Posts Tagged: Wildfire
Three news articles over the last weekend shared comments from UC Agriculture and Natural Resource's experts about forest management practices that can help reduced the catastrophic wildfires being experiences in the West.
Prescribed burns and management change fire behavior
Shaver Lake forest historian Jared Dahl Aldern tweeted that, when the high-intensity Creek Fire arrived at the Shaver Lake forestlands, it turned into a low-intensity “surface fire,” which does not threaten the bigger and older trees. “The fire comes up to @SCE land,” tweeted Aldern, “drops to the ground, and stays out of the tree crowns.”
Whatever happens to Shaver Lake, says University of California Cooperative Extension specialist Rob York, “There are lots of cases in the scientific literature of prescribed burns having changed fire behavior.”
The image below shows a “shaded fuel break,” consisting of selectively-thinned forest surrounded on both sides by dense forest. “The strip of forest may change fire behavior in the treated area,” said York, “but not on either side.
Forbes, Sept. 13, 2010
Millions of dead trees fueling unprecedented firestorms in the Sierra Nevada
“I don't want to be alarmist. But I think the conditions are there,” said Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor of fire science and lead author of a 2018 paper that raised the specter of future mass forest fires as intense as the Dresden, Germany, and Tokyo firebombings.
“As those [trees] continue to fall, the physics of it are unchanged. If you have dead and downed logs … the fires described in warfare are possible.”
A combination of prescribed fire, restoration thinning and making rural communities more fire resistant are needed, Stephens said.
“If we don't come out of this year focused on that and try to move forward, I just don't know if there's much hope,” he said. “I'm always hopeful. But I'm getting tired.”
Los Angeles Times, Sept. 13, 2020
Results of long-time fire suppression
Perhaps the most present term in news articles as one of the main causes for fires getting so big so fast is fire suppression, which has resulted in a lack of fire for more than a century.
In the 1920s, this idea of suppressing wildfires grew even more when the Forest Service decided intentional burning was a bad idea. In 1924 a Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor said the ‘“Brushy Hell' of shrublands must be protected for the benefit of future timberland succession, ‘so leave them alone.'”
“The Forest Service said it ruins forests, it was bad forest management,” said Kocher. “Then in 1924, California followed suit and said it was not legal to burn forests on purpose.”
Kocher says this idea of letting trees grow and not letting forests burn naturally every decade wasn't this malicious idea either.
“They would have thought, ‘Oh, we're doing this great work where we're leaving all these extra trees for people to use for timber moving forward,'” she said. “I don't think those early foresters ever could have foreseen how fire could get away from them.”
Capitol Public Radio, Sept. 12, 2020
Ezra David Romero
The massive die-off of conifers in the Sierra Nevada between 2012 and 2018 was predictable and unprecedented. Sadly, it is also likely to happen again, said UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor Susie Kocher.
To help landowners manage forests in a way that minimizes the risk of such catastrophic tree die-off and the threat of uncontrolled wildfire, Kocher and two colleagues produced a 20-page publication that summarizes current research on tree mortality and outlines actions that can be taken to make the forest more resilient. The publication, Mass Tree Mortality, Fuels, and Fire: A Guide for Sierra Nevada Forest Landowners, is available for free download from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources catalog.
Written by Stanford graduate student Devin McMahon (now graduated), UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension forest health specialist Jodi Axelson and Kocher, the publication presents the extent of the die-off in the Sierra Nevada, and describes different factors that contributed to the vast loss of tree life – including land management practices, weather patterns and geography. It includes detailed reporting on the mortality's impacts on fuels and fire risk so landowners and managers can understand and develop strategies to prevent similar destruction in the future.
While about two-thirds of California's 33 million acres of forests are public lands held by state and federal government agencies, the rest is in private hands. Large companies manage millions of acres for commercial timber production, but about 9 million acres are owned by individuals. Nearly 90% of individuals own 50 acres or less; 87,000 landowners have 10 acres or more of forest.
“That's a really large number of people,” Kocher said. “That's one of the reasons why it is so difficult for landowners to manage land to improve forest health and reduce fire risk. It's not economical to do forest management on small areas.”
It's also very complicated. As natural processes play out over time in a forest with mass mortality, the fire risk changes dramatically.
“In the new publication, we help people understand the nuances of forest management so they understand what actions are most appropriate throughout the whole cycle,” she said.
Assessing and addressing the fire risk
The publication provides an overview of fire risk reduction. A table lays out the seven components of fire risk – fuel load, fuel moisture, fuel continuity, probability of ignition, weather conditions, topography and vulnerability to fire – along with mitigation actions for each that landowners can take.
Intentional, controlled burning, or prescribed fire, is often the most effective way to decrease fuel loads and future risk from fires, the researchers wrote. Other management actions include masticating – chewing up brush and branches with specialized equipment – felling and removing dying and dead standing trees, and thinning live trees.
The authors conclude with a glimmer of hope for the future of California forest lands. “Carefully planned forest management can reduce the amount and continuity of fuel on the landscape and limit the risk of destructive fire after tree mortality.”
Cattle can help reduce wildfire danger by grazing on fine fuels in rangeland and forest landscapes, reported Sierra Dawn McClain in Capital Press. The article also appeared in the Blue Mountain Eagle, the Westerner and the East Oregonian.
The article cited the preliminary results of research by UC Cooperative Extension that show that cattle consumed approximately 12.4 billion pounds of forage across California in 2017. The researchers believe the cattle could do more.
Many grazable acres aren't grazed, said Sheila Barry, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. According to the Capital Press article, Barry said the public doesn't always recognize the benefits of grazing; they see short grass and cow patties. Cattle's role in preventing wildfires is often overlooked.
Devii Rao, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and the study's lead, said ranchers should target grazing around homes, infrastructure, roadsides and at the wildland-urban interface.
“There are so many things we can do better. Cattle grazing is really important to fire safety, and it's time we have more conversations about it,” Rao said.
Healthy California wildlands were managed with periodic wild and cultural fires for millennia. As the state's population and development grew, officials suppressed most fires out of concern for people, homes and businesses.
Though well-meaning, the strategy left land overgrown with vegetation capable of fueling even more dangerous high-intensity wildfires. The past few years have seen an exponential increase in catastrophic wildfires in California.
As a result, there is growing interest in using prescribed fire to bring nature back into balance. Despite the current interest, communities have limited capacity, shared knowledge and experience to bring it back. To close those information gaps, UC Cooperative Extension in Mariposa County hosted a five-session webinar series because the in-person workshop was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The switch to a virtual series enticed more than 500 people from across the U.S. and more than 12 countries register for the series, and 200 people regularly attended each session. In comparison, 34 people were registered for the in-person workshop.
The webinar series provided guidance on fire ecology, prescribed burn permitting and planning, plus cost-share and the concept of launching a prescribed burn association with neighbors, local agencies and the community in five 90-minute sessions. Recordings are now available free on the UCCE Mariposa County YouTube channel.
The training is designed for California landowners and land managers, but contains information that can be applied broadly in areas where landowners and managers are faced with unmanaged vegetation growth that poses a fire risk.
“Whether you live in a mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, chaparral or grassland habitat, returning prescribed fire to California is part of well-managed landscapes,” said Fadzayi Mashiri, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor and the webinar series coordinator.
The webinar series struck another first for the small foothill county. The recorded series was approved for continuing education units by the national Society for Range Management. Following are links to individual sessions:
Session 1 – Fire ecology
Fire ecology and behavior and benefits of prescribed fire, Susie Kocher, UCCE forestry advisor in Lake Tahoe
Prescribed fire for invasive plants and weed control, Fadzayi Mashiri, UCCE natural resources advisor in Mariposa and Merced counties
Session 2 – Permitting
CAL FIRE permitting and prescribed burning, Brian Mattos, CAL FIRE unit forester for resource management
Air quality permitting and the health impacts of fire – David Conway, environmental health director, Mariposa County Health Department
Session 3 – Prescribed fire planning
Wildland-urban interface dynamics and community planning – Steve Engfer, senior planner, Mariposa County Planning Department
Developing a burn plan – Rob York, UCCE forestry specialist
Session 4 – Resources for burning
Prescribed burn associations – Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UCCE fire ecology advisor
EQUIP funds for prescribed fire through the National Resources Conservation Service – Robyn Smith, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist
Session 5 – Cultural burning
Benefits of cultural burn, Honorable Ron Goode, North Fork Mono Tribe
Social History of Fire in Southern Sierra – Jared Dahl Aldern, Sierra-Sequoia Burn Association.
The workshops were funded in part by California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative that puts cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment. Sponsors include the North Fork Mono Tribe, CAL FIRE and the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council.
UCCE leads development of prescribed burn association in San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties
With a $379,785 grant from CAL FIRE, UC Cooperative Extension and the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County are spearheading a community effort to create a prescribed burn association along California's Central Coast region.
The grant is one of 55 awarded by CAL FIRE to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires that take lives and destroy homes and valued wildland environments across California.
“These 55 local projects will play a critical role in augmenting our fire prevention efforts,” said CAL FIRE director Chief Thom Porter.
Prescribed burn associations (PBAs) are made up of ranchers, volunteer firefighters, non-profit organization and other community members. They pool their resources and energy to plan and conduct prescribed burns on private land. The first California PBA was established in 2018.
“Improving forage and reducing fire risk are key goals of our prescribed burns,” said Devii Rao, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor and project manager. “We will also plan fires to control non-native invasive weeds and restore and enhance wildlife habitat.”
Funds for the CAL FIRE grant program are part of the California Climate Investment, a statewide program that uses cap-and-trade dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy, improve public health and conserve the environment. While prescribed burns emit smoke and carbon dioxide, the amount is much lower than high-intensity wildfires.
Rao said UCCE will be holding workshops and meetings to teach potential association members and the general public about fire ecology, fire permitting, prescribed burn planning and liability associated with burning.
“People are really seeing the value of prescribed fire and they are seeing that it's better to have several smaller burns throughout the year as opposed to these giant, catastrophic wildfires that cause so much damage,” Rao said. “If we can have many smaller burns, we can achieve resource conservation goals, we can achieve forage improvement goals and we can improve fire safety all at the same time.”
Grazing cattle for fire safety
Rao is also leading a study, funded by the California Cattle Council, to better understand the influence of livestock grazing on fire safety of California wildlands. This project is in collaboration with UCCE rangeland specialist Luke Macaulay, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Sheila Barry, rangeland consultant Felix Ratcliff and recent UC Berkeley graduate Rowan Peterson.
The researchers used brand inspection data, USDA Ag Census data and county crop reports to estimate the number of rangeland cattle in each county across the state. They estimated how much forage – or from the fire safety perspective, how much fuel – the cattle are consuming.
“Thanks to Felix's great work analyzing these multiple complex datasets, our preliminary results show that cattle consumed approximately 12.4 billion pounds of forage across California in 2017,” Rao said.
Tulare County had the greatest amount of wildfire fuel consumed (1.3 billion pounds), and Orange County had the least (896,000 pounds). Forage removed per grazed rangeland acre ranged from a low of 13 pounds per acre in Alpine County to 2,157 pounds per acre in Tulare County.
Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and the northernmost counties in the state had somewhat higher removal of wildfire fuel per grazed acre compared with other counties in the state.cedx
“Our analysis is currently ongoing. However, this preliminary analysis shows that many counties have adequate rangeland grazing to significantly reduce wildfire risk, at least in certain strategic areas,” Rao said.
In many counties, grazed rangelands are only a fraction of total grazeable rangeland.
“These counties highlight opportunities for grazing to help fight wildfire risk,” Rao said.