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Burning Question: Can California Prevent the Next Wildfire?

Reposted from California Magazine

 

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could've been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.

“As things stand, cities and municipal or regional agencies — like the East Bay Regional Park District or the East Bay Municipal Utility District — are responsible for dealing with fuel buildup and other potential fire safety issues,” says Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. “Cites particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there's a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do clean-up work and billing the homeowner. But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren't done.”

Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at Cal, also believes city officials are often unable or unwilling to enforce strict fire ordinance options. The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, Stephens says. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk, such as the scorched Fountaingrove complex in Santa Rosa, and fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.

As Santa Rosa newspaper columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron has written, the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa could've been predicted; in 1964, another wildfire followed almost the exact same path. But that earlier fire burned mostly forest and agricultural land. Fountaingrove's pricey developments weren't put in until the 1990s, rammed through by local officials anxious for the tax revenues, and in apparent violation of an ordinance that proscribed development on ridge tops overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley.

Along with mushrooming development, ongoing climate change is resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons, affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires with the destruction of Coffey Park, a large tract of middle-class homes in western Santa Rosa far from any forested areas.

“Coffey Park was a huge surprise for me,” says Stephens. “I've never seen anything like it, and I had never expected to see anything like it. But you had this terrible confluence of events. Incredibly powerful, dry winds swept down eastward-facing canyons, and threw burning embers west clear across the Highway 101 corridor into Coffey Park, where they ignited dry leaves and other fuels. Now that we know these kinds of scenarios can play out, we need to prepare for them.”

How? McBride believes that it would be wise to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and place it with the state. State agencies, he observes, are largely immune to both the blandishments and intimidation of local development bigwigs and are motivated by larger issues than municipal and county tax bases. He points to the California Coastal Commission as a promising template. Prior to the Coastal Commission's formation in 1972, development pressures along the state's incomparably beautiful coastline were increasing dramatically. It seemed certain that California's future would include a solid wall of strip malls and gimcrack bungalow developments from Crescent City to San Diego.

“Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren't necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved. We avoided the ‘Miamification' of California that otherwise would've been inevitable. A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”

Stephens agrees with McBride that state authority is likely to be more effective than local agencies in establishing and enforcing effective fire regulations, and suggests that the University of California could also play a role.

“We have to educate as well as enforce, and in fact, education and cooperation at the community level may be the best way to accomplish fire safety goals,” Stephens says. “One of the tragic things about the Santa Rosa fires is that most of the fatalities were older people: 60 and older. People in neighborhoods in fire-vulnerable areas should meet regularly to identify older neighbors who may need help in evacuating, identify escape routes for different scenarios, and discuss risk reduction measures they could take.”

As far as Cal goes, continues Stephens, “UC Cooperative Extension [under the university's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources] maintains [agricultural and conservation] programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators. We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn't be very expensive.”

Both Stephens and McBride think certain types of ornamental trees should be minimized — even eliminated — from the urban landscape. Grasslands and native oak savannas burn readily, says McBride, but at a low intensity; grass fires can usually be countered relatively easily by firefighters. But some exotic trees, particularly eucalyptus and Monterey pine, are impregnated with oils and resins that burn explosively, often producing flame lengths of 200 feet or more and creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes, making effective firefighting impossible.

“We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes banning eucalyptus and other problematic trees as much as possible.”

McBride says some communities are approaching fire risk in a progressive and effective way, and they should be emulated.

“Landscaping at Sea Ranch [on the Sonoma Coast] largely consists of native grassland and prairie, and that provides a lot of security for the homes,” says McBride. “They also plow firebreaks throughout the development every year. They do have stands of native bishop pine, which burns with high intensity, but they prune and thin them to break up the fuel ladders, and that minimizes fire risk.”

The homes at Sea Ranch are modeled on the old barns of the ranchers who originally settled the Sonoma Coast, another factor that reduces fire risk, observes McBride. 

“They don't have eves or roof overhangs, which is a very wise design feature in wildfire-prone areas,” says McBride. “Overhangs trap burning cinders driven by the wind, and encourage fires either on roofs and walls or in attics.”

Indeed, says McBride, modern architects and urban planners can learn about a lot about minimizing fire risk by studying some of the historic structures from California's past.

“Windows are a big entry point for heat,” says McBride. “In fact, heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking. When you go through the old Gold Rush towns in the Sierra, you see these stone buildings with big iron shutters that could be closed over the windows. That was a fire prevention strategy, and it was very effective. We don't need to make shutters from heavy iron sheets, of course, but we could certainly design shutters from modern materials for the large plate glass windows that are so popular in modern homes.  The [Forty-Niners] really understood the risks of wildfires, and they designed their buildings with fires in mind. We need to do the same thing.”

Posted on Monday, November 6, 2017 at 11:22 AM
  • Author: Glen Martin

UC Berkeley taps former National Park Service director to lead new parks institute

Reposted from the UC Berkeley news

UC Berkeley announced today the establishment of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity to tackle the most pressing issues facing the future of parks, including climate change and equitable access. The institute's inaugural executive director will be Jonathan B. Jarvis, who served 40 years with the National Park Service (NPS) and as its 18th director from 2009 to 2017.

Jon Jarvis headshot

After 40 years with the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis will head up the new Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

“Our national, state and local parks are facing a myriad of challenges from climate change while simultaneously expected to provide recreation, wildlife refuge, public gathering space, health benefits and environmental justice,” Jarvis said. “I am very excited by this opportunity to bring together the extraordinary academic talents at UC Berkeley with the professionals in the parks and public lands to tackle these challenges.”

Jarvis brings a lifetime of park management experience to the institute. During his tenure as NPS director, Jarvis initiated extensive programs to address climate changes in the national parks, expanded the NPS by 22 new parks, and led the service through its Centennial with a vision for a second century of park stewardship, engaging communities through recreation, conservation, and historic preservation programs.

Resource Legacy Fund (RLF) provided $250,000 in seed money to launch the institute, continuing its nearly 20-year history of advancing conservation across the West. The nonprofit recently led efforts to help modernize the California park system through the Parks Forward Commission.

“The new institute will help inform future policy and management directions for parks,” said Michael Mantell, the founder and president of RLF. “Today we understand better than ever the economic, ecological and societal values of protecting parks and biological diversity. That's why we need a new vision for parks that includes equitable access and climate resilience, and policy to achieve that vision. Resources Legacy Fund is pleased to help UC Berkeley pioneer the interdisciplinary approach that can help advance our parks and serve society for the 21st century and beyond.”

The new institute continues Berkeley's long tradition of involvement in the national parks system, starting with its very foundation. In 1915, Stephen T. Mather, class of 1887, and Horace M. Albright, class of 1912, gathered a group at Berkeley's campus to plot a future for the country's existing and evolving national parks. The result of their efforts was legislation establishing the NPS in 1916, with Mather serving as its first director and Albright as its second.

For more than 100 years, research at Berkeley has helped guide evidence-based management policies and actions for parks. Berkeley's faculty, graduate students and natural history museums' curators conduct research in and for parks that produce key data and insights. Interdisciplinary studies of ecosystems yield important information about the management of biodiversity in the face of climate change, introduced species and other threats, and assess how protected land contributes to the health of the economy and the health of the planet, including carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. Research on the social, cultural and health benefits of parks contributes to decisions on park use and human enjoyment. The new institute will connect field managers and researchers to improve management of national, state, and local parks and other public lands.

Creation of the institute comes as the original concept of managing parks as discrete natural areas is increasingly out of date. Wildlife do not obey boundary lines, and climate change makes the historical record an unreliable predictor of future conditions. Park access must be expanded for underserved communities and urban populations, and to ensure continued support, parks must be managed in ways that engage younger generations.

One hundred years after the founding of the NPS, Berkeley hosted the 2015 summit “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century” to advance the conversation about the future of parks. In the wake of this summit, the institute will help prepare parks, people and biodiversity for multiple futures, incorporating the best available science. The institute will bring together Berkeley faculty, researchers and practitioners across diverse disciplines to chart the course of park and protected space management for future. Berkeley's College of Natural Resources will host the institute, but the academic talents of the university's various colleges and disciplines will be involved, including public health, environment, education, design, business and law.

“We have world-class faculty who are already working on these issues, and we can look long term to study difficult questions across disciplines,” said Steven Beissinger, Berkeley professor of conservation biology in the College of Natural Resources, who led the push to start the institute.

Posted on Tuesday, October 31, 2017 at 9:47 AM
  • Author: Brett Israel

Replanting the Sierra Nevada after an ecological catastrophe

Reposted from UCANR News

Given California's changing climate, should Sierra Nevada residents replant pine trees after so many died during the 2010-2016 drought? The short answer is yes, says Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor.

“We have every reason to believe that pines will continue to be an important part of mixed conifer forests in the Sierras,” Kocher said.

Dead trees can be seen in the foreground and on the distant mountain side. (Click on photos for higher resolution.)
 

Kocher spoke at a meeting for UC Master Gardeners, volunteers who provide landscape advice to the public in California. Questions have been coming in to Master Gardener hotlines from mountain residents wondering what to do after unprecedented tree loses in the last few years.

Most California forests are suffering from severe overcrowding due to 100 years of aggressive fire suppression and selective harvesting of the largest and most resilient trees. They were then subjected to five years of drought.

“There were just too many stems in the ground,” Kocher said. “The drought was very warm, so trees needed more water, but got less. These were optimal conditions for bark beetles.”

Western pine beetle is a native pest that attacks larger ponderosa pine and Coulter pine trees weakened by disease, fire, injury or water stress. Bark beetles are tree species specific, so other beetles target other species of trees in California's mixed conifer forests. Typically, bark beetles bore through tree bark and create long winding tunnels in the phloem. An aggregating pheromone attracts additional bark beetles to the tree, and heavily attacked trees invariably die.

Healthy pine trees can fight off bark beetle attack by secreting pitch. Trees weakened by drought are unable to fend off an attack. In this photo, a pine beetle is stuck in pitch that oozed from the tree.
 
 
Evidence of bark beetle attack are exit holes on the outside, left, and winding galleries under the bark.
 

During the drought, 102 million Sierra Nevada trees died from bark beetle attack or simply lack of water; 68 million of those died in 2016 alone. But after the abundant rainfall in the 2016-17 season, the bark beetle population seems to have crashed.

Landowners with 20 acres or more may be eligible for a state cost-sharing program to remove trees, reduce the fire hazard and replant new seedlings. Landowners in mountain communities who wish to revitalize their properties can contact local UC Master Gardeners for recovery advice.

UC Master Gardeners are plant enthusiasts who have passed an intense training program presented by UC academics. They participate in continuing education annually to update and maintain their knowledge. More than 60 Master Gardeners from Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties gathered in Oakhurst in October to learn from UC scientists how to work with mountain homeowners whose towering trees have died. Similar training sessions, all funded by a grant from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, were held in El Dorado and Tuolumne counties in June.

UCCE specialist Jodi Axelson points out bark beetle damage.
 

“There is life after beetles,” said Jodi Axelson, UC Cooperative Extension forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.

“Eco systems are stretched, and then they come back,” she said. “You must remember the time scale of forest change is long and pines have been a major species in the Sierra Nevada for at least 28,000 years. As long as there have been pines, there have been bark beetles.”

The scientists suggest that people who own forestland take a step back and assess the landscape after their dead trees have been removed.

“We're seeing a lot of young cedar and white fir surviving the drought. Oaks seems to be doing really well,” Kocher said.

She suggests landowners thin young trees so available sun and soil moisture are focused on the healthiest trees. Water seedlings that are receiving more sun than before to reduce stress. Planting native conifers is the best option. Due to climate change, she recommends choosing trees from a slightly lower elevation to hedge against warmer temperatures in the future.

Pines are adapted to the California forest, but may need help to regenerate. When the ground is moist in the late fall or spring, plant seedlings 10 to 14 feet apart. New trees should be planted well away from homes to maintain defensible space and at least 10 feet from power lines.

“Please don't set them up for future torture,” Kocher said. “That's just sad.”

UCCE forestry advisor Susie Kocher, center, speaks during a field trip to a forest where many trees were killed by bark beetles.
 

To help the new trees become established, cover the ground around the tree, but not touching the bark, with two or three inches of mulch and irrigate weekly during the dry season for the first few years.

Questions about special circumstances may be directed to local UC Master Gardeners. Find the local program here: http://mg.ucanr.edu/FindUs/

Pouch fungus is evidence of a bark beetle kill. The beetles carry fungus into the cambial layer of the tree on their bodies. On recently killed trees, small white conks, the fungus' fruiting body, issues from bark beetle tunnels.
 
 
UC Master Gardeners learn from experts about replanting conifer forests.
 

 

 

 

Posted on Wednesday, October 25, 2017 at 1:37 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

Lessons to be learned from Northern California fires

Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog

 

A wind-driven fire glows ominously over homes in Sonoma County in October 2017. Photo by Adam Giusti
 

It's Deja Vu all over again 
Yogi Berra

Once again I'm asked to provide some perspective on yet another catastrophic situation affecting the North Coast. In 2015, it was the Valley Fire. In 2016, it was the Clayton Fire. This year there are so many fires I'm having difficulty recalling their names...14 at last count.

The cause for these 2017 conflagrations will be apparent once the elements of the fires are assessed. Tornadic winds hitting 50 mph Sunday, October 8, will most likely have started most if not all. Winds of this intensity can ignite fires by impacting electrical infrastructure by breaking lines and causing transformers to explode. The cause of the fires will come out in time. Thick stands of vegetation, the result of mid-20th century land management practices, years of fire suppression, homes built in rural locations in steep terrain, old legacy roads too small to accommodate modern fire-fighting equipment, and exurban development without the necessary resources to address fire prevention. All this leads to almost impossible conditions to arrest a fire being pushed by wind.

I would argue there is no better fire-fighting force in the world than those found in California. What these men and women do is nothing short of extraordinary. But they are faced with an impossible task in the absence of an equally focused program of fire prevention.

Cobb Mountain after the Valley Fire burned more than 76,000 acres in 2015. UC Cooperative Extension helped replant the area with ponderosa pine seedlings.
 

What have I learned from Lake County as a result of the Valley and Clayton fires?

The Lake County fires have provided insights that can help with the recovery and reconstruction of the most recent events. Specifically, resources must be secured to assist landowners and communities in better incorporating fire resilience into local rural and suburban planning and projects, to prepare for the eventuality of another fire by creating and maintaining conditions that allow the fire to be controlled before getting out of hand. Admittedly, the recent fires were wind-driven events that became uncontrollable. However, these fires are the exception to the rule. There are hundreds of fires a year in California that are quickly controlled and extinguished. Fire resiliency must incorporate plans and projects that can address less catastrophic conditions, in the hopes of arresting a fire before it becomes a conflagration.

 

Fire-fighting equipment may need to be scaled to accommodate old, narrow rural roads to improve fire response.

Other aspects for communities to consider when addressing fire resiliency may include fire-fighting equipment scaled to accommodate old, rural roads, resources to retrofit old roads to accommodate evacuees and first responders, and rural lands with poor or non-existent internet service need to re-establish fire sirens to alert residents of impending danger. Local statutes need to establish and enforce vegetation management standards on absentee parcels. And, finally, a sustained dialogue addressing fire resiliency must be incorporated into all land-use planning discussions to help landowners recognize and implement actions to help reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

None of this will be easy or inexpensive. But neither is fighting hundreds of thousand acres of wildland fires every year.

Admittedly, the weather conditions responsible for these fires may negate the best plans and efforts. But again, those conditions are the exception to the rule.

For every acre burned this year there are ten more, in the same condition, that didn't, providing next year's opportunity for a conflagration. The road forward to address California's wildland fire threat is long, and full of twists and turns. But as with all long journeys, each begins with the first step. 

Greg Giusti is a UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus specializing in forests and wildlands ecology.

 

 

Posted on Saturday, October 21, 2017 at 8:40 AM
  • Author: Greg Giusti

Houses likely burned from the inside out, says UCCE forest advisor

Reposted from UCANR News

 

Fire damage from the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Buildings can burn quickly if embers get inside and fall on flammable materials.
 

Preventing embers from getting inside may save homes

Photos and video of the Northern California communities that have been hit by wildfires this week show buildings reduced to ash. How could so many homes and businesses burn so quickly in Wine Country fires? Many houses that burned to the ground in the Northern California fires likely burned from the inside out, says Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forest advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Red hot embers carried on the wind can enter the attic via the venting. “In the case of the wind-driven fires on October 8, these fires created ember storms that blasted little coals into everything in their pathway,” Valachovic said. These embers also create small spot fires near the home that fuel new sources of embers.

Weather played a large role in these fires and generated a fire storm of embers that ignited grass, shrubs, trees and anything in its path. “While the landscape can be the fuse, the homes really can be the most burnable part of the landscape,” Valachovic said. “These embers likely lodged in the small spaces and openings of homes and buildings. A common location is for the embers to enter via attic venting or HVAC systems distributing little fires into the buildings.

“Embers also landed on receptive leaves, outside furniture, and other flammable materials outside the buildings that created fires adjacent to the buildings. Once enough buildings were engulfed in fire, the radiant heat of each building fire led to exposures on the neighboring buildings, creating a house-to-house burn environment.”

Embers carried on the wind can ignite dry plant material like pine needles and create more embers that may enter homes through vents.
 

Residents can reduce the risk of embers setting their house on fire by removing dry plants around the structure.

“These fires remind us that everyone in California could help the fire situation by managing the vegetation, leaves in the gutters and decks, newspaper piles, brooms and other flammable sources near to their houses now before they get the evacuation call,” Valachovic said. “If you are likely to have to evacuate soon, temporarily covering or sealing up the vents with metal tape or plywood can help harden your home to an ember storm.”

Steve Quarles, UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus, who spent his career studying fire behavior on building materials and around homes, created an online Homeowner's Wildfire Mitigation Guide at http://ucanr.edu/sites/Wildfire. Quarles, who now does research for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, demonstrates how embers can ignite and quickly engulf a house in flames in a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvbNOPSYyss. After the 3-minute mark, video shows embers drifting up and flying through a screened vent into the house, where they could ignite combustible materials in the attic resulting in fire starting on the inside of the home.

“If you have time to prepare your home, use the wildfire last-minute check list at http://disastersafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IBHS-Wildfire-Last-Minute-Checklist.pdf,” Valachovic said.

Valachovic has co-authored publications in home survival in wildfire prone areas http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8393.pdf and how landscape plants near homes can create more vulnerability to wildfire http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8228.pdf.

Once these fires are extinguished, a more detailed analysis will be possible.

“Past wildfire events have shown that this is the common way homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI) burn, and this scenario was likely translated to the urban environment,” she said.  

Posted on Tuesday, October 17, 2017 at 9:04 PM
  • Author: Pam Kan-Rice
Tags: embers (1), home loss (1), wildfire (31), Yana Valachovic (2)

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