Kate Wilkin inspects a ponderosa pine on her property with an old fire scar, undeniable evidence that fire has swept through her neighborhood in the past.
Newly minted UC fire scientist Kate Wilkin moves into fire country
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 will now host workshops to help families and businesses recover from the firestorm and rebuild in a way that is more resilient to fire. Fire resiliency will start at her own home.
The Wilkin-Johnston home is at the top of a rise dotted with cedars, ponderosa pines and black oaks. The dying plants in the foreground are Himalayan blackberry bushes that were treated with glyphosate (RoundUp) to remove them. The invasive weed forms a continuous understory that climbs into tree canopies and can carry fire with it. Wilkin removed one blackberry stem from a cedar tree that was more than 30 feet long.
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, 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.
Kate Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston in front of their Grass Valley home.
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.”
The railing and both sides of the siding on the deck were covered in wooden lattice by the previous homeowners. Wilkin and Johnston found a squirrel cache between the layers of lattice, with acorns, pinecones, needles and other dry plant debris. “It was the perfect place to start a fire,” Wilkin said.
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.
To reduce large, hot embers from drifting into the basement and starting a fire in the home, Wilkin and Johnston installed one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents. Before next fire season, they will upgrade to vents that close during fires.
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.
A thick hedge of camellias borders the side of the home. Although ideally homes should have a five-foot zone immediately surrounding the house clear of burnable objects and plants, she didn’t have the heart to pull them all out when they were full of flower buds, but removed them after they bloomed.
Complex features on the roof – such as skylights, solar panels and a valley that can capture debris – require frequent maintenance to keep the roof fire safe. Johnston tacked down loose flashing on the roof and blew leaves off the roof and out of the gutters.
The previous homeowners installed a shrub-lined wood fence that went under the deck and attached to the house. “It was a perfect way for a fire to wick into the house,” Wilkin said. The couple removed the shrubs and fence slats and plan to remove the posts as well.
As Timberland Converts to Cannabis, Spotted Owls and Barred Owls Test Positive for Rat Poison
70 percent of northern spotted owls and 40 percent of barred owls tested positive for poison
Issue expected to intensify with Proposition 64 recreational marijuana law in effect
Wildlife species are being exposed to high levels of rat poison in northwest California, with illegal marijuana farms the most likely source point, according to a study led by the University of California, Davis, with the California Academy of Sciences.
The study, released Jan. 11 in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, showed that seven of the 10 northern spotted owls collected tested positive for rat poison, while 40 percent of 84 barred owls collected also tested positive for the poison.
The study is the first published account of anticoagulant rodenticide in northern spotted owls, which are listed as a threatened species under federal and state Endangered Species acts.
The study area encompasses Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte counties. It supports previous accounts that rat poison is contaminating the food web in this region, as the primary food source for owls — rodents — is being contaminated.
Timberland converting to marijuana farms
Driving the issue is the increasing conversion of private timberland into private, illegal and unpermitted marijuana cultivation sites. These sites often overlap with designated critical habitat for northern spotted owls, and the owls feed at their edges.
“Spotted owls are inclined to feed along forest edges. Because grow sites break apart these forest landscapes, they are likely source points for exposure,” said lead author Mourad Gabriel, a research faculty member with the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center within the School of Veterinary Medicine's One Health Institute. He's also executive director of nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center.
Gabriel's studies in 2012, 2013 and 2015 were the first to link rat poison and illegal marijuana farms to the deaths of fishers, a weasel-like mammal living in remote forests of California and the Pacific Northwest, bringing broad attention to the issue.
Abundance of grow sites, lack of oversight
Proposition 64, which legalizes recreational marijuana in the state, took effect this month. With its arrival, resource managers expect the number and size of unpermitted, private cultivation sites to grow, which could exacerbate the problem.
The study authors note that an estimated 4,500 – 15,000 private cultivation sites are in Humboldt County alone, yet the county has seen legal permits for only a small fraction of them. That means there are thousands of unpermitted private grow sites with no management oversight.
“When you have thousands of unpermitted grows and only a handful of biologists that regulate that for multiple counties, we're deeply concerned that there aren't sufficient conservation protective measures in place,” Gabriel said. “If no one is investigating the level at which private marijuana cultivators are placing chemicals out there, the fragmented forest landscapes created by these sites can serve as source points of exposure for owls and other wildlife.”
Anticoagulant rodenticides inhibit the ability of mammals and birds to recycle vitamin K. This creates a series of clotting and coagulation problems, which can lead to uncontrollable internal bleeding.
Barred owls and added stressors
Barred owls are a physically larger group of owls currently competing for resources and space in critical habitat designated for northern spotted owls. Forty percent, or 34 of 84, of the barred owl tissue samples collected for this study tested positive for anticoagulant rodenticide. The owls are being exposed through the prey they eat.
Environmental contamination, when coupled with ongoing competition from barred owls, poses an additional stressor on northern spotted owls, the study said. The fact that barred owls are contaminated as well shows that the species may be used as potential surrogates for detecting these contaminants in northern spotted owls.
“Access to these owl specimens allows us to explore the health of the entire regional forest system,” says Jack Dumbacher, curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy at the California Academy of Sciences. “We're using our collections to build a concrete scientific case for increased forest monitoring and species protection before it's too late to intervene.”
This study's researchers did not kill any owls for this study. Northern spotted owls were opportunistically collected when found dead in the field, while barred owl tissue samples were provided by outside investigators conducting an unrelated barred-owl project.
The necropsies for this study were conducted at the California Academy of Sciences and the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, which is part of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Additional co-authoring institutions include Green Diamond Resource Company, Hoopa Valley Tribe and Humboldt State University.
The study was funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Arcata and Yreka California Field Offices.
Recently I was fortunate to work with the IGIS team in Santa Rosa and Sonoma to explore why so many homes and buildings were lost in the October Tubbs and Nuns Fires. With the IGIS's Shane Feirer we collected drone-based video to record how the fires burned through the vegetation near and around the lost structures.
We observed several sites where there was little fire activity in the forests or woodlands, yet the homes burned. This type of video helps us document how devastating a wind-driven ember fire can be and of the important lessons we can learn to be better prepared for wildfire.
From this experience I came away with a painful reminder that we all need to do a better job at focusing on fuels near our homes (e.g. combustible wood mulches used in landscaping, lawn furniture, leaf accumulations, dry landscape plants, etc.), especially in the 5 feet immediately adjacent to our homes. While the Tubbs Fire originated in grassy area in Calistoga it easily picked up embers from the burning vegetation which were moved by the 40-70 mph winds and created spot fires ahead of the flaming front. In short time these embers were blasted into homes via attic or soffit vents (critical to let moisture out of a building) or they ignited combustible materials close to buildings; these types of exposures are the primary way the Tubbs Fire started to consume homes. Eventually the Tubbs Fire moved to the more densely populated areas of the Fountain Grove subdivision in Santa Rosa and with each new home that was ignited a new source of embers were created. The embers that came from the burning buildings included 2 x 4s, chunks of wood the size of a frisbee, and other materials. These materials were blasted over Highway 101 on to homes and businesses in the urban center of Santa Rosa- a place most thought could not be impacted by wildfire. The winds persisted till mid-morning on October 9th providing considerable time for an ember to find a weakness in the home. All of us hope we never have a fire like this again, but as history shows us, California's most damaging fires typically occur in the September and October and are often wind-driven.
For many years UC has worked in educating homeowners about fire preparedness in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). These fires have resulted in the largest number of structure losses to date in California and we all need tools to better understand how to learn from these experiences. I greatly appreciate IGIS's willingness to help me collect some critical data in a time sensitive manner.
I was nine years old when my dad's family home burned in the Oakland Hills Fire. As a country kid from one of the most fire-prone counties in northern California, I was no stranger to wildfire. Still, I remember the shock of driving through his childhood neighborhood in the weeks after the fire, seeing nothing but the skeletal remains of vehicles and homes — so different than the forest fires that I was used to back in Trinity County.
Those images came back to me a few weeks ago when I gave a presentation at a workshop in Redwood Valley, California. That community, which is in Mendocino County, suffered a devastating wildfire in October, during the same week that fires were burning throughout Sonoma and Napa counties. During the Redwood Valley Fire, nine people were killed and more than 500 structures were destroyed. Now more fires are burning in southern California, and in some ways, it seems that the human connection — the loss of lives, the loss of homes — is the defining feature of this year's fire season in California.
Redwood Valley Fire damage. “In some ways, it seems that the human connection — the loss of lives, the loss of homes — is the defining feature of this year's fire season in California.” Credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network
One of my close colleagues at the University of California Cooperative Extension, Yana Valachovic, has no doubt felt the human implications of the 2017 fire season. Her phone has been ringing off the hook for months because of her expertise and experience in home ignitions and home survival: concepts that people are desperate to understand and implement in light of the ongoing losses throughout the state.
In some ways, the research on home survival during wildfire is intuitive; most people understand defensible space concepts and the basics of fuels management. But there are so many ways that most of us could do better — ways that are well illustrated by my own friends, colleagues and family.
Yana talks about how even she — someone who studies this topic — stores paper bags full of her kids' old schoolwork in her attic, right next to the vents. And if you read the literature on this topic, you know that vents represent a major vulnerability during wildfire. Most homes burn from the inside out, meaning that embers make their way into the home through vents and other crevices, and they then ignite fuels inside the house. Once embers infiltrate, it's hard to slow them down — hence the photos we often see of blackened homes surrounded by green trees and intact neighborhoods.
Click on the image above to access Dr. Steve Quarles' new report, Vulnerability of Vents to Wind-Blown Embers
Current research supports the use of finer mesh vent screens (typically a second screen behind the outer screen), and/or temporary vent covers during wildfire events. There is an impressive amount of information available on home venting and fire, including the desired fineness of screen meshes, the use of ridge vents and the appropriateness of unvented attics (PDF, 213 MB). Much of this work comes from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). Steve Quarles leads IBHS's fire-related research program and has published a number of papers on this topic, including a new report, Vulnerability of Vents to Wind-Blown Embers.
Homes can also burn from the outside in, thanks again, in large part, to embers. A few years ago, when a wildfire came within a half mile of my mom's house, I found her gutters packed with dry leaves. This is a classic problem, and one that I was surprised to see at my own mom's house. How did we let the gutters fill up like that, knowing what we know? Gutters full of debris, if ignited, will provide direct flame and ignition to the edge of the roof; if the roof is not adequately protected by metal flashing, or if the gutter is below the roof edge exposing the vulnerable roof sheathing, it can be difficult to keep fire from spreading from the gutter into the house. In 2010, when Quarles was with University of California, he co-authored a great publication that discusses rain gutters, vents, roofing, decks and other home vulnerabilities (PDF, 4.87 MB).
There is also a fair amount of research on features adjacent or attached to the home — features like decks, fences and landscaping (PDF, 416 KB). Still, on a recent trip to a research station in southwest Georgia (a place known for its fire science research and active fire management), I was surprised to see that the landscaping around every building had a thick mulching of longleaf pine needles — literally one of the most flammable types of leaf litter in the world. It looked great but wouldn't be particularly helpful if a fire came through. And IBHS wildfire demonstrations, like this one from 2011, have shown that mulches and other near-home landscaping can become serious points of weakness during wildfire. (I highly recommend checking out their video demonstrations if you haven't before; they have a lab where they actually burn down full-sized homes.)
Now I know that this information is likely old news to many of you; I hesitated to write about this topic because our readership is probably fairly fluent in the research on home ignitions and survival. But the images of Yana's attic full of well-cured paper, my mom's gutters full of leaves, and the pine needle mulch at the research station in Georgia reminded me that we all have more we can do — even if we're well-versed in how homes burn. Home hardening is, of course, only one facet of fire adaptation, but this year's fires reinforced the importance of all efforts at all scales, from the vent and the gutters to the community wildfire protection plan and the prescribed burn.
Snowmelt fills the South Yuba River near Emigrant Gap in March 2016. Climate change is expected to reduce the Sierra snowpack, resulting in major shifts in the timing and magnitude of flows in rivers fed by snowmelt.
UC Cooperative Extension researchers convey need for more climate change communication and curriculum tools
These are areas where UC Cooperative Extension, with its local presence across the state, is well-positioned to drive change. But as a recent survey of UCCE advisors, specialists and faculty found, while there is a good deal of climate work happening, there are also some significant obstacles.
Results from the UC ANR climate science, outreach, and needs survey.
Results from the UC ANR climate science, outreach, and needs survey.
Respondents pointed to a number of issues. One was "limited familiarity with climate science fundamentals." It's one thing to cite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and is being driven largely by human activity; it is another to be able to respond quickly and convincingly to detailed questions from doubters. This list from Grist, for instance, details more than 100 common arguments raised by climate skeptics, many of which have non-trivially complex answers.
Another important issue cited by respondents was "fear of alienating clientele by talking about a contentious topic," a response that highlights the importance of personal relationships in UCCE's work, and the challenge of communicating an area of science that is highly politicized.
The authors conclude: "To further increase the capacity of UC ANR staff to support the needs of their clientele and the broader public, professional development around climate science fundamentals, communication, and adaptation strategies is critical." As an initial follow-up, the UCANR climate change program team (led by authors Grantham, Kocher and Pathak) is presenting a workshop and professional development meeting for extension professionals in February.