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The worst fire in California history illuminates fire preparation needs

Fire resilient forests have the benefit of offering greater access for recreation. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
The Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, ravaged the bucolic communities in the Butte County foothills, including Paradise, Concow, Butte Creek Canyon, Cherokee, Yankee Hill and Magalia in November 2018. Eighty-five people died, many of them elderly and unable to safely evacuate from an area where a wind-driven fire raced from home to home.

The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. UC Cooperative Extension is working with many agencies involved to understand how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.

UC Cooperative Extension fire scientists and representatives of many California organizations conduct fire behavior research, study forest treatments – such as prescribed burns, timber harvest and mastication – and share best practices for home and community preparation. In the Butte County area where the Camp Fire took place, cooperating agencies include CalFIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, Sacramento River Watershed Program, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.

While the Camp Fire was devastating, it could have been far worse. Working together for decades, the partner agencies have improved community safety and resilience.

They have educated the public about defensible space, fire resistant homes, and evacuation plans. They have coordinated fuels treatments along evacuation routes and around the communities. Through their actions, they saved many lives and structures, protected the town's drinking water supply, and in some cases, provided access for hiking in areas that had been overgrown by brush.

“When you drive for miles through blackened, burned trees and then arrive in a thinning project area full of green tree tops, you know that these efforts are worth it, we are having success and we can make a difference together,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council

Because of the Camp Fire tragedy, the partner agencies learned many lessons that can inform future maintenance and treatments to improve fire resilience in Butte County and other wildland areas. Kate Wilkin, the UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada counties, is able to point to projects implemented in the Camp Fire zone that saved lives and structures.

For example, one family in Paradise was featured by the news media for their successful advance fire planning, which even included the installation of sprinklers on top of the house.

“When I think about what saves a house, a sprinkler is a cherry on top of the cake,” Wilkin said. “If a house is constructed with a combustible roof and siding, if unprotected vents allow embers to get into the attic, or the landscape is not maintained, a sprinkler isn't going to save the house. The sprinkler's power from the grid or a generator will likely fail. High winds may even prevent the sprinkler's mist from hitting the house.”

Rather, passive resistance to fires through better building design, materials and maintenance greatly reduce structure loss.

“Maintenance is an unsung hero of fire resilience,” Wilkin said. “Individual actions at our homes matter.”

First 5 feet around a structure

State law requires homeowners in wildfire areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Most towns in wildfire-prone areas also have their own defensible space codes. Wilkin said where she lives in Grass Valley, anyone with less than an acre of land must maintain their entire property as defensible space.

This guideline is a start, but there is more that people who live in wildfire-prone areas can do to make their homes resilient to fire. UC Cooperative Extension scientists recommend creating a five-foot buffer immediately surrounding the home almost completely devoid of plants and anything that can burn - including wooden fences, firewood, deck chairs and pillows, brooms and other wooden tools.

This extra precaution is important as embers from a distant wildfire can land on or adjacent to a house and ignite combustible items which in turn ignite the home. It was evident in the Camp Fire that the first five feet around homes was a critical factor in the survivability of structures.

The zone can include noncombustible materials such as rock mulch, stone pavers, cement, bare earth, gravel or sand. Low combustibility materials, such as irrigated and maintained lawn or herbaceous plants less than five inches high, are okay. All leaves, needles or other vegetation that falls in this five-foot zone must be removed during the fire season.

“The non-combustible space adjoining the house may be the difference between losing it and all the contents to a wildfire versus returning to the property with the home unscathed,” Wilkin said.

Community fire resilience

Fire survival measures can also be taken at the community level.

In Paradise, the Butte County Fire Safe Council funded CalFIRE crews to thin a number of areas in the watershed below Paradise Lake in 2013 and 2014. Taking these actions allowed an area for firefighters to start a defense and start putting out the flame front, Wilkin said.

“A CalFIRE chief told residents, ‘You provide the offense, we provide the defense.' Homeowners and communities need to get everything set up for successful firefighting,” she said.

Forest thinning has the added benefit of improving recreational opportunities. Near Magalia Pine Ridge School, an 11-acre mastication project in 2018 funded with $30,000 from the Butte County Fire Safe Council cleared overgrown vegetation around the school. This helped strengthen the area's public assembly location, which was identified on the community's evacuation map, and opened up access to a forest hiking trail that was blocked by tangled brush.

The open space dramatically slowed the raging Camp Fire when it approached the school, which is now one of the only schools open in the Paradise Ridge community.

Note the No. 9 marker in the lower left corner of each photo. (Click the photo to see a higher resolution version.) The the image on the right was taken after mastication, which opened up the forest for recreation and made the forest more resilient before the Camp Fire. (Photos: Butte County Fire Safe Council)

Forest thinning also protected the drinking water for the town of Paradise. A combination of projects undertaken by U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Pacific Industries and the Butte County Fire Safe Council aligned to allow fire fighters to combat the fire and ensure that the source of drinking water was protected.

Concow wildfire safety zone

In 2013 and 2014, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council created a wildfire public assembly safety zone in Concow. The work was completed by inmate crews. During the Camp Fire, dozens of lives were saved when sheriff deputies, firefighters and citizens were able to shelter in the area.

“Wildfire safety zones are pretty uncommon and we may want to create more in wildfire prone areas,” Wilkin said. “But there is a hitch.”

CalFIRE is reluctant to designate temporary refuges because they don't want people to rely on them in place of evacuation. During a quick-moving firestorm, it could be an area where people can shelter if they cannot get out.

“It's a complex and dangerous puzzle,” Wilkin said. “In Australia, they had a similar idea and some places where people sheltered in a fire caused them to die.”

Wilkin is working with Paradise parks to identify areas ahead of time with enough space to meet new national firefighter standards to protect people's lungs from superheated air.

“Historically, we thought sufficient space was four times as great as the flame heights. If you have a Ponderosa pine that's torching 150 feet high, you would need 800 feet around the people,” Wilkin said. “New research has found that the safety zone calculation must also consider potential wind speed and slope. Significantly more space may be needed.”

A wildfire safety zone at Camelot Meadow. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
Posted on Monday, July 29, 2019 at 8:53 AM
Tags: Kate Wilkin (8), wildfire (134)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

What can we learn from the 14,000 homes lost during the Camp Fire?

Remnants of a burned trailer park in Paradise after the Camp Fire.

Shades of brown and grey cast over bricks, cement, remnants of metal roofs and steel beams from manufactured and modular homes, collapsed stucco walls, BBQs, shells of washers and driers, along with an occasional tea pot — that is what you can see in and amongst living, but singed Ponderosa pine and California black oak trees where the Camp Fire burned. How did California's most deadly fire happen and what might be done differently to ensure a better outcome? These are difficult questions that California will wrestle with for a long time to come.

Surviving home with recently upgraded roofing, vents and combustible materials separated from the house. Every home surrounding this house was lost to the Camp Fire.

Last week I was able to tour some of the burned area in Paradise and Magalia to evaluate why some homes survived and others did not. This gave me a chance to look at homes that survived largely on their material selection, design details, the owner's maintenance efforts, and not necessarily with the aid of a fire crew or resident that stayed. Many of the buildings that were burned were lost on the first day or two of the fire while emergency response was focused on evacuating the communities. It will take months to make sense of this mess and tragedy, but during my tour some conditions rang true to me.

A well-maintained forested area in Paradise that had minimal tree mortality from the Camp Fire.

Wildfire is not uniform

Not all fires are the same and not all houses experience the same type of fire. When you are looking at home losses and survivors, keep in mind that each home may not have had the same fire exposure. Some homes experienced significant ember exposure, while others ignited because their neighbor's home succumbed to fire and the heat of their neighbor's house caught their house on fire, while others were protected from the wind and its deadly embers. Paradise and Magalia have blocks and blocks of nothing but foundations, but amongst these bleak conditions are a few intact or partially damaged homes that have a story to tell.

California building code

A homeowner holds a foundation vent found in the rubble of her home. Her house, built before the 2008 construction standards, had ¼-inch mesh screen that may have allowed embers to enter her home.
We saw homes that survived that had upgraded attic and foundation vents that meet the California building code for construction in wildfire prone areas. Some of these houses also included some extra efforts where vegetation and combustible mulch was virtually eliminated in the area immediately adjacent to the home. Our inspection team included UC's Dr. Steve Quarles, a national expert in fire-safe construction, who interpreted this to mean that meeting the 2008 Chapter 7 A standards, coupled with the enhanced defensible space, likely made the difference to ward off the assault of the ember-driven Camp Fire. We found evidence that burned homes in Paradise had ¼” mesh foundation and under-eave vent screens. Research has shown that these larger size screens let embers penetrate the attic and ignite the house from within. The 2008 California building code standards specify screen mesh size between 1/8” and 1/16”-inch, or vents that demonstrate their ability to resist embers and flames.

Wood mulch and landscape plants

Our tour also confirmed that landscaping plants and wood mulch placed right next to the house creates vulnerability. While looking at the rubble of a home, it can be difficult to tell what happened; however, we saw several surviving houses with broken glass or otherwise damaged dual-pane windows that experienced heat exposures sufficient to crack glass in the windows, but the home still survived during these first two days when fire crews were rightly focused on community evacuation and not structure protection. For the houses that did not survive, we can interpret that in addition to the vulnerabilities in vents or a roof, heat can easily break glass in windows, especially if those windows are single pane, and can likely created a pathway for fire to enter the houses.

This house met new construction standards. Several windows were broken from the heat of the fire. It likely would not have been damaged if there had been a 5-foot zone around the home that did not contain combustible plants or other materials.

Home placement makes a difference

A home at the top of a canyon or gulch can easily be overwhelmed by wildfire by taking on additional heat as the fire approaches and being blasted with embers. This is not a new concept, but the homes in the broader Paradise region were especially vulnerable when they were located above these gulches and canyons. Enhanced vegetation management is highly recommended that includes a 5-foot non-combustible zone immediately adjacent to the home.

Charred remnants called “embers” found in a lawn were drivers of the Camp Fire. The large size suggests that these embers were generated from burning buildings, not from vegetation.
Our team, which also included Dr. Eric Knapp from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, has been able to do a quick analysis of home losses by year of construction in Paradise. This cursory analysis shows that many homes built after the 2008 wildfire standards were adopted were lost during this fire, however, without knowing the specific details of each home (e.g., maintenance practices, proximity to other building, etc.), these statistics can be misleading. We will continue to work through the available data to try to look for patterns, however, in the meantime, it seems clear to me that the new construction standards can reduce the probability of ember intrusion and may have helped for some homes in Paradise. This week a new study reported that complying with these standards was not considerably more expensive. Additionally, the codes that help guide construction in California's wildfire-prone areas are dynamic and will be informed by the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons.

For me, thinking about Paradise in the abstraction was easy. Visiting it was different. The name says it all. After my visit I could understand why someone would choose Paradise or Magalia; the views are awesome, the air is clear, the forest and woodlands are amazing. I can only imagine that the community was (almost) perfect. Rebuilding a more resilient community will take considerable thought, effort, and some radical new ideas.

 

 

 

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Posted on Monday, July 29, 2019 at 8:49 AM
  • Author: Yana Valachovic
Tags: wildfire (134), Yana Valachovic (17)

UC fire scientist Kate Wilkin created defensible space at her own Grass Valley home

Kate Wilkin inspects a ponderosa pine on her property with an old fire scar, undeniable evidence that fire has swept through her neighborhood in the past.

Fire scientist Kate Wilkin was on the job just a few weeks when ferocious winds whipped up the Northern California firestorm of 2017. The national media focused on Napa and Sonoma counties, where the deadly Tubbs fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, while devastating fires also broke out in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.

It was crunch time for Wilkin, who stepped in as the new forestry, fire science and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties that fall. Four lives and 200 homes were lost in her new work community. Wilkin hosts workshops to help families and businesses build communities that are more resilient to fire. She draws experience from maintaining her own Grass Valley home fire resilient.

The Wilkin-Johnston home is at the top of a rise dotted with cedars, ponderosa pines and black oaks. The dying plants in the foreground are Himalayan blackberry bushes that were treated with glyphosate (RoundUp) to remove them. The invasive weed forms a continuous understory that climbs into tree canopies and can carry fire with it. Wilkin removed one blackberry stem from a cedar tree that was more than 30 feet long.

From the Bay Area to the small town of Grass Valley

Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston moved into their first home, a ranch-style rambler atop a hill in Grass Valley, on Sept. 15, 2017, three days before Wilkin reported to work in the Sutter-Yuba County UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City.

The couple moved from a small apartment in Berkeley, where Wilkin was conducting research as a post-doc in the lab of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher and UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. The move from a hyper-urban Bay Area city to a small hamlet in the hills wasn't too much of shock to their systems. Johnston was raised on a farm with chickens and goats. Wilkin grew up in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va. After completing her bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., introduced Wilkin to fire science.

“In the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the landscape would burn then flood every year,” Wilkin said. “I became fascinated with how these disturbances catalyzed diversity.”

What better place to continue a fire education than California?

Wilkin enrolled at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, earning a master's degree in biology. She spent the next three years in Yosemite National Park, working with a team of scientists to understand the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.

“We found that the current policies led to meadow degradation,” Wilkin said. Yosemite then changed its policy to reduce the amount of horse grazing on these tender, sensitive mountain resources.

Kate Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston in front of their Grass Valley home.

In 2011, Wilkin started work on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, where she studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. Wilkin signed up for the pilot Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, launched in 2014 to train and recruit graduate students for careers in research and outreach.

“The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” Wilkin told Science Magazine for an article about the innovative program. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions.”

The railing and both sides of the siding on the deck were covered in wooden lattice by the previous homeowners. Wilkin and Johnston found a squirrel cache between the layers of lattice, with acorns, pinecones, needles and other dry plant debris. “It was the perfect place to start a fire,” Wilkin said.

Beginning at home

With full knowledge of the dangers of living in fire-prone areas, Wilkin and Johnston purchased a home close to the outdoor amenities they adore – hiking, backpacking and skiing.

“Tahoe is just an hour away,” Wilkin said. “I love the view from the house and the wooded setting. But we live in an area CalFire has designated as very high fire danger.”

As a fire scientist, Wilkin was well equipped to make changes to the home and landscape to minimize the risk.

“We moved in during peak fire season,” Wilkin said. “We didn't hang artwork. My priority was to make the home and deck more fire resistant. We put in one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents, caulked around doors and windows, blew leaves off the roof and deck, removed lattice wrapping the deck and cleaned the gutters. Then we created defensible space starting close to the house and working our way outward."

The couple labored about 200 hours and spent about $800 in the first six weeks buying and renting tools, including a chipper, saw and a truck to haul away tinder-dry lattice, foliage and pine needles. With the most critical fireproofing completed, the couple is now tallying the work that should be done to further enhance the fire safety of their home.

“We probably need another $6,000 to $7,000 of work,” Wilkin said.

To reduce large, hot embers from drifting into the basement and starting a fire in the home, Wilkin and Johnston installed one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents. Before next fire season, they will upgrade to vents that close during fires.

When the North Winds blow

Wilkin recalled the terrifying time about a month after moving into their new home when howling winds whipped around the house and fires were breaking out across Northern California.

“The North Winds are haunting,” she said. “I hadn't felt wind like that since I lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes.”

Wilkin and Johnston were fortunate. The closest fire to their home was the McCourtney Fire, which burned 76 acres in Grass Valley. The wildfire stayed two miles away.

A thick hedge of camellias borders the side of the home. Although ideally homes should have a five-foot zone immediately surrounding the house clear of burnable objects and plants, she didn’t have the heart to pull them all out when they were full of flower buds, but removed them after they bloomed.
 
Complex features on the roof – such as skylights, solar panels and a valley that can capture debris – require frequent maintenance to keep the roof fire safe. Johnston tacked down loose flashing on the roof and blew leaves off the roof and out of the gutters.
 
The previous homeowners installed a shrub-lined wood fence that went under the deck and attached to the house. “It was a perfect way for a fire to wick into the house,” Wilkin said. The couple removed the shrubs and fence slats and plan to remove the posts as well.
Posted on Monday, July 29, 2019 at 8:40 AM
Tags: Kate Wilkin (8), wildfire (134)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Plant spacing and maintenance are critical in the defensible landscape

All vegetation can burn, but some plant species may pose less risk than others in a wildfire-prone community, reported Noah Bemer in the Calaveras Enterprise.

In the first five feet around buildings, stone walls, rocks, patios and gravel mulch can enhance fire safety. In areas that are landscaped, high-moisture plants that grow low to the ground and contain little sap or resin also decrease fire risk.

Susan Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor in the Central Sierra, said home fire safety “usually means taking away vegetation, rather than adding it. A more safe landscape would be more sparse.”

Bev Vierra-Pennington, the coordinator of the Demonstration Garden at the Government Center in San Andreas for the UC Master Gardener program of Calaveras County, said plant maintenance and spacing are much more important than the types of plants cultivated when it comes to fire safety.

“Having a list of plants (that are fire-resistant) is very misleading,” Vierra-Pennington said. “The secret is to plant plants that won't touch each other at a mature size and are nonwoody.”

Maintaining the plants is equally important. They must be watered regularly and well-trimmed. “It takes work. You can't plant it and walk away,” she said.

While cultivating fire-resistant plants instead of more combustible plant species will help to mitigate against wildfire risk, “Don't think that's going to solve the problem,” Kocher said. “No plant is really great (when it comes to protecting the home against wildfire), although some are worse than others.”

Defensible space makes fighting fire easier and safer for firefighters.
Posted on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at 12:04 PM
Tags: defensible space (1), Susan Kocher (4), wildfire (134)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

California’s bad romance with Bromus fuels wildfire

Non-native Bromus species, such as ripgut brome, grow fast and dry out quickly, becoming highly flammable.

When wildfires burn in California, people often call them forest fires or brushfires, but the odds are high that an invasive weed is an unrecognized fuels component, says a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientist.

“We have all of the nasty non-native Bromus species here in California, and these weeds are key drivers of increasing fire frequency,” said Travis Bean, UC Cooperative Extension weed science specialist based at UC Riverside.

The invasive, non-native Bromus species aggressively outcompete native plants, forming dense stands that grow fast and dry out quickly, becoming highly flammable. Fire can move rapidly through these dense patches of dry grass, especially during windy conditions or on slopes.

“When you have understory of dry Bromus or other weedy grasses, their ease of ignition can allow fire to spread from areas like roadsides where ignition sources are plentiful to more pristine native plant communities,” Bean said. “Additionally, these fast-moving fires can throw embers that allows the fire to jump long distances or even reach high into the air, igniting structures.” 

The key to reducing the spread of invasive, non-native Bromus species or any annual weed is preventing the plants from producing seeds, says Travis Bean. Bromus tectorum or cheatgrass shown. Photo by Ron Vanderhoff

Identifying fire fuel

Bean would like to see the fuels in wildfires identified so people have a chance to consider managing them to mitigate the increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfire across the state.

With training, citizen scientists such as California Naturalists could help cities, counties, utilities and government agencies identify the invasive plant species that fuel urban wildfires.

“On a landscape scale, I would focus on managing Bromus anywhere human-caused ignitions occur,” Bean said. “Resources for management are scarce, and these species are widespread and can't be controlled everywhere they occur. Roadsides, hiking trails, and campgrounds are critical areas where people can start fires that spread, so It makes sense to concentrate management there.”

Bromus madritensis, or foxtail brome, is pervasive at lower elevations. Image source: Calflora
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is widespread at higher elevations, while ripgut brome (B. diandrus) and red brome (B. madritensis spp. rubens), also called foxtail brome, are pervasive at lower elevations. Along with other invasive winter annual weeds, they have successfully replaced large areas of the native vegetation in Southern California. 

“When I talk to land managers about these species, they recognize that some areas will have to be sacrificed and it may not be possible to eliminate these species from the landscape,” Bean said. They are prioritizing areas with smaller invasive populations where there is an actual chance to eliminate them, or are managing larger populations for containment so they don't spread.”  

Timing is everything

The key to reducing the spread of invasive, non-native Bromus species or any annual weed is preventing the plants from producing seeds, Bean said. “Whatever control method you chose, if deployed too early or too late, you gain nothing for considerable expense.” Too early and the plants may simply resprout, while too late and they will have already set seed and further contributed to next year's weed crop.

Herbicide is an effective and inexpensive means of control, though many prefer non-chemical methods. Hand pulling can be effective in small areas, but is discouraged for large patches due to the sheer amount of labor required and risks of actually spreading the weed seeds.

At Hopland Research & Extension Center, the River Fire burned right up to the fence line, stopping at the grazed pasture on left.

Another way land managers can try to prevent the weeds from spreading is by mowing or grazing with goats, sheep or cattle, Bean said, adding that using livestock can require more intensive management and proper timing is critical. 

“For mowing and grazing, the key is to wait until the plants have started to flower, but the seeds are not mature,” Bean said. “If you mow when there's mature seed, you'll just spread the seed and make the problem worse. And once the seedheads mature, grazing animals won't eat it.”

Prescribed fire is another option for containing invasive grasses, but is generally discouraged as there's a very high chance of exacerbating the problem. These Bromus species are very fire-adapted and tend to increase following burns. Prescribed fire should only be used by professional land managers. If this strategy is used, a burn plan, permits and training are essential. If not done correctly, prescribed burns may escape control and become wildfires, producing smoke that impairs visibility on highways, impacts air quality and human health, and damages native vegetation.

Prescribed fire is an option for containing invasive grasses, but may exacerbate the problem. A burn plan, permits and training are essential.

“Timing is everything,” Bean said, explaining the temperature difference between the plant and soil surface. “The grass has to be dry enough to carry fire, but not so dry that the seeds have fallen from the plant to the soil surface, where temperatures are much cooler than just a few inches up in the air where the seedheads are. Some research has shown this strategy to have been successfully used for certain invasive grasses like barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncilias), but is not recommended for Brome species.”

He expects the changing climate to lead to more invasive plant species. “Invasive plants can be more resilient during drought and can quickly bounce back when rain returns, overwhelming natives,” Bean said. “And invasive species are often key drivers of wildfires and increasing fire frequencies and intensities, which prevents the recovery of native plants.“

 

Posted on Monday, July 22, 2019 at 3:38 PM
Tags: Travis Bean (2), Weeds (24), wildfire (134)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

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