Posts Tagged: Susie Kocher
Californians have been concerned about wildfires for a long time, but the past two years have left many of them fearful and questioning whether any solutions to the fire crisis truly exist.
The Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada burned nearly 1 million acres in 2021, including almost the entire community of Greenville. Then strong winds near Lake Tahoe sent the Caldor Fire racing through the community of Grizzly Flats and to the edges of urban neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people – including one of us. Those were only the biggest of the 2021 fires, and the risk isn't over. A wind-blown fire that started Oct. 11 was spreading quickly near Santa Barbara on the Southern California coast.
As foresters who have been working on wildfire and forest restoration issues in the Sierra Nevada for over a quarter of a century, we have found it painful to watch communities destroyed and forests continuing to burn to a crisp.
The main lesson we gather from how these fires have burned is that forest fuels reduction projects are our best tools for mitigating wildfire impacts under a changing climate, and not nearly enough of them are being done.
Two historic policies, in our view, led the western U.S. to the point where its forests have become so overgrown they're fueling megafires that burn down whole communities.
The first policy problem is fire suppression and exclusion.
Fire is an essential ecological process, and many of the ecosystems in the West are adapted to frequent fire, meaning plant and wildlife species have evolved to survive or even thrive after wildfires. But most people arriving in California during colonization, both before and after the Gold Rush of 1849, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of frequent fire forests.
As state and federal agencies evolved policies on forest management, they considered all fire to be an existential problem and declared war. The U.S. Forest Service kicked off a century of fire suppression in the West after the devastating fires of 1910, known as the “Big Blowup” or “Big Burn,” by implementing the 10 a.m. policy. It aimed for full suppression of all fires by 10 a.m. the day after they broke out.
Native people who practiced prescribed fire to manage forests were removed from their homelands, and burning was criminalized. California made prescribed fire illegal in 1924, and it remained illegal for decades until a better appreciation of its importance emerged in the 1970s.
Past harvesting practices lead to regulations
The second policy issue is the regulatory approach that grew out of past logging practices.
Foresters and early California communities were interested in forests for lumber and fuel wood. They sent the largest – and most fire-tolerant – trees to mills to be turned into lumber, which was used to build California's cities and towns.
Poorly executed logging in some areas led to concerns from residents that forest cover and habitat was shrinking. As a result, state and federal regulations were developed in the 1970s that require managers proposing forest projects to consider a “no action alternative.” In other words, maintaining dense forest habitat in the long term was considered a viable management choice.
On private land, few owners today thin the forest to levels that would mimic the more fire-resilient forests found in the Sierra at colonization. The California Forest Practices Act until recently required replanting after timber harvest to levels much more dense than were found at colonization. In other words, our current regulatory framework promotes maintaining high levels of forest density, when much more drastic removal of vegetation is needed.
Taken together, these policies have promoted 21st-century forests that are younger, denser and more homogenous – making them vulnerable to increasingly severe disturbances such as drought, insect outbreaks and fire. This new reality is exacerbated by a changing climate, which turns the regulatory assumption that active and widespread forest management is riskier than no management on its head.
Agency priorities change as the crisis grows
Just as forests have changed, so too have the agencies that manage and regulate them. The U.S. Forest Service has seen its budgets for fighting fires balloon while its capacity to proactively manage forests has been shrinking. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE, has also seen large increases in firefighting budgets, though the state legislature has recently moved to increase fire prevention funds, too.
Living in communities threatened by wildfires this summer, we are very grateful to firefighters who have saved our homes. Yet we also are concerned that more large, high-severity wildfires burning across the landscape mean less funding and staff will be available for proactive fuels reduction projects like forest thinning and prescribed fires.
How do we get out of this mess?
Fuels reduction projects include thinning out trees, burning off woody debris and reducing “ladder fuels” like small trees and brush that can allow fire to reach the tree canopy. They create more open forests that are less likely to fuel severe megafires. They also create strategic areas where firefighters can more easily fight future blazes. And, because fires burn less intensely in thinned forests, they leave more intact forest after a fire for regenerating new trees and sequestering carbon. Prescribed fires and managed ignitions paid huge dividends for containing the Dixie and Caldor fires.
To manage fires in an era of climate change, where drier, hotter weather creates ideal conditions for burning, experts estimate that the area treated for fuels reduction needs to increase by at least an order of magnitude. We believe government needs to accomplish these four things to succeed:
1) Drastically increase funding and staff for agencies' fuels reduction projects, as well as outreach, cost-sharing and technical assistance for private forestland owners. Although the Biden administration's proposal for a Civilian Climate Corps proposes funding to bring in more young and unskilled workers, funding more federal and state agency positions would recruit more natural resource professionals, provide career-track opportunities and better add forest restoration capacity for the long term.
2) Reduce regulations on forest and fuels management efforts for both public and private land. While California and the federal government have made recent strides to streamline regulations, land management agencies need to acknowledge the biggest risk in frequent fire forests is doing nothing, and time is running out. Agencies need to drastically cut the time needed to plan and implement fuels reduction projects.
3) Invest in communities' capacity to carry out local forest restoration work by providing long-term support to local organizations that provide outreach, technical assistance and project coordination services. Funding restoration through competitive grants makes development of long-term community capacity challenging at best.
4) Provide funds and financial incentives for at risk communities to retrofit homes to withstand wildfires and reduce fuels around homes, communities and infrastructure.
Under a changing climate, we will have to learn to coexist with wildfires in the U.S. West, but this will require concerted action and a cultural shift in how we view and manage our forests and communities to be resilient.
Susan Kocher, Cooperative Extension Forester and Natural Resources Advisor, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Ryan E. Tompkins, Cooperative Extension Forester and Natural Resources Advisor, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
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.”
A team of California and Nevada fire scientists have produced a booklet with step-by-step guidance on retrofitting an existing home to be more resilient to fire.
Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor and co-author of the new guide, said some homeowners feel powerless to protect their homes against California's increasing wildfire threat.
The free 20-page publication, How to Harden Homes against Wildfire (http://ucanr.edu/HomeRetrofitGuide) is now available online. It includes recommendations for 12 vulnerable components of homes in wildfire-prone areas, including roofs, gutters, vents, siding, windows, decks and fences.
In the past, agencies have focused on recommending changes in vegetation and establishing defensible space. However, Kocher said recent advances in wildfire science have exposed vulnerabilities of structures themselves.
“Managing vegetation and retrofitting the home are both needed to decrease wildfire risk and help our communities become more fire adapted,” she said.
CAL FIRE awarded funding to develop and publish the wildfire home retrofit guide, funding that is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that assigns cap-and-trade dollars to projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy and improve public health and the environment.
In addition to CAL FIRE, organizations that contributed to the document are University of Nevada, Reno Extension; University of California Cooperative Extension; Living with Fire, Tahoe; Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team; Tahoe Resource Conservation District; and Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities.
The team also hosted three webinars to share home fire resilience information targeted to different audiences. Videos of the webinars are available on the Living with Fire YouTube Channel:
For the public: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX114wpPwmg&t=327s
For building professionals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccIAIg6xONs
For fire educators: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOsdyVSPxnA&t=177s
(First published Jan. 28, 2021)
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brings the power of UC to all 58 counties. Through research and Cooperative Extension in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, economic and youth development, our mission is to improve the lives of all Californians. Learn more at ucanr.edu.
Forestland owners can learn how to survey the trees on their property from four new videos produced by UC Cooperative Extension, setting them on a course for sustainable management of their forestland. The videos are available on the UC ANR YouTube channel (http://youtube.com/UCANR).
Learning the tools and techniques used for centuries by professional foresters and research scientists allows private forest owners to collect data that paints a picture of the land and trees' current condition.
“Whether it's managing to reduce wildfire, control invasive species, protect the nature beauty or maximize timber harvest, you need to know what you have so you can select the right actions to achieve your goals,” said Kimberly Ingram, UC Cooperative Extension forest stewardship education academic coordinator.
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. In 2019, with funds from CAL FIRE, UCCE launched a program to reach out to the 87,000 private landowners who manage portions of California's forests.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, three-day field workshops were offered to groups of forest owners to help them develop a plan to improve and protect their forestlands in an ecologically and economically sustainable manner. Because of the pandemic, alternative approaches are being used, including video training, online workshops and limited outdoor field days in locations where social distancing is feasible.
“We're using the flipped classroom method,” Ingram said. “The learner reads and watches videos beforehand and then, when they come to the online classroom and field day sessions, we're delving into real-world examples.”
Kestrel Grevatt, a member of the Grizzly Corps, an AmeriCorps program developed by UC Berkeley that addresses community needs related to climate change, was enlisted to create videos that demonstrate forest measurement practices.
The videos are for landowners who participate in the workshop series and for other forest owners who wish to begin collecting data on their own.
Susie Kocher, UCCE forestry and natural resources advisor in the Central Sierra Cooperative Extension office, narrates and conducts demonstrations in each of the videos. They cover the following topics:
Tree measurement tools
Learn the basics of forest inventory and what measurements you need to quantitatively represent your forest. It covers the usage of a diameter tape, Spencer logger's tape and Biltmore stick (or CA tree stick).
Using a clinometer to measure tree height
A clinometer is a simple tool which can be used to measure heights. In this video, you will learn how to use a clinometer to accurately measure tree height as part of a forest inventory.
Plot establishment tools
Learn how to use a compass, reel fiberglass tape and cruise vest to establish plots. The video covers how to think about your own inventory system and what you will want to take with you when you head into the woods.
Plot layout and inventory system
Learn what it looks like to collect plot data. This video includes a review of plot layout, the measurements and observations to note, and how sample data can represent your entire forest.
Three more forest stewardship workshops have been scheduled:
Feb. 2 - April 13, tribal-focused stewardship workshop: Online and at the Big Sandy Rancheria. Registration now open.
March 22 - May 27, online and in Humboldt County. Registration now open.
April 21 - June 16, online and in San Bernardino County. Registration opening soon.
Workshop registration is $60. Breakfast and lunches are provided for in-person field days. Register at http://ucanr.edu/forestryworskhopregistration.
In less than a decade, some of the burned expanses from this year's megafires could burst into intense flames again, reported Ula Chrobak in Scientific American.
Frequent, low-severity fires, which clear out patches of low-lying vegetation and dry leaf litter, have an preventative effect. Research shows that areas burned by megafires are more likely to become susceptible to fires again.
UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor Susie Kocher said that a century ago, before officials quashed all wildfires, only 5% to 10% of Sierra Nevada fires would burn at high severity. Today, the proportion of high-severity fires is between 40% and 60%.
“That's way outside of what we think would have been natural,” Kocher said.
After high-severity fires, the landscape is scorched and shadeless. Without mother trees, it may take a long time, or even be impossible, for conifers to move back in. With open land and sunlight, shrubs sprout amid downed dead pines, which over time accumulate dead twigs and leaves. If there is a spark, the shrubbery and fallen wood can sustain another large fire.
“Ultimately, all of these lands are going to need management within anywhere from two to 10 years —and probably closer to two to five years after a fire—to maintain that reduction in fuel,” said Kate Wilkin, a fire scientist at San José State University. As climate change makes California hotter and drier, increasing the propensity for monstrous fires, this need will only grow.