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Livestock grazing helps California tackle wildfire

California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.

At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.

Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.

“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.

“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”

However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.

“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”

UCCE specialist Lynn Huntsinger suggested cattle may be viewed as a team of firefighters.

The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.

“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”

At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.

“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”

There is still much more research to be done.

“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”

Research by UCCE advisor Laura Snell and her colleagues showed that rangeland doesn't need to be 'rested' following a fire.

The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.

She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.

The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like. 

“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”

The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.

“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”

Sheep and cattle grazing can reduce the fuel load for a potential wildfire. (Photo: Dan Macon)

Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.

Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.

Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.

Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.

“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 at 8:40 AM
Tags: cattle (17), Laura Snell (3), Lynn Huntsinger (6), rangeland (26), sheep (9), Van Butsic (7), wildfire (121)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Bigcone Douglas-firs are suffering the effects of wildfires and droughts

Bigcone Douglas-fir is an evergreen conifer native to the mountains of Southern California. Repeated wildfires and drought are threatening the species' existence in its native range, reported Bettina Boxall in the Los Angeles Times.

The reporter visited a Santa Barbara County site peppered with tall, dead trees where UC Cooperative Extension fire specialist Max Moritz is studying the species' fate. 

"You don't see anything," he said. "It has a fairly depressing quality to it, given the mortality and no regeneration."

The area was burned by the Zaca Fire 11 years ago, something the fire-resistant conifer can generally withstand. Moritz and research assistant Ryan Salladay found evidence that the trees survived the fire, but then died sometime later. They are trying to determine what did them in by recording the aspect of the slope, collecting tree core samples, measuring the water stress in living trees, looking for wildfire impacts, and checking for seedlings.

“The drought-following-fire issue is a total reshuffling of what might come back or survive,” Moritz said.

Bigcone Douglas-fir occurs from the San Rafael Mountains in central Santa Barbara County and the Tehachapi Mountains of southwestern Kern County, south through the Transverse Ranges, to the Cuyamaca Mountains in San Diego County. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Posted on Friday, January 11, 2019 at 2:11 PM
Tags: climate change (80), drought (162), Max Moritz (26), wildfire (121)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

U.S. President's threat to cut FEMA funding to California chided

U.S President Donald Trump criticized forest management in California and threatened to cut off federal emergency funding this week, eliciting confusion and condemnation, reported Ryan Bort in Rolling Stone.

The International Association of Fire Fighters released a statement calling Trump's move "disgraceful." "While our president is tweeting on the sidelines in DC, our fellow Americans 3,000 miles to the west are mourning loved ones, entire communities have been wiped off the map and thousands of people are still trying to figure out where they are going to call home."

The reporter wrote that the president is fixated on the state's role in causing forest fires, but the federal government owns the majority of forested land in California. Moreover, the devastating Camp and Woolsey fires of 2018 were not forest fires; they were wildland-urban interface fires, according to UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist Max Moritz.

"In these environments, as we've seen, it can be the homes themselves that are burning and spreading fire to other nearby homes. Managing vegetation can thus have relatively little effect on fire spread," Moritz said. 

A Paradise resident surveys his home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Butte County. (Photo: 25th Air Force 25af.af.mil)

The federal government shutdown itself is having a major impact on wildfire prevention, reported Ezra David Romero on Capital Public Radio.

Typically, forest managers analyze their budgets and plan for the next fire season during the winter. But the government shutdown has suspended these efforts because the U.S. Forest Service - which has been furloughed since Dec. 22 - plays a big role.

Crews in Redwood National Park are “just sitting on their hands,” according to UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson in Humboldt County, because they can't work on federal land during the shutdown. She said that workers were “excited to do more” on the heels of the state's worst fire season in history. “This is just taking the wind out of their sails."

The shutdown is also causing challenges for UCCE forestry specialist Bill Stewart. He's working on collaboration between the UC system and the Forest Service to streamline the cost of preventing wildfires. But the shutdown is making the five-year project, which has end-of-January deadlines, difficult to accomplish.

“Everything has come to a total stop,” Stewart said. “They are not even allowed to answer their emails. If this continues it may be hard to restart for this next season.”

Posted on Thursday, January 10, 2019 at 1:25 PM
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Novel way to remove fire-prone plants

Residents in fire-prone areas should take a critical look at the plants around their homes and remove any that can fuel a wildfire, wrote a team that includes UC Master Gardener Jessica Craven Goldstein for VC Reporter

"The juniper hedge serving as an icon of suburban living might now be regarded as a danger to neighbors," they said.

Residents of fire-prone areas should remove flammable landscape plants. (Photo: Pxhere)

The article included a novel idea for getting rid of unwanted plants. "I was able to remove several large plants with two-foot root balls by advertising them on Craigslist as 'free.'" emailed a Ventura resident. "I had a lot of responses and several people begging to be the chosen one."

The authors suggested that rural and suburban homeowners review the plant list created by FireSafe Marin for photos and details about plants that should be targeted for removal, and other websites - Sunset.com and CalFire - that list fire "safer" plants native to the West.

In addition to Craigslist, the story suggested Nextdoor.com for finding new homes for plants that are fire-prone or simply not suitable for their space. It also gave quick tips for successful transplanting, with details on managing irrigation, timing, shock and rootballs.

Posted on Thursday, January 3, 2019 at 9:31 AM
Tags: wildfire (121)
Focus Area Tags: Environment Yard & Garden

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.

 

 

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2018 at 7:42 PM
  • Author: Yana Valachovic
Tags: wildfire (121), Yana Valachovic (15)

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