Posts Tagged: wildfire
California's 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive the state has ever seen. Even before the flames were extinguished, politicians, researchers, foresters, firefighters, insurance and utility company representatives, homeowners and landowners in the state's wildfire-prone areas were trying desperately to figure out how such devastation could be prevented in the future.
One reason for the destructive fires is a 100-year history in California of aggressive fire suppression. Most of the state's natural ecosystems evolved over millennia with periodic fires. Without fire, natural areas build up a great deal of vegetation – trees, shrubs, leaf litter and pine needles – that once ignited, can fuel a raging blaze.
Two UC Cooperative Extension advisors in Humboldt County believe the best way to bring back natural equilibrium on the land is by bringing back fire, and they believe it can be done in a way that is safe, effective, affordable and even fun.
Prescribed fire is part of California's past. Native Americans used fire to favor the plants and trees that provided their most nutritious foods, to open up areas for ease of travel and to attract game. In the 1980s, the California Department of Forestry and Fire (CAL FIRE) launched a Vegetation Management Program to share the cost and liability of prescribed fire on private land. At the height of the program, 65,000 acres of private lands were burned per year. However, by the mid-2000s, the agency had cut program funding, and private lands burning reduced to less than 5,000 acres per year in 2015. CAL FIRE is currently revamping their Vegetation Management Program, but UCCE experts say other pathways are also needed to regain ecosystem function on California's wildlands.
Born and raised in northern Californian, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UCCE fire advisor, and Jeff Stackhouse, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, were deeply concerned about habitat loss and fuel buildup on private lands in Humboldt County. They investigated a concept being implemented successfully in other parts of the country, the formation of Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs).
Creating California's first Prescribed Burn Association
The members of PBAs pool their resources and energy to conduct burns to maintain productive grasslands, enhance wildlife habitat, and ensure safer communities. In 2018, Quinn-Davidson, Stackhouse, Cocking and Hunt pulled together fellow Humboldt County ranchers, volunteer firefighters, non-profit organizations, and other community members to form the first Prescribed Burn Association in the western United States.
The Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association has a president, board of directors, a treasurer and 85 members.
“More than half of the members are not landowners,” Stackhouse said. “People have houses in town, but want to go outside and experience land improvement on other people's property.”
To join the PBA, individuals pay $25 per year; ranches, timber companies and non-profit organizations pay $200 per year; and volunteer fire departments join free.
“People are willing to pay member dues to be a part of this community experience, get the training and to feel positive about fire, not afraid of it,” Quinn-Davidson said.
The PBA provides training, equipment and labor to safely use fire and meet permit requirements. So far, the Humboldt County PBA has burned 1,022 acres. And after each burn, they celebrate with food and drink.
The PBA is providing a space for a community of cooperation to grow. Groups and individuals with views that previously seemed miles apart – environmental activists, long-time ranchers, industrial timber organizations and well-established environmental organizations – are forging new alliances.
“It's interesting to see different groups meeting and burning with each other, to listen to them speak from their corners of the universe, giving each other room to speak and actively listening,” Stackhouse said.
The association is so successful, Stackhouse and Quinn-Davidson invited their UC Cooperative Extension colleagues from across the state to Humboldt County for a four-day workshop to learn how they might be able to replicate the concept in other fire-prone areas of California.
“We led a training and conducted three consecutive burns totaling over 100-acres,” Quinn-Davidson said.
UCCE livestock advisor in San Benito County, Devii Rao, attended the workshop.
“As a total novice, I received training and feel more confident about use of personal protective equipment, how to use a drip torch, hand tools, a water tank/pump/hose, and how to start developing a Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) on the Central Coast,” Rao said.
Another participant, UCCE forestry advisor Yana Valachovic, valued the opportunity and believes events like these could help solve a serious problem facing California.
“Talking about the use of prescribed fire in the abstraction does not move the meter,” she said. “California desperately needs experiences like this to empower community leaders and reincorporate fire into our management tool boxes.”
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UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) brings the power of UC research in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition and youth development to local communities to improve the lives of all Californians. Learn more at ucanr.edu.
For more California wildfire information and to find local UC Cooperative Extension fire experts, see the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Fire in California website.
For millennia, fires periodically burned through California forests, thinning trees, reducing shrubbery and clearing out downed branches and debris. Without periodic fire, the forests became more dense, with spaces between large trees filling in with a thick carpet of duff, seedlings and shrubs.
As a result, today's forests are prone to more intense and damaging fires, like the Rim Fire, King Fire, and — most recently — the Camp Fire in Butte County. These fires are burning with unprecedented severity and speed, threatening large swaths of forest, towns, and even urban areas.
Using fire as part of forest management is not a new concept. Native Americans were known to burn brush to open up hunting grounds and clear shrubbery for gathering. Decades ago, iconic Berkeley forestry professor Harold Biswell said, “Fire in the Sierra Nevada is as important as rain.”
Competing forces, however, pushed foresters and fire officials toward fire prevention and suppression, particularly the cataclysmic fires of the early 20th century that leveled entire towns and left dozens of residents and firefighters dead. The fear of out-of-control blazes and the perceived damage to timber resources launched a war on fire that has lasted a hundred years. Some forest managers are urgently trying to negotiate a truce.
Making peace with fire and turning it into a useful tool, rather than a raging threat, was the objective of an October meeting in Shaver Lake of UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources scientists, Southern California Edison forest managers, CALFIRE officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives.
The event also raised awareness of “pyrosilviculture,” a new forest management term coined by UC fire scientist Rob York to emphasize the importance of fire in silviculture, the management of forests for wood.
Forests have myriad benefits – recreational, environmental and economic. Nature lovers value the whisper of pine trees in the wind and green shade over hiking trails and ski slopes. Owls, bears, deer and other wildlife make their homes among firs, pines, oaks and cedars. Forests stabilize mountain slopes, which store water as snow for agriculture and drinking. People build their homes, businesses and schools out of the planks and boards cut from the straight, soft wood of conifer trees.
The value of California forest products was about $429 million in 2017, according to the USDA. Because fires can damage and destroy trees, the timber industry has historically been reluctant to use fire as a tool. That's changing.
“Fire is such an important ecological process, you can't manage for timber without fire,” York said.
York is the manager of the Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC Berkeley's 4,000-acre mixed conifer and oak forest near Georgetown where researchers study forest management practices for increasing timber yield while taking advantage of fire to enhance forest health and make forest stands more resilient to wildfire.
Controlled burning can be used to treat fuels and reverse these trends, but it has been inhibited by a number of barriers, including landowners' concerns about liability, risk aversion among fire management agencies, narrow burn windows, air quality limitations and other regulatory challenges. Now, public demand for prescribed fires is growing.
“I believe what moved the needle was, for several years in a row, there were high-severity fires in the news,” York said. “Wildfires were in the public zeitgeist. People began asking, ‘Why aren't we doing more prescribed fire?'”
Climate change is also intensifying the interest among the public and silviculture professionals. Because California is getting warmer and fire seasons are growing longer, high-severity fires are expected to increase.
“There would logically be a tipping point. Even though we reduce the growth of trees when we use fire, if it can prevent the loss of the forest entirely, it would be meeting the timber objective,” York said.
The vast tree die-off during the 2011-2016 drought was another jarring sign that the Sierra Nevada ecosystem is out of balance.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of forest in California, is using prescribed fire to reduce fire risk on federal forestlands, but scientists say it's not nearly enough to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. CAL FIRE is ramping up its controlled burn efforts, but it will take time to address far-reaching areas of overgrown forestlands. The agency sometimes uses mechanical measures such as mastication and chaining before burning to pre-treat fuels and prepare units for burning.
“We need to work around communities first, and then move out to the wider landscape,” said CAL FIRE division chief Jim McDougald. “If a prescribed fire moves into a subdivision and burns houses, we take 100 steps back.”
“Burning is a key element of forestland management and it can be safe if done properly,” Kocher said. “We provide classroom instruction and invite participants to join a live prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest as part of their training so they become familiar with the process.”
At the training sessions, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said that in some cases, private landowners can conduct burns themselves. In her hometown in Trinity County, many ranchers and landowners conduct small broadcast burns to reduce fuels and improve forage. These burns are typically quite small and usually conducted in the winter.
“This can be a good option for landowners who wish to burn small areas, but we need other options for bigger, more complex burns” Quinn-Davidson said.
In other parts of the country, landowners have formed Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) that allow landowners to work with neighbors and other community members on controlled burns, sharing equipment and labor while developing skills. The PBA model provides a low-cost, grassroots option for prescribed burning, and empowers landowners to work together, and with other key experts and partners, to bring fire back to the landscape, says Quinn-Davidson.
“People are desperate to do something about fire, and the PBA model gives them an option to actively engage with each other and with fire as a tool—it's very empowering,” said Quinn-Davidson.
The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. UC Cooperative Extension is working with many agencies involved to understand how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.
UC Cooperative Extension fire scientists and representatives of many California organizations conduct fire behavior research, study forest treatments – such as prescribed burns, timber harvest and mastication – and share best practices for home and community preparation. In the Butte County area where the Camp Fire took place, cooperating agencies include CalFIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, Sacramento River Watershed Program, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.
While the Camp Fire was devastating, it could have been far worse. Working together for decades, the partner agencies have improved community safety and resilience.
They have educated the public about defensible space, fire resistant homes, and evacuation plans. They have coordinated fuels treatments along evacuation routes and around the communities. Through their actions, they saved many lives and structures, protected the town's drinking water supply, and in some cases, provided access for hiking in areas that had been overgrown by brush.
“When you drive for miles through blackened, burned trees and then arrive in a thinning project area full of green tree tops, you know that these efforts are worth it, we are having success and we can make a difference together,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council.
Because of the Camp Fire tragedy, the partner agencies learned many lessons that can inform future maintenance and treatments to improve fire resilience in Butte County and other wildland areas. Kate Wilkin, the UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada counties, is able to point to projects implemented in the Camp Fire zone that saved lives and structures.
For example, one family in Paradise was featured by the news media for their successful advance fire planning, which even included the installation of sprinklers on top of the house.
“When I think about what saves a house, a sprinkler is a cherry on top of the cake,” Wilkin said. “If a house is constructed with a combustible roof and siding, if unprotected vents allow embers to get into the attic, or the landscape is not maintained, a sprinkler isn't going to save the house. The sprinkler's power from the grid or a generator will likely fail. High winds may even prevent the sprinkler's mist from hitting the house.”
Rather, passive resistance to fires through better building design, materials and maintenance greatly reduce structure loss.
“Maintenance is an unsung hero of fire resilience,” Wilkin said. “Individual actions at our homes matter.”
First 5 feet around a structure
State law requires homeowners in wildfire areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Most towns in wildfire-prone areas also have their own defensible space codes. Wilkin said where she lives in Grass Valley, anyone with less than an acre of land must maintain their entire property as defensible space.
This guideline is a start, but there is more that people who live in wildfire-prone areas can do to make their homes resilient to fire. UC Cooperative Extension scientists recommend creating a five-foot buffer immediately surrounding the home almost completely devoid of plants and anything that can burn - including wooden fences, firewood, deck chairs and pillows, brooms and other wooden tools.
This extra precaution is important as embers from a distant wildfire can land on or adjacent to a house and ignite combustible items which in turn ignite the home. It was evident in the Camp Fire that the first five feet around homes was a critical factor in the survivability of structures.
The zone can include noncombustible materials such as rock mulch, stone pavers, cement, bare earth, gravel or sand. Low combustibility materials, such as irrigated and maintained lawn or herbaceous plants less than five inches high, are okay. All leaves, needles or other vegetation that falls in this five-foot zone must be removed during the fire season.
“The non-combustible space adjoining the house may be the difference between losing it and all the contents to a wildfire versus returning to the property with the home unscathed,” Wilkin said.
Community fire resilience
Fire survival measures can also be taken at the community level.
In Paradise, the Butte County Fire Safe Council funded CalFIRE crews to thin a number of areas in the watershed below Paradise Lake in 2013 and 2014. Taking these actions allowed an area for firefighters to start a defense and start putting out the flame front, Wilkin said.
“A CalFIRE chief told residents, ‘You provide the offense, we provide the defense.' Homeowners and communities need to get everything set up for successful firefighting,” she said.
Forest thinning has the added benefit of improving recreational opportunities. Near Magalia Pine Ridge School, an 11-acre mastication project in 2018 funded with $30,000 from the Butte County Fire Safe Council cleared overgrown vegetation around the school. This helped strengthen the area's public assembly location, which was identified on the community's evacuation map, and opened up access to a forest hiking trail that was blocked by tangled brush.
The open space dramatically slowed the raging Camp Fire when it approached the school, which is now one of the only schools open in the Paradise Ridge community.
Forest thinning also protected the drinking water for the town of Paradise. A combination of projects undertaken by U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Pacific Industries and the Butte County Fire Safe Council aligned to allow fire fighters to combat the fire and ensure that the source of drinking water was protected.
Concow wildfire safety zone
In 2013 and 2014, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council created a wildfire public assembly safety zone in Concow. The work was completed by inmate crews. During the Camp Fire, dozens of lives were saved when sheriff deputies, firefighters and citizens were able to shelter in the area.
“Wildfire safety zones are pretty uncommon and we may want to create more in wildfire prone areas,” Wilkin said. “But there is a hitch.”
CalFIRE is reluctant to designate temporary refuges because they don't want people to rely on them in place of evacuation. During a quick-moving firestorm, it could be an area where people can shelter if they cannot get out.
“It's a complex and dangerous puzzle,” Wilkin said. “In Australia, they had a similar idea and some places where people sheltered in a fire caused them to die.”
Wilkin is working with Paradise parks to identify areas ahead of time with enough space to meet new national firefighter standards to protect people's lungs from superheated air.
“Historically, we thought sufficient space was four times as great as the flame heights. If you have a Ponderosa pine that's torching 150 feet high, you would need 800 feet around the people,” Wilkin said. “New research has found that the safety zone calculation must also consider potential wind speed and slope. Significantly more space may be needed.”
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.