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Posts Tagged: Scott Stephens

King Fire Puts UC Forest Research to the Test

By Ann Brody Guy, College of Natural Resources

A key University of California, Berkeley, research station is threatened by the King Fire in El Dorado County. Blodgett Research Forest, 4,270 acres located 10 miles east of Georgetown, is home to scores of UC Berkeley investigations on trees and other plants, fish and wildlife populations, insects, diseases, soils, atmospheric chemistry and wildfire management techniques.

Backfiring—controlled burns to contain greater wildfire damage—are expected to begin today (Friday, Sept. 19) on the Blodgett property. The arson-sparked King Fire has burned more than 75,000 acres, triggering evacuations, incinerating trees, and closing Highway 50 and local roads. As of this morning the fire was only 10 percent contained, according to Calfire. University personnel have been evacuated from the research station and UC Berkeley fire experts in El Dorado County and on the Berkeley campus, based at the College of Natural Resources (CNR), are coordinating with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages wildfires in this region, and Calfire on priorities for defending the property.

UC Berkeley's Blodgett Research Forest, the marked, colored block to the east of the main King Fire blaze, likely will begin backfiring today to protect it from being overtaken by wildfire.

“With 50 years of annual harvests and 40 years of annual measurements of permanent plots, Blodgett is the Rosetta Stone for the Sierra Nevada with respect to the interactions of forests, management and fires,” said William Stewart, a forestry researcher and co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Forestry. In addition, Stewart said, the half-century of monitoring gives Blodgett the longest continuous record on forests in the Sierra Nevada.

While the spread of the King Fire to Blodgett would result in a discontinuity in the long-term data collection, it simultaneously would launch the start of data collection on a new continuum—a unique opportunity to learn, fire experts say.

“You'll change that continuous record, but also start a whole new record that reflects the fundamental role of disruptive elements of Sierra ecology,” said J. Keith Gilless, CNR dean and a forest economics professor.

Researchers would also get valuable information on current experiments and hypotheses.

“Our investments in improving forest resiliency will be severely tested if the King Fire enters our property,” Stewart said. “We will find out how effective those investments have been.” For example, effectiveness of vegetation treatments, such as cutting low brush and young trees, or creating patchworks of smaller clear-cut areas, will be tested in a more severe way than is possible under normal research conditions.

“You never say, ‘let's light a really, really hot fire and see how the stand holds up,'” said Gilless. “But you can go in and do analysis after an event like this: We hypothesized these treatments would be effective; do they actually deliver when put to the test by an uncontrolled wildfire?”

The King Fire is burning in the El Dorado National Forest, 56 miles east of Sacramento.

Scientists are already preparing to collect data—soil samples, tree mortality rates, information on char height (burns to the trunks) and scorch height (burns to the treetops)— both to understand how the fire burned and increase the potential to bring back a healthy forest.

Not every tree dies in a wildfire. But damaged trees become more susceptible to pests and pathogens, which can kill them or inhibit the growth of other vegetation. “We can measure the potential resilience of a forest by understanding the level of damage and mortality, and how our forest-management practices influenced those outcomes,” said fire science professor Scott Stephens.

The researchers say it's also opportunity to employ adaptive management, a forestry best practice that involves learning from the results of each fire, analyzing what worked, what didn't, and why; and then applying those lessons.

With the fire advancing and Blodgett in an area currently slated to be allowed to burn, researchers are scurrying to organize their efforts.

“Unlike much of the research we do, an event like this imposes its own timetable. You have to deal with it in real time,” Gilless said. And while collective fingers are crossed that Blodgett will survive, Berkeley's fire researchers must prepare for any outcome. “Everything that transpires in nature is an opportunity to learn,” added Gilless.

A Trove of Past—and Future—Data

The research station is located in an area where danger posed by severe wildfires is very high. For the past two decades it has been a center for UC Berkeley research projects that evaluate the effectiveness of treated plots against control plots—unmanaged ecological reserves.

The findings from this research have already had broad impacts on how fires are managed locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. Data gathered at Blodgett have helped scientists, forest managers, and fire experts understand:
• How different forest and fuel management techniques work over time;
• How forest management approaches affect biodiversity;
• How processes like nutrient cycling and carbon cycling actually operate in forests.

For example, biodiversity studies showed that a mosaic of tree sizes and openings create more habitat niches for birds and animals. Fuel treatment studies have show that reducing tree and shrub densities increase the probability that medium and large size trees can survive wildfires.

Stephens, whose recent research includes thinning young forests to reduce fire risk and greenhouse gas emissions, says the King Fire is a symptom of California's larger forest problem.

“Almost all of the Sierra Nevada is in a state of high fire hazard because of past fire suppression, and harvesting that focused on large trees,” a practice that left the more susceptible smaller trees and debris, increasing fuel loads. “It will take decades of active management to reduce hazards and produce resilient forests,” Stephens said. “This will not be easy but it is possible. If we don't get this work done, future generations will not enjoy forests as we have, and forests will be fundamentally different, with much more severe wildfire impacts.”

Related Links

-Fire map on UC Berkeley Center for Forestry
-Incident Information System map
-Blodgett Research Forest

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 11:27 AM

Lessons for Saving Our Forests

From the UC Berkeley News Center

Scott Stephens, with cross-section of fire-scarred tree

Scott Stephens, in his Mulford Hall office, with a cross-section of a fire-scarred tree that died around 1750, long before the era of fire suppression.

Wildfires are flaring once again in Yosemite National Park, a harsh reminder of the policies and conditions that sparked last year's devastating Rim Fire. A version of this story was first published in October 2013, shortly after that blaze destroyed huge swaths of Sierra forest.

BERKELEY — In late July, UC Berkeley fire ecologist Scott Stephens was working in Stanislaus National Forest, gathering data on how a century had altered its character. What he saw were the signs of a clear and present danger.

“The thing that was startling was that there was more change than I ever would have imagined,” recalls Stephens, a professor of fire science who devotes much of his time to field research. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, this place is really susceptible to high-severity fire.'”

On Aug. 17 the Rim Fire ignited, changing the forest far more, and in far less time, than anyone could have imagined. The blaze scorched hundreds of square miles — roughly a quarter-million acres — in the Stanislaus, and thousands of acres in neighboring Yosemite National Park. It left what has been described as a moonscape, in the process killing wildlife, destroying habitat and – as he discovered when he returned in September – reducing his 400-odd research plots to embers.

Stephens had left the area by the time the fire erupted, but four of his Berkeley undergrads — summer technicians supervised by a member of his research team — were still taking readings a few miles from ground zero. They were in regular contact with the U.S. Forest Service's district office, he says, and “realized in a hurry they had to leave.”

The Rim Fire, to Stephens' distress, confirms the most urgent finding from decades of research. As he and his co-authors wrote in a paper published this month in Science, “Fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future fires.”

“We know that taking fire out of ecosystems is a big deal in places like mixed-conifer forests, which used to burn every decade or so,” he says. Then, in 1905, the Forest Service was established – not coincidentally, the year the last fire occurred in the area Stephens was studying. It wasn't long before the agency began implementing its so-called 10 o'clock policy, which called for extinguishing every fire by 10 a.m. the morning after it was discovered.

But by clearing out understory, those smaller, low-intensity fires once acted as natural firebreaks against larger, more damaging fires. According to survey data, Stephens says, a section of one of his research plots had 19 trees per acre larger than six inches in diameter in 1911. When he and his students were there in July, they found 260 such trees per acre, “an astonishing difference.”

Scott Stephens

Stephens: “Miles and miles of dead trees.”

Even as density has increased, though, the average diameter has dwindled as younger trees fill in the spaces between older, bigger ones. And the amount of dead and downed material on the forest floor has quadrupled or even quintupled, Stephens says, to perhaps 40 tons per acre. That adds up to an unprecedented “continuity of fuel,” he says, enough to feed a raging inferno fierce enough to destroy the imposing, old-growth Douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees beloved by visitors to Stanislaus and Yosemite.

“A lot of places in the Sierra Nevada have been harvested so thoroughly, the big old trees are gone,” says Stephens, who grew up in a lumber-mill family. “But this place was different. It still had trees that were three-and-a-half, four feet in diameter. These are trees that are 300 years old, easy.

“So I was standing there thinking, ‘My goodness, here are these trees that are really important, we don't have them in all national forestlands, and they're vulnerable. And then we went back, and every one of those trees was dead. And it wasn't just that area. It was miles. Miles and miles of dead trees. It was really kind of sad.”

‘A decade to change course'

“I was really a forest person in a big way when I was a young kid,” says Stephens, though not, perhaps, in quite the way he is now. Both of his parents worked at Humboldt County's Pacific Lumber Co., as did his grandfather and three of his uncles, before the company fell victim to a notorious hostile takeover in 1986.

“It was so close to me that I never saw it as all that special,” he says. He earned his undergraduate degree, in fact, in electrical engineering, worked as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense and lectured at Sacramento State, his alma mater, for a number of years.

He'd just begun Ph.D. work in electrical engineering at UC Davis when he was introduced to the realm of natural sciences and “knew it was in my heart to follow it.”

“I liked electrical engineering,” he explains, “but I just didn't love it.”

He loves fire science. He seems to derive special pleasure from his work in research stations like the UC Berkeley-run Blodgett Forest near Auburn, where he and his students conduct experiments with prescribed burns. They set these themselves with drip torches, steel cans with a highly combustible mix of diesel and gasoline set off by a burning wick.

“That's the fun part,” says Stephens, who acknowledges it can sometimes be intense as well. “Every fire you're on you learn from, because they're always a little different – the wind changes a little bit, the weather changes a little bit, the fuel changes, the topography's different. So every one is a learning exercise.”

Among the most crucial lessons, he says, is the ecological importance of natural forest fires, and the counterproductive nature of suppression. Climate change and drought, he adds, only exacerbate the dangers.

The good news, he says, is that more and more land managers appreciate the vital role natural fires and controlled burns can play in preventing future Rim Fires. The bad news: Population growth in and around national forestlands, combined with budget constraints on both federal and state agencies, greatly complicates the task of adapting management  policies to forests' need for smaller, more frequent, less destructive fires.

The National Park Service has recognized this for decades – which helps to explain why the Rim Fire wreaked most of its destruction outside Yosemite's borders – and even the Forest Service has recently seen the light, Stephens says. But the agency has been hampered by the need to protect homes and structures, which means putting fires out instead of letting them burn.

“People living in the urban interface have really changed the whole fire dynamic,” Stephens explains, “because now, when a fire starts, if it's near anyplace that's got people, all of the engines go to structure support. They try to defend houses, they cut shrubs around them, they burn out away from them and they basically put fires out that are coming in.

“Structure protection costs a fortune,” he adds.

The nation's fire-suppression budget has soared from around $300 million in 1995 to $2 billion today, an increase Stephens attributes in large part to persistent building in forested areas – including those where fires have occurred. “Unless there's some way to link the real costs associated with that,” he says, “I see no reason to change.”

As long as the U.S. government keeps subsidizing fire management in the urban interface – where it has no authority to restrict private building — federal agencies won't have the resources to ensure more sustainable forest ecosystems, Stephens says. He and his Science co-authors suggest making the states responsible for the costs of firefighting in the urban interface. The recommendation, which would require an act of Congress, is “heartburn city for California,” he admits, and won't be popular with other budget-strapped states, either.

“I'm just trying to figure out a way work can get done on these lands,” Stephens says. “I think we have a decade to really change course.”

“I do think that we know enough,” he says, to make critical policy changes. “The science is getting more and more clear. The vulnerabilities are very clear. So I am optimistic that things could change. I'm optimistic that Congress could engage at some time, and really make a difference. When it's going to happen, I don't know.”

To Stephens, though, failure to act isn't an option: “I think the stakes are so high that, for me, it's almost unimaginable that we don't change course.”

Posted on Thursday, September 18, 2014 at 12:19 PM

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