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New advisors share crucial wildfire expertise

The new statewide fire coordinator, Katie Low, helps with a prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest Research Station during her studies at UC Berkeley. Photo courtesy Katie Low

UC ANR hires more fire advisors to address growing threat to California communities

Bringing more expertise to more places across the state, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources continues to hire fire advisors to help communities prepare for one of the most devastating climate-fueled threats.

With wildfires a constant danger as drought grips California, five highly skilled UC Cooperative Extension experts have joined the organization since early May:

  • Katie Low, statewide fire coordinator (and also serving Nevada and Placer counties)
  • Alison Deak, fire advisor serving Mariposa, Fresno and Madera counties
  • Tori Norville, fire advisor serving Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties
  • Barb Satink Wolfson, fire advisor serving Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties
  • Luca Carmignani, fire advisor serving Los Angeles and Orange counties

These positions – as well as other recent additions in agriculture and natural resources fields – are made possible by California's commitment, as reflected in the state budget, to improve the lives of residents in the face of a changing climate.

This robust team of fire experts provide broad knowledge and practical advice on a wide range of topics, including fire hazard mitigation, fire ecology, prescribed fire, wildland fire research, forest and wildlife management, and climate change effects.

Although their specific areas of expertise vary, all the new fire advisors are dedicated to helping residents and community groups across California become more fire-aware, adapted and resilient. They share vital information on how Californians can prepare homes, landscapes and property for wildfire.

Katie Low

Katie Low
Katie Low, who began as the University of California Cooperative Extension statewide fire coordinator on Sept. 1, will fulfill two important functions for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' team of fire experts.

First, she will coordinate and partner with UCCE fire advisors throughout California to develop and deliver wildfire-related science and outreach materials for a wide range of communities across the state. Low said encouraging diversity in the network of fire experts and engaged communities will be crucial.

“One of my goals is to help build and maintain a diverse and inclusive community of fire and natural resource professionals,” she said.

Based at the UCCE office in Auburn, Low also will collaborate with local natural resource professionals and residents in Nevada and Placer counties on projects that bolster community and ecosystem resilience to wildfire and climate change.

“I look forward to working with community groups, land managers and scientists to implement viable fire-resilient management strategies for ecosystems in the region and statewide,” Low said.

Equipped with bachelor's degrees in geography and ecosystems management and forestry, as well as a master's in forestry, all from UC Berkeley, Low brings to UC ANR a wealth of knowledge and a variety of experience.

As a fire and forest ecologist, she studied the impacts of fuels-reduction and forest-restoration treatments on Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests. Low also worked as operations coordinator for the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, and as a forestry aide for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Forest Biometrics Program.

Low can be reached at 530-889-7385 and katlow@ucanr.edu; follow her on Twitter @lowseverityfire.

Alison Deak

Alison Deak
Alison Deak joined UC Cooperative Extension in August 2022 as a fire advisor for Mariposa, Fresno and Madera counties. Since she began work, Deak has been focused on conducting a needs assessment and building rapport with community leaders.

Her role as fire advisor will include promoting the use of prescribed fire to help restore fire adapted landscapes. She will also prioritize community education, applied research and partnership building efforts that are based on scientifically informed ways to help communities mitigate, prepare for, and recover from wildfire.

Originally from northeast Ohio where there are no wildfires according to Deak, it was not until she moved to Colorado for college that she learned of their impact.

When the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire occurred, Deak felt like her playground was burning down so she acted. She began volunteering with the wildfire recovery effort and her career into fire science took off from there.

Deak earned a bachelor's in geography and environmental studies from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and master's degrees in geography and nonprofit management from the University of Oregon.

Before moving to California and joining UC ANR, Deak worked as a wildland firefighter with the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. 

When asked what she is looking forward to most, Deak shared that she is passionate about increasing diversity in the fire science field and, particularly, empowering more women to join. She is eager to help community members prepare for wildfire and mitigate fire risk in a safe and competent manner.

Deak is located at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Mariposa County and can be reached at aldeak@ucanr.edu.

Tori Norville

Tori Norville
Tori Norville started on Aug. 1 as the new UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

In this capacity, Norville will work with residents and organizations within the wildland-urban interface to encourage and cultivate fire-adapted communities. She aims to provide education and outreach on home hardening, defensible space and the importance of forest and fuel management on the landscape.

While pursuing her bachelor's degree in forestry and natural resources at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Norville became interested in “disturbance ecology” – how factors such as disease, insects and fire affect landscapes and environments.

“Many of the forest health problems we are seeing are stemming from a lack of disturbance, which traditionally was fire,” Norville said.

Her understanding of fire and its effects deepened during her master's degree studies in forestry science (also at Cal Poly SLO), as well as through her seven years with CAL FIRE at the Jackson Demonstration State Forest in Mendocino County. She worked as the Registered Professional Forester for its Timber Sales Program, and then the Research and Demonstration Program.

Norville's firsthand experiences from the past few fire seasons have helped shape her goals and approach. She hopes to “work holistically with disturbances” – specifically fire – on the landscape to foster healthy forests and ecosystems that are adaptable and resilient, while also researching the environmental and social aspects of fuel-reduction projects and prescribed fire.

“Hopefully, I can begin to change the perception of fire from something we need to fear, to something we respect,” she said.

Norville, based at the UCCE office in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, can be reached at trnorville@ucanr.edu.

Barb Satink Wolfson

Barb Satink Wolfson

Barb Satink Wolfson began in her role as UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties on June 30.

Her primary responsibilities include wildland fire-related research and outreach for the Central Coast region, while building trust, strong partnerships and collaborative relationships within both professional and non-professional communities.

Satink Wolfson earned her B.S. and M.S. in forestry from Northern Arizona University, and brings to UC ANR more than 20 years of fire-research and outreach experience in Arizona. Her favorite job, though, was working as a backcountry ranger in Yosemite National Park during her undergraduate years.

In her new role, Satink Wolfson hopes to address some of the questions behind the use of prescribed fire in a variety of ecosystems (such as coastal prairies and oak woodlands), and help all Central Coast communities build resilience to wildland fire so residents can live safely within fire-adapted landscapes.

Satink Wolfson, based at the UCCE office in Hollister, can be reached at bsatinkwolfson@ucanr.edu.

Luca Carmignani

Luca Carmignani
Luca Carmignani joined UCCE as a fire advisor for Orange and Los Angeles counties May 2. His research interests include image analysis, computer programming and scientific outreach.

Prior to joining UC ANR, Carmignani was a postdoctoral researcher in the Berkeley Fire Research Lab at UC Berkeley. His research has focused on fire and combustion applications, from wildland fires to material flammability.

He earned his Ph.D. in engineering sciences from the joint doctoral program between UC San Diego and San Diego State University after obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Pisa in Italy.

Carmignani is based at South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine and can be reached at carmignani@ucanr.edu and (949) 237-2956. Follow him on Twitter @l_carmignani.

Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2022 at 1:57 PM
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Natural Resources

Save trees first: Tips to keep them alive during drought

UC ANR and U.S. Forest Service are doing research on "climate-ready trees" at UC Riverside. Photo by Janet Hartin

Trees essential to lowering temperatures, cooling ‘heat islands'

Water restrictions prompted by the drought are driving Californians to prioritize how they will use their limited water. Because landscape irrigation is a major water use for many households, residents are looking outdoors to conserve water.

When choosing which landscape plants to save, “trees come first,” said Janet Hartin, UC Cooperative Extension area environmental horticulture advisor for San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. “Healthy communities need trees. Fortunately new California water restrictions allow for provisions to ensure trees receive adequate water to stay alive and healthy.”

“Mature trees are instrumental in cooling urban heat islands and we can't afford to lose them and start all over,” Hartin said. “Shade from mature trees can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 65 degrees in asphalt-covered parking lots. Shade from a single tree can reduce these surface temperatures from 165 to less than 100 degrees when air temperatures reach 110 degrees. Even with air temperatures in the 90s, surface temperatures can reach 140 degrees.”

In addition to providing shade, trees absorb and store carbon dioxide, release oxygen, enhance pollinators and wildlife habitat, filter pollutants from air and water and can reduce energy use, according to Hartin. Because trees take years to grow, they aren't as easily replaced as other plants.

As residents let lawns go brown, she recommends watering trees that are near or surrounded by lawn.

“If a tree is in the middle of a lawn, it is almost certainly watered by lawn irrigation,” Hartin said. “If it's not on a separate drip system, drag out a hose and allow the water to slowly trickle into the soil early in the morning or in the evening. Deep watering for two hours once every couple of weeks will keep most established trees alive."

In most jurisdictions, watering restrictions do not apply to hand watering and hand-held watering devices such as hoses, which may be used for longer periods of time than the restrictions permit otherwise. However, watering may be restricted in all cases to prescribed times of day. 

“Check to see if your jurisdiction also requires a hose shutoff valve,” Hartin said. 

“For fruit trees, we may have to forgo fruit production for a year or so. There may not be enough water to support fruit production, but the goal is to keep the trees alive during the drought,” she said.

Trees can be watered by drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses as well as hand-held devices. Photo by Janet Hartin

She recommends watering trees away from the trunk, halfway between the trunk and the dripline – where the foliage ends and rain drips off the leaves – because “roots grow outward quite a distance as well as downward. Leave the hose on so the water is just trickling out,” she said. “You want water to seep into the soil and encourage the roots to grow deeper. The slow water flow will seep down a foot or so and the roots will follow, which will help anchor the tree. Move the hose around every half hour to hour in quadrants around the tree for more even watering.”  

Don't have time to move the hose? Hartin suggests getting a soaker hose and wrapping it in concentric circles 2 to 3 feet apart. 

“Soaker hoses are made from recycled tire rubber and allow water to slowly ooze out of the pores along the hose, distributing the water fairly evenly throughout the hose length. Avoid using soaker hoses longer than 75 feet due to pressure issues.”   

To reduce evaporation around the tree, spreading mulch a few inches from trunk can help.

“Dark mulches can heat the environment so it's best not to use them,”Hartin said. “If you are in a fire-prone area, don't use organic wood-based mulches because they are flammable. Use decomposed gravel or pebbles, rock-based products instead. To keep sunlight out and discourage weeds, large wood chip mulches should be maintained 3-4-inches deep and smaller inorganic mulches at 1-2 inches.”

Residents may want to maintain some grass for children and pets because bare feet and paws can sustain serious burns on surfaces hotter than 120 degrees.

“People don't realize how hot fake grass can get,” Hartin said. “Research I conducted last summer in the Coachella Valley and Redlands found that surface temperatures of synthetic lawns can be more than 65 degrees higher than living turf and groundcover surfaces on several dates in between May and August.”

For California lawns, there are drought-tolerant grasses that can thrive on 30% less water than bluegrass and other cool season varieties. Examples are buffalograss and bermudagrass. They still require maintenance, such as mowing, but are great for play and recreational surfaces for people and pets.

Jim Baird, UC Cooperative Extension turf specialist based at UC Riverside, said, “Turfgrasses offer numerous recreational, aesthetic, and environmental benefits including player safety, property value, mental health, erosion control, groundwater recharge and surface water quality, organic chemical decomposition, carbon sequestration and environmental cooling.” 

UC Cooperative Extension specialists Amir Haghverdi and Don Merhaut are studying groundcover water use. UC Riverside Ph.D. candidate Anish Sapota monitors the test plot.

There are also non-turf groundcovers that are drought resistant. 

“As they transpire, plants cool the environment. We have more and more drought-resistant alternatives to high-water-requiring plants on the market now, and that's where we should be going,” Hartin said.   

For people considering replacing their lawns and adding new landscape plants, she recommends planting low-water using groundcovers in the fall.

“It's too hot to plant in summer and even native and drought-resistant plants require water several times week until they get established,” she said.

Most counties have a UC Master Gardener Program with a helpline staffed by well-trained volunteers dispensing advice to help keep plants alive and recommend plants that are well-suited for the local environment. Find a local UC Master Gardener Program at https://mg.ucanr.edu/FindUs.

University of California Cooperative Extension
Drought and Landscape Tree Care Resources 

Keeping Plants Alive Under Drought and Water Restrictions (English) 

https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8553.pdf 

Mantener las plantas del exterior vivas con poca agua (Spanish) 

https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8628.pdf 

Prioritizing Trees Under Drought and Water Restrictions (5-minute video) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTKLlJgdLVk 

Tips to Keep Your Landscape Trees Alive During Drought 

https://ucanr.edu/b/~IjC 

Landscape Tree Irrigation to Maximize Tree Health, Benefits, and Beauty 

https://ucanr.edu/b/~YjA 

Landscape Tree Irrigation 101 

https://ucanr.edu/b/~UjA 

Top 10 Ways to Conserve Water in Your Landscape and Garden 

https://ucanr.edu/b/~tTD 

Use of Graywater in Urban Landscapes in California 

https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=8536  

 

Posted on Thursday, June 9, 2022 at 10:34 AM
Focus Area Tags: Yard & Garden

'Exceptional' Drought, What to do? With Alfalfa-Start Early!

JUST HOW DRY IS IT? It really doesn't look good out there for many western alfalfa growers. Most parts of the West are currently under 'severe,...

Posted on Monday, May 2, 2022 at 7:11 AM
Tags: Alfalfa (64), drought (167)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment

Drought pushes California farmers and ranchers to adapt to a drier future

California farmers have adapted to water shortages by leaving some fields unplanted and transferring irrigation water to higher value crops such as almonds. Photo by Jack Kelly Clark

Despite historic drought, farms and ranches may receive normal revenue

Despite recent rains, the 2020–21 drought has been unusually severe. Low precipitation, coupled with high evaporation has affected irrigated crops and livestock pastures. Yet California farmers and ranchers are adept at adapting. Despite record-setting drought conditions and hundreds of thousands of acres left unplanted, California farms and ranches, as a whole, may generate normal revenue in 2021, according to the authors of a new special issue of ARE Update focusing on the drought. 

The 2020 water year (which ran from October 2019 through September 2020), was dry and hot in California, with the warmest April through September since 1895. It was followed by the third driest year since 1895 – receiving about half of the average 20th century rainfall. Consecutive years with record-setting warm, dry conditions have led to higher evaporative demand. Some regions, particularly the Sacramento Basin, have been hit especially hard by this ongoing drought. 

California farmers have adapted to the resulting water shortages by transferring scarce irrigation water to crops that have a higher expected net revenue per drop of water, such as fresh produce and nuts, while leaving some fields unplanted. Due to decreased pasture forage, livestock producers have had to cull mature cows and ship more feeder cattle out of state.

“The dairy industry has had strong production and good revenue, but has faced high feed costs in 2021 that reduced net returns,” said special issue co-editor Daniel Sumner, UC Davis agricultural economist.

Due to decreased pasture forage, livestock producers have had to cull mature cows and ship more feeder cattle out of state. Photo by Pam Kan-Rice

The drought's impact on farm revenues and prices in California has varied across crops and regions. Agricultural production on the coast (e.g., vegetables, berries and wine grapes), which accounts for 25% of farm output, is less likely to experience irrigation cutbacks during a drought. Consumers will notice few major price increases for California produce because farmers shifted water to these high-revenue crops in which California specializes.

The special issue on drought concludes with an explanation of policy changes that have improved the California water system in the past and envisions how policy changes might mitigate impacts of future droughts. Legislation such as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) will facilitate adapting to new climate realities by incentivizing water trading and banking, which allow water users to better allocate water across space and time.

Most groundwater agencies are still assessing the best way to bring their overdrafted groundwater basins into compliance with SGMA, with almost 80% planning to recharge groundwater through increasing supply (e.g., recharge or surface water trading) rather than reducing water demand (e.g., pumping restrictions).

“No one single solution exists for California's water challenges, but there's a lot of potential to make improvements to the current system,” said Ellen Bruno, special issue co-editor and UC Berkeley agricultural economist. “Improving the allocation of water through various policy changes could help water users adapt to water scarcity.”

To learn more about the impact of the ongoing drought on California agriculture, read the full Special Issue of ARE Update 25(1), UC Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, online at https://giannini.ucop.edu/publications/are-update.

Consumers will notice few major price increases for California produce because farmers shifted water to high-revenue crops such as strawberries. Photo by Joji Muramoto

ARE Update is a bimonthly magazine published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics to educate policymakers and agribusiness professionals about new research or analysis of important topics in agricultural and resource economics. Articles are written by Giannini Foundation members, including University of California faculty and Cooperative Extension specialists in agricultural and resource economics, and university graduate students. Learn more about the Giannini Foundation and its publications at https://giannini.ucop.edu.

Posted on Thursday, November 4, 2021 at 8:16 AM
Tags: Daniel Sumner (34), Drought (167), Ellen Bruno (3)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Food

Can California native plants be used as cover crops to benefit farmers and native ecosystems?

In late February, in an almond orchard in the Sacramento Valley, the fall-planted cover crop mix of grasses, brassicas and legumes had barely produced a green fuzz above the soil surface, and it was unclear when it would bloom. Unfortunately, this scene is becoming more frequent across California, as climate change causes more prolonged droughts and rain-dependent winter cover crops can barely grow, which delays or reduces bloom, essential for supporting pollinators. Fortunately, California native plant species have evolved with drought and have developed many strategies to survive and reproduce in those conditions.

Poor growth of cover crops during a dry winter. Photo by Sonja Brodt
 

Would it be possible to capitalize on the over 9 million acres of cropland in California for drought resilience and habitat restoration by utilizing more native species as cover crops? Our team at the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP) spent some time considering various native plant species and their potential ecological and operational attributes as cover crops. For a full list of species and their attributes, see https://ucanr.edu/sites/covercrops/.

Many native species are so well adapted to drought that they will still germinate and bloom during extremely dry years, for example, annuals like Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Alternatively, perennial bulb species like Prettyface (Triteleia ixioides) and Bluedicks (Dipteronstemon capitatus) become dormant during the dry summer, retaining their bulbs below ground and re-growing when the rains return. These species could perhaps fit well in no-till orchard systems. Summer dormancy is important for tree nut growers because they usually need clean ground under the trees during harvest. Moreover, the costs to terminate and reseed would potentially be eliminated. While these species are well-known by Native Americans for their edible bulbs, at this point in time, we are not aware of any cover cropping trials having ever been conducted with these species. 

Cover crop growth with higher rainfall. Photo by Vivian Wauters

Another species with strong reseeding and more availability is the annual Lacy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), which offers an intriguing historical precedent for developing a native species for cover cropping purposes. Native to California, it was introduced into Europe in 1832 by Germans. It is very attractive to pollinators and experienced a boom there in the early 1990s. European beekeepers and farmers have been using Lacy Phacelia as a cover crop ever since, and it has recently been gaining traction on California farms as well. California has many species of phacelia, with another, described as being even more attractive to native bees, being the annual Great Valley Phacelia (Phacelia ciliata). Besides supporting native bees, other native plant species can contribute nitrogen to the soil, such as annual Lupine (Lupinus spp.) and perennial Deerweed (Acmispon glaber), which are legumes and form an association with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots.

Lacy Phacelia cover crop in a vineyard. Photo by Lauren Hale

Cover crops are not usually considered marketable crops. However, we should not preclude the potential for some plants that are useful as cover crops to provide a harvestable product as well. Native perennial fiber plants such as Indian hemp dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepsias fascicularis), and common nettle (Urtica dioica) could offer the opportunity to cultivate summer cover crops that have a market value, especially in cases where farmers are already willing to irrigate their cover crops to improve their development and amplify the benefits. Bowles Farming in the San Joaquin Valley is experimenting with growing these three species for fiber production. All three also attract native bees and important butterfly species such as monarchs (as long as farmers avoid spraying insecticides). 

While we believe that some native species could open new opportunities for farmers as cover crops, we still have insufficient studies testing the effects and viability of these species. Organizations like the NRCS Plant Materials Center at Lockeford and the Xerces Society are conducting practical studies with native species, creating plant guides and working with farmers to expand their use. In addition, researchers Lauren Hale of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Anil Shrestha of California State University, Fresno, are using a 2021 UC SAREP small grant to study the effects of native species mixes on water demand and weed populations in San Joaquin Valley grape vineyards. Hale suggests that below-ground ecosystems may benefit as much from native plants as above-ground ecosystems. Says Hale, “Because plants and their microbiomes have evolved together for millennia, it seems logical that native plants would promote a good response from the native soil microbiota.”

For additional information:

UC SAREP List of California Native Species for Potential Use as Cover Crops: https://ucanr.edu/sites/covercrops/

Xerces Society lists of pollinator-friendly native species for California: https://xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center/california

NRCS California Plant Materials Center plant guides: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/publications/plantmaterials/pmc/west/capmc/pub/

UC SAREP Cover Crops Database: https://sarep.ucdavis.edu/covercrop

Posted on Thursday, October 21, 2021 at 2:51 PM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

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