Posts Tagged: wildfire
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Fire scientist Kate Wilkin was on the job just a few weeks when ferocious winds whipped up the Northern California firestorm of 2017. The national media focused on Napa and Sonoma counties, where the deadly Tubbs fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, while devastating fires also broke out in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.
It was crunch time for Wilkin, who stepped in as the new forestry, fire science and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties that fall. Four lives and 200 homes were lost in her new work community. Wilkin hosts workshops to help families and businesses build communities that are more resilient to fire. She draws experience from maintaining her own Grass Valley home fire resilient.
From the Bay Area to the small town of Grass Valley
Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston moved into their first home, a ranch-style rambler atop a hill in Grass Valley, on Sept. 15, 2017, three days before Wilkin reported to work in the Sutter-Yuba County UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City.
The couple moved from a small apartment in Berkeley, where Wilkin was conducting research as a post-doc in the lab of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher and UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. The move from a hyper-urban Bay Area city to a small hamlet in the hills wasn't too much of shock to their systems. Johnston was raised on a farm with chickens and goats. Wilkin grew up in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va. After completing her bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., introduced Wilkin to fire science.
“In the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the landscape would burn then flood every year,” Wilkin said. “I became fascinated with how these disturbances catalyzed diversity.”
What better place to continue a fire education than California?
Wilkin enrolled at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, earning a master's degree in biology. She spent the next three years in Yosemite National Park, working with a team of scientists to understand the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.
“We found that the current policies led to meadow degradation,” Wilkin said. Yosemite then changed its policy to reduce the amount of horse grazing on these tender, sensitive mountain resources.
In 2011, Wilkin started work on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, where she studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. Wilkin signed up for the pilot Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, launched in 2014 to train and recruit graduate students for careers in research and outreach.
“The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” Wilkin told Science Magazine for an article about the innovative program. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions.”
Beginning at home
With full knowledge of the dangers of living in fire-prone areas, Wilkin and Johnston purchased a home close to the outdoor amenities they adore – hiking, backpacking and skiing.
“Tahoe is just an hour away,” Wilkin said. “I love the view from the house and the wooded setting. But we live in an area CalFire has designated as very high fire danger.”
As a fire scientist, Wilkin was well equipped to make changes to the home and landscape to minimize the risk.
“We moved in during peak fire season,” Wilkin said. “We didn't hang artwork. My priority was to make the home and deck more fire resistant. We put in one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents, caulked around doors and windows, blew leaves off the roof and deck, removed lattice wrapping the deck and cleaned the gutters. Then we created defensible space starting close to the house and working our way outward."
The couple labored about 200 hours and spent about $800 in the first six weeks buying and renting tools, including a chipper, saw and a truck to haul away tinder-dry lattice, foliage and pine needles. With the most critical fireproofing completed, the couple is now tallying the work that should be done to further enhance the fire safety of their home.
“We probably need another $6,000 to $7,000 of work,” Wilkin said.
When the North Winds blow
Wilkin recalled the terrifying time about a month after moving into their new home when howling winds whipped around the house and fires were breaking out across Northern California.
“The North Winds are haunting,” she said. “I hadn't felt wind like that since I lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes.”
Wilkin and Johnston were fortunate. The closest fire to their home was the McCourtney Fire, which burned 76 acres in Grass Valley. The wildfire stayed two miles away.
All vegetation can burn, but some plant species may pose less risk than others in a wildfire-prone community, reported Noah Bemer in the Calaveras Enterprise.
In the first five feet around buildings, stone walls, rocks, patios and gravel mulch can enhance fire safety. In areas that are landscaped, high-moisture plants that grow low to the ground and contain little sap or resin also decrease fire risk.
Susan Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor in the Central Sierra, said home fire safety “usually means taking away vegetation, rather than adding it. A more safe landscape would be more sparse.”
Bev Vierra-Pennington, the coordinator of the Demonstration Garden at the Government Center in San Andreas for the UC Master Gardener program of Calaveras County, said plant maintenance and spacing are much more important than the types of plants cultivated when it comes to fire safety.
“Having a list of plants (that are fire-resistant) is very misleading,” Vierra-Pennington said. “The secret is to plant plants that won't touch each other at a mature size and are nonwoody.”
Maintaining the plants is equally important. They must be watered regularly and well-trimmed. “It takes work. You can't plant it and walk away,” she said.
While cultivating fire-resistant plants instead of more combustible plant species will help to mitigate against wildfire risk, “Don't think that's going to solve the problem,” Kocher said. “No plant is really great (when it comes to protecting the home against wildfire), although some are worse than others.”
When wildfires burn in California, people often call them forest fires or brushfires, but the odds are high that an invasive weed is an unrecognized fuels component, says a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientist.
“We have all of the nasty non-native Bromus species here in California, and these weeds are key drivers of increasing fire frequency,” said Travis Bean, UC Cooperative Extension weed science specialist based at UC Riverside.
The invasive, non-native Bromus species aggressively outcompete native plants, forming dense stands that grow fast and dry out quickly, becoming highly flammable. Fire can move rapidly through these dense patches of dry grass, especially during windy conditions or on slopes.
“When you have understory of dry Bromus or other weedy grasses, their ease of ignition can allow fire to spread from areas like roadsides where ignition sources are plentiful to more pristine native plant communities,” Bean said. “Additionally, these fast-moving fires can throw embers that allows the fire to jump long distances or even reach high into the air, igniting structures.”
Identifying fire fuel
Bean would like to see the fuels in wildfires identified so people have a chance to consider managing them to mitigate the increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfire across the state.
With training, citizen scientists such as California Naturalists could help cities, counties, utilities and government agencies identify the invasive plant species that fuel urban wildfires.
“On a landscape scale, I would focus on managing Bromus anywhere human-caused ignitions occur,” Bean said. “Resources for management are scarce, and these species are widespread and can't be controlled everywhere they occur. Roadsides, hiking trails, and campgrounds are critical areas where people can start fires that spread, so It makes sense to concentrate management there.”
“When I talk to land managers about these species, they recognize that some areas will have to be sacrificed and it may not be possible to eliminate these species from the landscape,” Bean said. They are prioritizing areas with smaller invasive populations where there is an actual chance to eliminate them, or are managing larger populations for containment so they don't spread.”
Timing is everything
The key to reducing the spread of invasive, non-native Bromus species or any annual weed is preventing the plants from producing seeds, Bean said. “Whatever control method you chose, if deployed too early or too late, you gain nothing for considerable expense.” Too early and the plants may simply resprout, while too late and they will have already set seed and further contributed to next year's weed crop.
Herbicide is an effective and inexpensive means of control, though many prefer non-chemical methods. Hand pulling can be effective in small areas, but is discouraged for large patches due to the sheer amount of labor required and risks of actually spreading the weed seeds.
Another way land managers can try to prevent the weeds from spreading is by mowing or grazing with goats, sheep or cattle, Bean said, adding that using livestock can require more intensive management and proper timing is critical.
“For mowing and grazing, the key is to wait until the plants have started to flower, but the seeds are not mature,” Bean said. “If you mow when there's mature seed, you'll just spread the seed and make the problem worse. And once the seedheads mature, grazing animals won't eat it.”
Prescribed fire is another option for containing invasive grasses, but is generally discouraged as there's a very high chance of exacerbating the problem. These Bromus species are very fire-adapted and tend to increase following burns. Prescribed fire should only be used by professional land managers. If this strategy is used, a burn plan, permits and training are essential. If not done correctly, prescribed burns may escape control and become wildfires, producing smoke that impairs visibility on highways, impacts air quality and human health, and damages native vegetation.
“Timing is everything,” Bean said, explaining the temperature difference between the plant and soil surface. “The grass has to be dry enough to carry fire, but not so dry that the seeds have fallen from the plant to the soil surface, where temperatures are much cooler than just a few inches up in the air where the seedheads are. Some research has shown this strategy to have been successfully used for certain invasive grasses like barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncilias), but is not recommended for Brome species.”
He expects the changing climate to lead to more invasive plant species. “Invasive plants can be more resilient during drought and can quickly bounce back when rain returns, overwhelming natives,” Bean said. “And invasive species are often key drivers of wildfires and increasing fire frequencies and intensities, which prevents the recovery of native plants.“
The Federal Government has proposed spending $55 to $192 million to clear large swaths of land in the Western U.S. to create fuel breaks that slow the spread of wildfire, reported Brady McCombs of the Associated Press. The fuel breaks will be managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah.
Fuel breaks are a useful tool if used along with other wildfire prevention methods that can keep firefighters safer and potentially help out in broad scopes of land because they are long and thin, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, the area fire advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension. They can be especially helpful by providing perimeters for prescribed burns. But they must be in the right places, she said.
The article said the BLM has done about 1,200 assessments of fuel breaks since 2002 and found they help control fires about 80 percent of the time. The new fuel breaks will be 500 feet wide or less and created along highways, rural roads and other areas already disturbed.