite small and usually conducted in the winter.
“This can be a good option for landowners who wish to burn small areas, but we need other options for bigger, more complex burns” Quinn-Davidson said.
In other parts of the country, landowners have formed Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) that allow landowners to work with neighbors and other community members on controlled burns, sharing equipment and labor while developing skills. The PBA model provides a low-cost, grassroots option for prescribed burning, and empowers landowners to work together, and with other key experts and partners, to bring fire back to the landscape, says Quinn-Davidson.
“People are desperate to do something about fire, and the PBA model gives them an option to actively engage with each other and with fire as a tool—it's very empowering,” said Quinn-Davidson.
They did it! Again! The incredible University of California Linnaean Games Team, comprised of graduate students from UC Davis and UC Berkeley, won...
Gamemaster Deane Jorgensen (far left), research scientist at Sygenta, and ESA president Michael Parrella (far right), dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Idaho, flank the national Linnaean Games Team champions. In the center (from left) are Emily Bick, Brendon Boudinot, captain Ralph Washington Jr., Zachary Griebenow and Jill Oberski. Parrella is a former professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.(Joe Rominiecki Photo)
We were able to sneak away to Germany to visit family living near Stuttgart. We traveled in early October and were there during a beautiful, unseasonably warm twelve days. During the last week, we were able to travel down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the German Alps and then over to the Schwarzwald or the Black Forest.
The Black Forest wasn't very black as the deciduous trees were aflame in fall colors. I imagine later with all those beautiful leaves gone, the remaining conifers could look black indeed under a leaden winter sky. In the town of St Blasien, we saw a lovely building covered with flowerboxes all overflowing with geraniums. Geraniums seemed to be the popular choice for many flowerboxes in Germany. I can understand why, beautiful, tough and easy to care for.
The last day of our trip we visited Tubingen, a university town. We saw many of the sites including their town hall built in 1435. The thing that impressed me most about this town were the flowers. There were flowers on the bridges, there were flowers on the buildings and there were flowers on the lamp posts. These plantings were more like bouquets, beautiful combinations of colors, shapes, and textures. They had a more modern look especially with the addition of tall grasses which added movement.
Germany St Blasien flowers. (photos by Karen Metz)
Tubingen Bridge Flowers
Tubingen Lamppost Flowers
JOIN US TOMORROW! No charge, but if possible, please RSVP here. Successful Cover Cropping on Organic...