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What can we learn from the 14,000 homes lost during the Camp Fire?

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.

 

Surviving home with recently upgraded roofing, vents, and combustible materials separated from the house. Every home surrounding this house was lost to the Camp Fire.

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.
    Remnants of a burned trailer park in Paradise.
  • We saw homes that survived that had upgraded attic and foundation vents that meet the California building code for construction in wildfire prone areas. Some of these houses also included some extra efforts where vegetation and combustible mulch was virtually eliminated in the area immediately adjacent to the home. Our inspection team included UC's Dr. Steve Quarles, a national expert in fire-safe construction, who interpreted this to mean that meeting the 2008 Chapter 7 A standards, coupled with the enhanced defensible space, likely made the difference to ward off the assault of the ember-driven Camp Fire. We found evidence that burned homes in Paradise had ¼” mesh foundation and under-eave vent screens. Research has shown that these larger size screens let embers penetrate the attic and ignite the house from within. The 2008 California building code standards specify screen mesh size between 1/8” and 1/16”-inch, or vents that demonstrate their ability to resist embers and flames.
    A homeowner holds a foundation vent found in the rubble of her home. Her home was built before the 2008 construction standards and had the larger ¼ inch mesh screen size that may have allowed embers to enter her home.
  • 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.
    Wood mulch and landscape plants burned adjacent to this newly constructed home. Several windows were broken from the heat from this fire. The home met the new construction standards and survived, but likely would not have been damaged if there had been a 5-foot zone around the home that did not contain combustible plants or other materials.
  • 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. 

Our team, which also included Dr. Eric Knapp from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, has been able to do a quick analysis of home losses by year of construction in Paradise. This cursory analysis shows that many homes built after the 2008 wildfire standards were adopted were lost during this fire, however, without knowing the specific details of each home (e.g., maintenance practices, proximity to other building, etc.), these statistics can be misleading. We will continue to work through the available data to try to look for patterns, however, in the meantime, it seems clear to me that the new construction standards can reduce the probability of ember intrusion and may have helped for some homes in Paradise. This week a new study reported that complying with these standards was not considerably more expensive. Additionally, the codes that help guide construction in California's wildfire-prone areas are dynamic and will be informed by the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons.

Remnant charred materials called “embers” found in a lawn were the drivers of the Camp Fire. The larger size shown in this fire suggests that these were embers generated from burning buildings and not from vegetation.

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.

A well-maintained forested area in Paradise that had minimal tree mortality from the Camp Fire.

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2018 at 3:09 PM
  • Author: Yana Valachovic

How Climate Change Is Affecting Small Sierra Nevada Lakes

Reposted from UC Davis News

Scientists at the University of California, Davis, are taking the temperature — and other measurements — of lakes of all sizes and shapes throughout the mountains of California to see how climate change is affecting them and what, perhaps, can be done about it.

A study published this month in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Letters shows that, despite rapidly warming air temperatures, spring snowpack is the biggest predictor of summer warming in small Sierra Nevada lakes.

The study examined more than 30 years of climate and lake temperature data at Emerald Lake, a long-term study site in Sequoia National Park. It was led by UC Davis with colleagues at UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.

Benthic chambers measure sediment metabolism at a small Sierra Nevada lake in August 2018. (E. Suenaga)

High rates of warming air

The researchers found that summer air temperatures at Emerald Lake are warming at a rate of 1.0 degree Celsius, or 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, per decade.

“That's huge,” said lead author Steven Sadro, a UC Davis assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and a member of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “That's as high a rate of warming as nearly anywhere on the planet. It's also consistent with what you'd find in a lot of mountain regions, which are warming at rates as high as those seen in the Arctic, in many cases.”

Snow a buffer

Yet these small alpine lakes are somewhat buffered from the higher air temperatures because they respond primarily to variation in the snow. The amount of snow controls when the lake becomes free of ice and can absorb radiation from the sun, which heats the water.

“That's not to say that there is no climate warming signal,” said Sadro. “In drought years, when the role of snow is small, we find a warming trend consistent with the rate of warming found in other lakes throughout the world.”

Climate affects phytoplankton, too

A companion study conducted at Emerald Lake and published in June in the journal Water Resources Research found that changes in snowpack also increased the abundance of phytoplankton in Emerald Lake. If droughts continue to be more frequent, high-elevation lakes in the Sierra are expected to become more productive. Researchers are not yet certain how that might affect the lakes. More phytoplankton could mean more food for lake organisms, but it could also impact lake clarity, which is often an indicator of ecosystem health.

Together, the papers show that yes, climate change is impacting these lakes and that its effects are somewhat buffered by snowpack. But what that means for the greater ecology of the area is still unclear.

A current project may provide additional answers.

Adrianne Smits, a NSF postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis, deploys a mooring in a Yosemite lake. (E. Suenaga)

Filling in the gaps

There are upwards of 14,000 small lakes in the Sierra Nevada. This past summer, UC Davis limnologists and colleagues began installing high-frequency instruments in nearly 20 of these lakes, which stretch from Castle Lake in Northern California to Emerald Lake in the southern Sierra.

The project is called the California Mountain Lake Observatory Network, and it's being conducted through Sadro's lab by Adrianne Smits, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis.

As weather events occur, be they storm, drought, wildfire or clear skies, the instruments capture data about water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light levels and other factors. Data from these lakes will be used to develop models to help predict how all the other lakes in the Sierra are responding to changes in climate.

“Castle and Emerald lakes are both long-term study sites, and together they provide unique bookends to the entire Sierra Nevada mountain range,” Sadro said. “We're trying to fill in everything in between to better predict how lakes across the Sierra are expected to change.”

This ongoing research could help resource managers identify which lakes are most sensitive to climate impacts and target them for mediation.

The analysis for the two published studies was made possible because of long-term research support for Emerald Lake and the Tokopah watershed since the early 1980s from the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the California Air Resource Board.

Co-authors for both studies include John Melack of UC Santa Barbara and James Sickman and Kevin Skeen of UC Riverside.

Posted on Wednesday, December 19, 2018 at 2:08 PM
  • Author: Kat Kerlin

Can rakes save forests? Yes, as long as you have a drip torch in the other hand.

Resposted from the UCANR Green Blog

 
A drip torch and a McCleod, two tools that can be used together to reduce the fuels on the forest floor. (Photo: Lenya Quinn-Davidson)

The humble rake has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, and its role as a forest management tool ridiculed and scorned. However, most fire professionals believe rakes are a necessary part of saving California's forests.

Those who are familiar with fire are undoubtedly familiar with the McLeod, which is a standard firefighting tool and … it is essentially a rake (one side is a rake with coarse tines and the other side has a flat sharpened hoe). The McLeod was created in 1905 by a U.S. Forest Service ranger who wanted a single tool that could rake fire lines (with the teeth) and cut branches and roots (with the sharpened hoe edge). The McCleod is used to scrape fuels off of a fire line, preventing fire spread. The use of hand tools like the McLeod continues to be one of the standard ways that wildfires are stopped (although often aided by the rake's bigger and more powerful cousin: the bulldozer).

While the McLeod is a fire-fighting tool, it is also an essential fire-managing tool. When conducting controlled burns (i.e., purposeful fire), the fire is contained within desired areas by diligent raking with McLeods and other hand tools. These tools are necessary for conducting controlled burns.

While it isn't feasible to reduce fire risk by raking the forest with hand tools, if you hold a drip torch in the other hand, you could get the work done.

A drip torch consists of a canister for holding fuel that comes out of a spout (with a loop to prevent fire from entering the fuel canister) and a wick from which flaming fuel is dropped to the ground when the wick is ignited. The drip torch is the most common tool for lighting prescribed burns, which can be used to remove excess fuel buildup in the forest.

In a forest setting, these two tools — the rake and the torch — must be used together. Without a rake, the fire is not easily contained. And without a drip torch, the fuel that was raked cannot burn. Of course, prescribed burns rely on a number of other pre-specified factors (the prescription), including wind, temperature and humidity.

Using fire in a controlled manner drastically reduces the impacts of wildfire in a forest. Typically flames are kept low and most or all of the trees survive the fire, while much of the dead material on the forest floor (the “fuel”) is consumed. This reduces the risk of the forest burning at high severity in the future, thereby protecting nearby homes and towns. It also reintroduces fire as an important ecosystem process, which improves the health and biodiversity of forests and maintains the ecosystem services they provide, including wildlife habitat, water filtration and carbon sequestration.

Participants at a University of California Cooperative Extension with their hand tools (including shovels, Pulaskis, and McCleods) are getting ready to cut fire line so that a prescribed fire will not escape containment. (Photo: Ames Gilbert)
 

Use of a rake and a drip torch together could make a great difference for reducing the impacts of wildfire in California and the West. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that during 2017, only half a million acres were treated with prescribed fire in the West, while 7.4 million acres (almost 15 times more) burned in wildfires. In the Southeastern U.S., where there is a long-standing tradition of prescribed burning, only 2 million acres burned in wildfires while over 5.5 million were burned using prescribed fire.

This was not always the case. Use of prescribed fire, or ‘light burning,' was once common in California until it was outlawed by federal and state policy in 1924. Although the merits of expanding its use are widely known and appreciated, it has been very difficult to do because of concerns about air quality, liability and lack of skilled burners. One of the biggest constraints is that we have very few people who have experience with ‘good fire' and very few qualified people who know how to safely burn.

Landowners at a UCCE prescribed fire training are 'holding' the fire on the left side of the fire line that was cut using rakes and other hand tools. The landowner on the far left is firing the burn unit with a drip torch. (Photo: Ames Gilbert)
 

As foresters and educators for the University of California Cooperative Extension, we are working to expand the use of prescribed fire on private forest and grasslands in California. Central to our efforts are educational events that give people an opportunity to experience prescribed fire first-hand. In the last two years, we have hosted workshops throughout northern California, and many of our workshops have included a live-fire component where landowners and other community members can try their hand at prescribed burning, under the direction and guidance of more experienced burners.

Our efforts in California are inspired by approaches in other parts of the country, including “Learn and Burn” events in the Southeast, prescribed burn associations in the Great Plains, and prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs), an innovative training model developed by The Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network. All of these efforts have a focus on reconnecting people with fire, and they give participants the skills and experience needed to put fire back in the management toolbox.

A prescribed fire burns up to the fire line (installed with rakes and other tools) and stops. The fire is consuming fuel on the forest floor and leaving behind a a healthier and more fire safe forest. (Photo: Lenya Quinn-Davidson)
 

We hope that by empowering people to pick up the drip torch (and the rake) on their own properties, we can help them educe the risk of wildfire and improve the health of their forest and range lands. There is no time to waste.

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 at 9:17 AM
  • Author: Susie Kocher
  • Author: Rob York
  • Author: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Wildfire risk should be considered when planning new developments

San Diego County officials want to approve construction of about 10,000 homes in areas largely labeled by CAL FIRE as posing a "very-high" fire hazard, reported Joshua Emerson Smith in the San Diego Union Tribune.

County supervisors said the subdivisions are badly needed and developers have laid out exhaustive fire-prevention blueprints. However, UC Cooperative Extension fire specialist Max Moritz said these building codes and other rules don't take into account whether a particular project should be built there at all.

“There are all these hazards that we use to guide our building and our zoning from floods to landslides, and fire is not one of them,” Moritz said.

“In the end, the taxpayer is left holding the bill for all this,” he said. “The developer may do a really good job at designing and convincing everybody that it's the right thing to do, but after they walk away, the public is left doing fuels maintenance for decades, and the public picks up the bill when there's a disaster.”

The Carr Fire burned 1,077 homes in Northern California during the summer of 2018. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)
 
Posted on Wednesday, December 5, 2018 at 12:05 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert
Tags: development (1), Max Moritz (2), wildfire (43), zoning (2)

Catastrophic wildfires and climate change lead to growing acceptance of ‘pyrosilviculture’

Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog

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.

The Camp Fire in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018. (Photo: NASA)
 

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.

Participants in the pyrosilviculture training gather at a recent prescribed burn site near Shaver Lake.
 

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 pubic 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.”

UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor Susie Kocher. (Photo: @UCsierraforest)
 

UC Cooperative Extension is working with private landowners to encourage more prescribed burning to reduce fire risk, protect communities and timber. UCCE forestry and natural resources advisor Susie Kocher coordinated training sessions this year in four mountain communities. The sessions included local fire history and current fire research, prescribed fire permitting and legal considerations, fire weather forecasting and online tools, air quality and smoke management, fire terms and fire behavior, burn plan development, burn unit preparation and fire tools and equipment.

“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-Davidsonsaid 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.

UC Cooperative Extension area fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson.
 
Posted on Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 10:42 AM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

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