Posts Tagged: wildfire
As California grappled with a record-breaking heatwave last week and 236 wildfires, officials are bracing for the worst, reported Maanvi Singh in the Guardian.
The fires have been mostly fueled by grass and brush that came up during the state's especially wet winter and mild spring, according to a CAL FIRE official. UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said California's annual wildfire season is growing longer – beginning earlier in the spring and stretching later in the fall.
“It's not unusual for us to see this many small fires in June,” she said. “But 50 years ago, so many fires this early on – plus these extreme, high temperatures in June – would have been abnormal.”
It is difficult to predict how bad the rest of this fire season will be based on the number of fires so far, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.
"Our worst fire years aren't necessarily the years that we've had the highest number of fires,” he noted. “All it takes is one – one huge, destructive fire to ruin the whole year."
Public records show that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), has not kept up with its fire inspection goals in many wildfire-prone areas of California, reported Lauren Sommer on KQED radio, the National Public Radio affiliate in San Francisco.
In one CAL FIRE region in the Sierra Nevada, just 6% of properties were inspected in 2018. In the Bay Area, CAL FIRE inspected 12% of properties. Southern California coastal counties have recorded inspections at higher rates, with some looking at 100% of properties.
"We should be doing more, doing better," said Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist. "We need to have more people aware they are living on a fire-prone landscape and taking action."
The article said the agency's goal of inspecting 33% of homes each year is impeded by a lack of inspectors and resources. Lawmakers in Sacramento are now considering a bill, AB 1516, that mandates CAL FIRE inspect properties once every three years, beginning in 2021.
"There are not too many other ways people will learn about the vulnerability of their own home, other than having an inspector or firefighter at their property," Moritz said.
Historically, fire fighting was a male-dominated field. With broader diversity needed, women are seizing the opportunity, reported The Nature Conservancy.
TNC ran a feature on its website about a prescribed fire on its Disney Wildness Preserve in Florida staffed and managed by an all-women crew.
"Everybody was here to work, and communication went well," said Jana Mott, the day's burn boss and TNC's northern Florida stewardship project coordinator. "It was like a well-oiled machine. There was a high level of professionalism all around. It felt like just another day of doing business on the fireline."
The article also quoted UC Cooperative Extension fire scienctist Lenya Quinn-Davidson. She is director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. Quinn-Davidson helped plan and lead the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) in Tallahassee, as well as two previous WTREX.
The field of wildland fire has for too long been “so conventional, so static—not only operationally, but also culturally,” Quinn Davidson said. “We see now that it's time for that to change. We need more perspectives, more ideas, more innovation—more creative discomfort. And we need to create space for women and men of different backgrounds to have a voice and contribute to this evolution.”
Read more about WTREX in the article Lighting up a new path: the Women-in-Fire Rx Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) by Quinn-Davidson on the UC ANR Forest Research and Outreach Blog.
Why are we in this situation? Multiple factors are involved. We suppressed wildfires in our forests for 100 years, and stopped using prescribed fire as a tool for ecosystem benefits and fuel reduction. Further, we have been experiencing hotter summers (so the window for burning is wider) and we've continued to build into wildfire-prone areas with home construction, lot layout and community planning that often are not up to the fire challenge.
Is there hope? I present these as my take always, noting there is more detail to be seen at the UC ANR fire and other websites (e.g., CFSC). I was impressed by the three relatively clear battle grounds we need to attend to:
- Our homes: how we build, layout and landscape our homes
- Our communities: how we structure our neighborhoods and communities
- Our forests and beyond: how we manage (what I'll call) the forests and wildlands. Each has particular needs and opportunities
While the above focuses on prevention and management of fires, the Summit had good representation of the health sector, reminding us of the need to help humans, domestic animals and wildlife affected and traumatized by fire events.
The Summit was deemed by the participants themselves as very successful. Kudos to the many organizations who participated. There is momentum building with a genuine desire to work together to help the people of California.
Want to learn more? Contact some of our experts, who served as the chairs of the Summit coordinating committee:
David Lile, Leader, Sustainable Natural Ecosystems Strategic Initiative, UC ANR
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt County, UC ANR
Yana Valachovic, forest advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt and Del Norte County, UC ANR
Want more? See UC ANR fire
The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. Now, UC Cooperative Extension is beginning a dialog 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.
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.”