Posts Tagged: wildfire
Healthy California wildlands were managed with periodic wild and cultural fires for millennia. As the state's population and development grew, officials suppressed most fires out of concern for people, homes and businesses.
Though well-meaning, the strategy left land overgrown with vegetation capable of fueling even more dangerous high-intensity wildfires. The past few years have seen an exponential increase in catastrophic wildfires in California.
As a result, there is growing interest in using prescribed fire to bring nature back into balance. Despite the current interest, communities have limited capacity, shared knowledge and experience to bring it back. To close those information gaps, UC Cooperative Extension in Mariposa County hosted a five-session webinar series because the in-person workshop was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The switch to a virtual series enticed more than 500 people from across the U.S. and more than 12 countries register for the series, and 200 people regularly attended each session. In comparison, 34 people were registered for the in-person workshop.
The webinar series provided guidance on fire ecology, prescribed burn permitting and planning, plus cost-share and the concept of launching a prescribed burn association with neighbors, local agencies and the community in five 90-minute sessions. Recordings are now available free on the UCCE Mariposa County YouTube channel.
The training is designed for California landowners and land managers, but contains information that can be applied broadly in areas where landowners and managers are faced with unmanaged vegetation growth that poses a fire risk.
“Whether you live in a mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, chaparral or grassland habitat, returning prescribed fire to California is part of well-managed landscapes,” said Fadzayi Mashiri, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor and the webinar series coordinator.
The webinar series struck another first for the small foothill county. The recorded series was approved for continuing education units by the national Society for Range Management. Following are links to individual sessions:
Session 1 – Fire ecology
Fire ecology and behavior and benefits of prescribed fire, Susie Kocher, UCCE forestry advisor in Lake Tahoe
Prescribed fire for invasive plants and weed control, Fadzayi Mashiri, UCCE natural resources advisor in Mariposa and Merced counties
Session 2 – Permitting
CAL FIRE permitting and prescribed burning, Brian Mattos, CAL FIRE unit forester for resource management
Air quality permitting and the health impacts of fire – David Conway, environmental health director, Mariposa County Health Department
Session 3 – Prescribed fire planning
Wildland-urban interface dynamics and community planning – Steve Engfer, senior planner, Mariposa County Planning Department
Developing a burn plan – Rob York, UCCE forestry specialist
Session 4 – Resources for burning
Prescribed burn associations – Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UCCE fire ecology advisor
EQUIP funds for prescribed fire through the National Resources Conservation Service – Robyn Smith, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist
Session 5 – Cultural burning
Benefits of cultural burn, Honorable Ron Goode, North Fork Mono Tribe
Social History of Fire in Southern Sierra – Jared Dahl Aldern, Sierra-Sequoia Burn Association.
The workshops were funded in part by California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative that puts cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment. Sponsors include the North Fork Mono Tribe, CAL FIRE and the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council.
UCCE leads development of prescribed burn association in San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties
With a $379,785 grant from CAL FIRE, UC Cooperative Extension and the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County are spearheading a community effort to create a prescribed burn association along California's Central Coast region.
The grant is one of 55 awarded by CAL FIRE to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires that take lives and destroy homes and valued wildland environments across California.
“These 55 local projects will play a critical role in augmenting our fire prevention efforts,” said CAL FIRE director Chief Thom Porter.
Prescribed burn associations (PBAs) are made up of ranchers, volunteer firefighters, non-profit organization and other community members. They pool their resources and energy to plan and conduct prescribed burns on private land. The first California PBA was established in 2018.
“Improving forage and reducing fire risk are key goals of our prescribed burns,” said Devii Rao, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor and project manager. “We will also plan fires to control non-native invasive weeds and restore and enhance wildlife habitat.”
Funds for the CAL FIRE grant program are part of the California Climate Investment, a statewide program that uses cap-and-trade dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy, improve public health and conserve the environment. While prescribed burns emit smoke and carbon dioxide, the amount is much lower than high-intensity wildfires.
Rao said UCCE will be holding workshops and meetings to teach potential association members and the general public about fire ecology, fire permitting, prescribed burn planning and liability associated with burning.
“People are really seeing the value of prescribed fire and they are seeing that it's better to have several smaller burns throughout the year as opposed to these giant, catastrophic wildfires that cause so much damage,” Rao said. “If we can have many smaller burns, we can achieve resource conservation goals, we can achieve forage improvement goals and we can improve fire safety all at the same time.”
Grazing cattle for fire safety
Rao is also leading a study, funded by the California Cattle Council, to better understand the influence of livestock grazing on fire safety of California wildlands. This project is in collaboration with UCCE rangeland specialist Luke Macaulay, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Sheila Barry, rangeland consultant Felix Ratcliff and recent UC Berkeley graduate Rowan Peterson.
The researchers used brand inspection data, USDA Ag Census data and county crop reports to estimate the number of rangeland cattle in each county across the state. They estimated how much forage – or from the fire safety perspective, how much fuel – the cattle are consuming.
“Thanks to Felix's great work analyzing these multiple complex datasets, our preliminary results show that cattle consumed approximately 12.4 billion pounds of forage across California in 2017,” Rao said.
Tulare County had the greatest amount of wildfire fuel consumed (1.3 billion pounds), and Orange County had the least (896,000 pounds). Forage removed per grazed rangeland acre ranged from a low of 13 pounds per acre in Alpine County to 2,157 pounds per acre in Tulare County.
Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and the northernmost counties in the state had somewhat higher removal of wildfire fuel per grazed acre compared with other counties in the state.cedx
“Our analysis is currently ongoing. However, this preliminary analysis shows that many counties have adequate rangeland grazing to significantly reduce wildfire risk, at least in certain strategic areas,” Rao said.
In many counties, grazed rangelands are only a fraction of total grazeable rangeland.
“These counties highlight opportunities for grazing to help fight wildfire risk,” Rao said.
Preventing embers from getting inside may save homes
Photos and video of the Northern California communities that have been hit by wildfires show buildings reduced to ash. How could so many homes and businesses burn so quickly in the 2017 Wine Country fires? Many houses that burned to the ground in the Northern California fires likely burned from the inside out, says Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forest advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Red hot embers carried on the wind can enter the attic via the venting. “In the case of the wind-driven fires on October 8, these fires created ember storms that blasted little coals into everything in their pathway,” Valachovic said. These embers also create small spot fires near the home that fuel new sources of embers.
Weather played a large role in these fires and generated a fire storm of embers that ignited grass, shrubs, trees and anything in its path. “While the landscape can be the fuse, the homes really can be the most burnable part of the landscape,” Valachovic said. “These embers likely lodged in the small spaces and openings of homes and buildings. A common location is for the embers to enter via attic venting or HVAC systems distributing little fires into the buildings.
“Embers also landed on receptive leaves, outside furniture, and other flammable materials outside the buildings that created fires adjacent to the buildings. Once enough buildings were engulfed in fire, the radiant heat of each building fire led to exposures on the neighboring buildings, creating a house-to-house burn environment.”
Residents can reduce the risk of embers setting their house on fire by removing dry plants around the structure.
“These fires remind us that everyone in California could help the fire situation by managing the vegetation, leaves in the gutters and decks, newspaper piles, brooms and other flammable sources near to their houses now before they get the evacuation call,” Valachovic said. “If you are likely to have to evacuate soon, temporarily covering or sealing up the vents with metal tape or plywood can help harden your home to an ember storm.”
Steve Quarles, UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus, who spent his career studying fire behavior on building materials and around homes, created an online Homeowner's Wildfire Mitigation Guide at http://ucanr.edu/sites/Wildfire. Quarles, who did research for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, demonstrates how embers can ignite and quickly engulf a house in flames in a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvbNOPSYyss. After the 3-minute mark, video shows embers drifting up and flying through a screened vent into the house, where they could ignite combustible materials in the attic resulting in fire starting on the inside of the home.
To show homeowners how to harden their homes against wildfire, Quarles will be presenting a free webinar July 28, 2020, with UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor SusieKocher and ChristinaRestaino, assistant professor and natural resources specialist with University of Nevada, Reno Extension and the director of the Living With Fire Program. To register, visit bit.ly/TahoeRetrofit.
“If you have time to prepare your home, use the wildfire last-minute check list at https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Safety/Evacuation/,” Valachovic said.
Valachovic has co-authored publications in home survival in wildfire prone areas http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8393.pdf and how landscape plants near homes can create more vulnerability to wildfire http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8228.pdf.
“Past wildfire events have shown that this is the common way homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI) burn, and this scenario was likely translated to the urban environment,” she said.
The Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and other wildfires that have devastated communities in recent years have convinced wildfire experts that Californians need to take more than one approach to coexist with fire.
To better protect new houses against wildfire, California has building codes, but where residential communities are built on the landscape and how they are designed are also very important to limit wildfire-related losses, according to University of California Cooperative Extension specialists Max Moritz and Van Butsic.
“Defensible space and vegetation management is important, but in the long term, where and how we build new developments will be equally important for keeping Californians safe,” said Butsic, who studies land use.
To develop their recommendations for reducing wildfire risk for future community development, Moritz, who specializes in wildfire, and Butsic reviewed fire studies and consulted firefighters and community planners.
Their new publication, “Building to Coexist with Fire: Risk Reduction Measures for New Development,” is designed for city planners, fire districts and communities to incorporate community-scale risk reduction measures when building or rebuilding in fire-prone areas.
“There is currently little codified guidance for where and how to build our communities in California, aside from building codes for individual structures and a few requirements for road access and water supplies,” said Moritz, who is based at UC Santa Barbara.
Wildfire consultant and architect David Shew, who retired as a CAL FIRE chief after 31 years, said, “I can state without hesitation that the land use planning principles and design recommendations identified in this study are necessary steps to help increase wildfire resiliency to existing and future communities. Being a first-hand witness to the increasingly destructive nature of wildfires, I can attest to the value and necessity for these improvements to be integrated into our built environment. This should become a much-used reference for every planning and fire official who face wildfire impacts.”
To reduce fire vulnerability of communities, Moritz and coauthor Butsic, who is based at UC Berkeley, recommend including fire professionals and biological resource experts early in the community planning process. They also recommend considering the placement of communities on the landscape, such as near bodies of water and agricultural land, and how they are laid out to minimize exposure to wildfire. Key considerations include defensibility, risk of ignition and ease of evacuating residents.
“This report provides both a robust justification for integrating resilience practices into land use planning and community design, and a toolbox for doing so,” Sarah G.Newkirk, director of disaster resilience with The Nature Conservancy in California. “The risk reduction measures described can be put to use immediately – ideally in combination with each other – both in ongoing wildfire recovery planning, and in local hazard mitigation planning. Furthermore, the report should be a wake-up call to FEMA to think broadly about how best to support wildfire mitigation in California.”
To more efficiently reduce fuel in new communities, Moritz and Butsic write, “The design, maintenance and use of defensible space for fire protection is easier when neighborhoods are developed more densely and are built to stringent fire-resistant building codes.”
In the 31-page publication, they present risk reduction measures for four design contexts:
- landscape setting – engage in strategic planning much earlier, use hazard maps and use major landscape features
- separation from wildfire source—use nonflammable amenities in design, employ safe setbacks on slopes and concentrate on inner side of roadways
- density management – cluster with other homes
- protective infrastructure – harden public facilities and refuges, locate power lines underground and augment water requirements.
They provide examples for each risk reduction measure, along with some discussion of challenges associated with each measure.
“Our hope is that this guidance will be helpful for agency personnel involved in evaluating and approving future development in California,” Moritz said. “Because there is a pressing need for additional housing in California, communities must be built with design principles that make them safer to inhabit and less vulnerable to inevitable wildfires.”
The publication “Building to Coexist with Fire: Risk Reduction Measures for New Development” can be downloaded for free at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=8680.
California's most destructive wildfire year on record was 2018, with devastating fires occurring in Northern California oak woodlands. From 2015 to 2017, six of California's 20 most deadly and destructive fires in history occurred in these areas. The communities living in oak woodlands, which had been mostly spared from previous wildfires, were largely unprepared.
To prepare Californians to live with wildfire, Kate Wilkin, former UC Cooperative Extension forestry/fire science and natural resources advisor, and UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and Hopland Research and Extension Center community educators Alexandra Stefancich and Hannah Bird received a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education grant.
In addition to delivering community workshops, the educators will offer online training for teachers this summer. The curriculum will be introduced by webinar on Tuesday, July 14, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (PDT). Register online for this free webinar at https://bit.ly/firecurriculum.
“The goal of this project is to educate youth and adults about their natural ecosystems and how to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Stefancich said.
Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic constrained activities, challenges arose: the federal government shutdown delayed the grant; a wildfire burned approximately two-thirds of the Hopland REC; Wilkin moved on from UCCE and Rebecca Ozeran, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, took over leading the wildfire education project.
Training kids, adults and communities
The team is educating children, adults and communities. Their three-pronged approach includes youth education for 500 middle school students and training for teachers; adult education through advanced training for California Naturalists; and community education by partnering with Fire Safe Councils in Butte, Mendocino and Yuba counties.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this grant has been the youth fire education component,” Bird said. “The grant has funded an adaptation of theUS Forest Service's FireWorks Curriculum – first modeled for Rocky Mountains forests – to the California oak woodland ecosystem. This hands-on, place-based science curriculum aims to provide students an in-depth understanding of fire science. In working on this curriculum, the team wants to highlight the importance of not only oak woodland fire science, but the cultural history associated with fire on these landscapes.”
The grant allowed the team to work with local representatives from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and the Nevada City Rancheria to develop lessons shaped by the cultural value of fire as a tool and the long relationship between people and fire in California.
While developing the lessons, the team realized the importance of trauma-informed educational practices.
“Just five years ago, we often talked about wildfire theoretically, but now every student I speak with has their own experience to share,” Bird said. “It is important to give time in the lessons for the trauma experienced by our youth, and to educate them and encourage a sense of agency. These lessons focus on the positive! We don't spend time on things that we cannot change. We learn crucial concepts of fire science and build on them to make our schools, families and communities more fire prepared.”
Feelings about fire
The team piloted the new curriculum with more than 150 middle school students in Redwood Valley and Ukiah, just before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trialing the curriculum with students was really valuable,” Bird said. “These students have seen their communities affected by wildfire and it brings up many emotions for them.”
Students were asked to share their thoughts around fire at the beginning of the lessons and again at the end of the lesson series. Feelings of fear were replaced with feeling prepared and confident.
Before the lessons, students' comments about fire included, “Scary because I live in the mountains and my house is there, it could burn down.”
After the lessons, their comments included, “I felt positive about this, I feel that I know what to do, I think everyone should know how to prepare for fire.”
Pomolita Middle School students made an action plan for their school to help improve school fire preparedness. Students had hoped to present their plans to school administrators, but school closures due to the coronavirus crisis have delayed the presentation.
“Most of what we found at Pomolita school was really positive – the students do have a few suggestions that they hoped to share with the school administration,” Bird said. “Students also made an emergency contact plan and planned what they would like to have in a go bag for themselves and for their pets.”
Community educator Stefancich added, “This curriculum, aimed at middle school students, is ideal for any educator hoping to provide their students with more insight about the role fire plays in the ecosystem and how they can prepare for its eventuality. Each lesson is set up for the lay educator to be able to teach, so even without advanced fire knowledge it will be easy to use.”
The team continues to adapt the FireWorks curriculum for oak woodlands and expects it to be available at the FireWorks site https://www.frames.gov/fireworks/curriculum/overview by the fall.