As California grappled with a record-breaking heatwave last week and 236 wildfires, officials are bracing for the worst, reported Maanvi Singh in the Guardian.
The fires have been mostly fueled by grass and brush that came up during the state's especially wet winter and mild spring, according to a CAL FIRE official. UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said California's annual wildfire season is growing longer – beginning earlier in the spring and stretching later in the fall.
“It's not unusual for us to see this many small fires in June,” she said. “But 50 years ago, so many fires this early on – plus these extreme, high temperatures in June – would have been abnormal.”
It is difficult to predict how bad the rest of this fire season will be based on the number of fires so far, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.
"Our worst fire years aren't necessarily the years that we've had the highest number of fires,” he noted. “All it takes is one – one huge, destructive fire to ruin the whole year."
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, center, is the UC Cooperative Extension fire scientist serving Humboldt, Siskiyou, Trinity and Mendocino counties. She is pictured with Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, left, and Kelly Martin, right, at a Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange session.
California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.
At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.
Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.
“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.
“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”
However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.
“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”
UCCE specialist Lynn Huntsinger suggested cattle may be viewed as a team of firefighters.
The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.
“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”
At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.
“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”
There is still much more research to be done.
“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”
Research by UCCE advisor Laura Snell and her colleagues showed that rangeland doesn't need to be 'rested' following a fire.
The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.
She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.
The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like.
“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”
The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.
“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”
Sheep and cattle grazing can reduce the fuel load for a potential wildfire. (Photo: Dan Macon)
Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.
Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.
Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.
Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.
“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.
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)
In severely burned areas, nearly all lichen were gone, even 16 years after a fire.
As increasingly hot and severe wildfires scorch the West, some lichen communities integral to conifer forests aren't returning, even years after the flames have been extinguished, according to a study from scientists at the University of California, Davis.
Lichen, an often overlooked organism that forms fuzzy, leaflike layers over tree bark and rocks, is an unsung hero in forest ecosystems. It provides food for deer, caribou and elk, and is sometimes the only food source for flying squirrels, which are key prey for threatened spotted owls. Birds and insects use it to eat and nest. An important contributor to the nutrient cycle, it also helps fix nitrogen in forest soils.
“Lichen are beautiful, ecologically important, are all around us and tell us important things about the environment,” said lead author Jesse Miller, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis. “But even if you don't notice lichens, you would notice the consequences in ecosystems when they are lost.”
Lichen loss and fire severity
For the study, published Aug. 9 in the journal Global Change Biology, researchers sampled lichen communities in about 100 study plots across California's Sierra Nevada region. Five wildfires had burned, at varying levels of severity, in and around the plots between four and 16 years before the study's sampling.
The results show that lichen communities were largely unaffected by low-severity fires. This suggests that prescribed fires and natural wildfires under moderate weather and fuels conditions are compatible with lichen diversity.
But areas that experienced higher severity wildfires had significantly lower abundance and diversity of lichen.
In severely burned areas where most of the trees died, nearly all the lichen were gone, even 16 years after the fire.
The lichens' recovery is likely held back by the loss of tree canopy after the fire, the researchers said. The hot, dry microclimate left in the forest post-fire is not conducive to lichen growth. This indicates that lichen communities burned in Sierra Nevada forests likely won't recolonize until mature trees regrow and the forest canopy is restored. This may exacerbate the effects of climate change that already threaten lichens.
“If the species could keep pace with the rate of climate change, the effects of fire might not be so bad,” Miller said. “But the concern is they might not. These fires happen so quickly and in such a large area, they could cause species ranges to contract faster than they are expanding.”
The study also indicates that the trend of increasingly dry forests and hotter, bigger and more severe wildfires could cause broad impacts to lichen diversity across the landscape, which could impact nutrient cycling and multiple food-chain interactions among wildlife.
The study areas included:
Yosemite, in areas burned by the Rim (2013) and Grouse (2009) fires
Greater Lake Tahoe Basin, in areas burned by the Showers (2002) and Long (2009) fires
Warner Mountains, in northeastern California, in areas burned by the Blue Fire (2001).
The study's co-authors are Hugh Safford of UC Davis and the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region; and Heather Root from Weber State University in Utah.
The research was funded by the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region.
Jesse Miller, Environmental Science and Policy, email@example.com
Kimberly Hale, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-9838, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-7704, 530-750-9195 (cell), email@example.com, Kerlin will be out of the office Aug 9-13.
The news that Americans are getting about California's devasting fires is not being hyped up by the media, said UC Cooperative Extension area fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson on the nationally broadcast NPR program On Point.
Host Eric Westervelt of WBUR in Boston got a Northern California perspective from Quinn-Davidson, who works with communities in Siskiyou, Trinity and Mendocino counties on managing the threat of wildfires and is the Northern California coordinator of the California Fire Science Consortium.
"I definitely don't think the situation is being hyped up," Quinn-Davidson said. "I'm in Ukiah and there's a thick blanket of smoke. Everyone can feel the tension of the Mendocino Complex Fire."
Quinn-Davidson said she grew up in the vicinity and, back then, major fires like those burning today only happened every few years. Lately, such super fire seasons are happening every year. She said it's time for Californians to take a different approach when thinking about fire.
"Fire is the only natural disaster that we fight against," Quinn-Davidson said. "With hurricanes and earthquakes, we adapt and try to identify vulnerabilities and change our behavior. We haven't treated fire like that. We need to learn how to adapt and make changes that make us more resilient to fire."
On Point is NPR's only call-in program. One caller asked whether climate change has reached an irreversible tipping point at which little can be done to reverse the damage that is causing extreme flooding, heat, hurricanes and wildfires.
Quinn-Davidson said she offers hope to the people in communities she serves.
"They're not powerless," she said. "I don't want people to feel that we are beyond some tipping point and they should just throw in the towel. I think we need to feel empowered to make the changes we can make - whether on a personal scale, at at the mid-grade community scale, or if it is taking political action to make larger change ... We still have some place to make a difference. I really believe that."
Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, was also a guest on the On Point program. He said that, as a nation, we may have breached a different tipping point - a tipping point in public consciousness. Recent news reports have informed the public about extreme flooding in Japan, record-breaking heat in Europe and catastrophic wildfires in California.
"This summer has made a difference in the public perception of how profound the threat of climate change already is," Mann said. "And I like to think that when they go to the voting booths in less than 100 days, they're going to be thinking about climate change and the need to act on this problem. I think we will see progress."