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California fire damage to homes is less 'random' than it seems

 

File 20171207 11315 1ygt36d.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Can California update its building codes to minimize fire damage? AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Faith Kearns, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

In the midst of the many wildfire emergencies that have faced California this year, it can often seem that the way houses burn, or don't, is random.

The thing is, though, it's not. Firefighters and researchers alike have a pretty solid understanding of why some houses are more vulnerable to wildfire than others. The real challenge ultimately lies in whether those with the power to act on that knowledge will do so.

Available science

It is commonly thought that it takes direct flame to spread a fire, but this isn't always the case. Small embers are instead often the culprits that begin house fires during wildfires. These small bits of burning debris can be lofted long distances by the wind. They can then end up igniting landscaping materials like combustible mulch, or enter homes through vulnerable spots – gutters teeming with debris, unscreened attic vents, open or broken windows, old roofs with missing shingles. Once there, the embers smolder and can ultimately catch a house on fire.

In California, iconic winds work to create ideal ember-driven ignition conditions. The Santa Ana winds in Southern California – known as the Diablo winds in northern part of the state – have generally followed fairly predictable seasonal and spatial patterns. “Red flag” fire warnings are often issued on dry days when the winds will be particularly fierce.

Avoiding fire on Highway 101 north of Ventura, California. AP Photo/Noah Berger

While humans can't really control as much as we'd like to believe when it comes to disasters, we do have the ability to control where and how we build. For decades, most wildfire education and enforcement campaigns have focused on creating so-called defensible space where landscaping vegetation is carefully selected and located on the property, as well as routinely maintained.

This is not enough, however. Officials in California – as in other fire-prone states – need to help homeowners, local governments and builders to understand there are also specific, science-based steps that can be taken to make structures themselves less vulnerable to fire.

Researchers recommend what is known as a “coupled approach” to home and building survival. This means the development and maintenance of an effective defensible space, as well as the careful selection of construction materials and correct installation to ensure that, for example, there are not gaps in siding or roofing that would allow embers to penetrate.

Decision-makers also need to be willing to take on the most taboo topic of them all: recognizing that there are places houses simply shouldn't be built, or rebuilt, at all.

(Not) too urban to burn

Earlier this year, California had the first strong winter rains after many years of drought. Now, after a typically dry summer, the state is experiencing a dry start to the rainy season, particularly in the south. At the same time, people have continued to build into places known to burn regularly. The result of this confluence of events has been fires deeply affecting many thousands of people up and down the state.

California residents are largely aware that not all fire is bad, and that many of our ecosystems thrive on regular fire. It's not something that we should, or ever could, hope to fully contain. Our only chance is learning, really and truly and finally learning, to live with it.

In that vein, the state must look long and hard at some of the steps that have been the hardest to take – not building in places that are particularly fire-prone and matching building codes with a modern understanding of wildfire risk – if there is to be any hope of alleviating the human suffering these fires cause.

We are being invited to free ourselves from the notion that wildfire destruction is random and unpredictable, and that therefore there is nothing to be done about it. As the fire season in California gets longer, the winds worsen and wildfires move into areas once deemed too urbanized to burn, maybe the knowledge about what makes houses burn can finally be put to good use.

Faith Kearns, Academic Coordinator, California Institute for Water Resources, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Posted on Saturday, December 9, 2017 at 1:23 AM
  • Author: Faith Kearns
Tags: Faith Kearns (1), wildfire (29)

Lessons to be learned from Northern California fires

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 Friday, October 20, 2017 at 10:12 AM
  • Author: Greg Giusti
Tags: Greg Giusti (3), wildfire (29)

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

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 Friday, October 13, 2017 at 10:54 PM
Tags: wildfire (29), Yana Valachovic (3)

New era of western wildfire demands new ways of protecting people, ecosystems

Humans will have to adapt to living with wildfire, write University of Colorado Boulder and UC ANR scientists. Adaptation includes reforming federal, state and local policies that have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to develop in fire-prone areas.

Current wildfire policy can't adequately protect people, homes and ecosystems from the longer, hotter fire seasons climate change is causing, according to a new paper led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Efforts to extinguish every blaze and reduce the buildup of dead wood and forest undergrowth are becoming increasingly inadequate on their own. Instead, the authors—a team of wildfire experts—urge policymakers and communities to embrace policy reform that will promote adaptation to increasing wildfire and warming. 

“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said lead author Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We're learning our old tools aren't enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”

This means accepting wildfire as an inevitable part of the landscape, states the new paper[1]  published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The western U.S. has seen a 2-degrees-Celsius rise in annual average temperature and lengthening of the fire season by almost three months since the 1970s; both elements contribute to what the authors refer to as the “new era of western wildfires.” This pattern of bigger, hotter fires, along with the influx of homes into fire-prone areas—over 2 million since 1990—has made wildfire vastly more costly and dangerous.

“For a long time, we've thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” said Schoennagel, who also is an adjunct faculty member in CU Boulder's Geography Department. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we're going to have to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”

As part of this adaptation process, the authors advocate for actions that may be unpopular, such as allowing more fires to burn largely unimpeded in wildland areas and intentionally setting more fires, or “controlled burns,” to reduce natural fuels like undergrowth in more developed areas. Both these steps would reduce future risk and help ecosystems adapt to increasing wildfire and warming.

They also argue for reforming federal, state and local policies that have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to develop in fire-prone areas. Currently, federal taxpayers pick up the tab for preventing and fighting western wildfires—a cost that has averaged some $2 billion a year in recent years. If states and counties were to bear more of that cost, it would provide incentive to adopt planning efforts and fire-resistant building codes that would reduce risk.

Re-targeting forest thinning efforts is another beneficial reform suggested by the authors. The federal government has spent some $5 billion since 2006 on thinning dense forests and removing fuel from some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of land, often in remote areas. But these widespread efforts have done little to reduce record-setting fires. Directing thinning projects to particularly high-risk areas, including communities in fire-prone regions and forests in particularly dry areas, would increase adaptation to wildfire, the authors said.

Additionally, as climate change forces species to move their ranges, some may vanish entirely. Familiar landscapes will disappear, a fact that makes many people balk. But such changes, including those caused by wildfire, could be necessary for the environment in the long run, says Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist and a co-author on the paper.

“We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” Moritz said. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”

Critical to making a policy of adaptation successful, said Schoennagel, will be education and changing people's perception of wildfire. “We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are. We've tried to control fire, but it's not a control we can maintain. Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”

 

Posted on Monday, April 17, 2017 at 1:00 PM
Tags: Max Moritz (1), wildfire (29)

Women learn to burn and lead in fire management in Northern California Oct. 19-28

Retired U.S. Forest Service fire chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, second from right, is among the inspiring women leaders encouraging women to aspire to be wildland fire managers at the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange.

Workshop aims to spark women's ambition to become leaders in fire management

Shortly after her son was born, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley was promoted to fire chief of a national forest. For the first six months, she brought the baby to work.

“Most of my colleagues were men between 40 and 50. I was 31,” recalled Pincha-Tulley, who was the first woman to achieve the rank of U.S. Forest Service fire chief in California. “My second son was 6 weeks old and nursing. They had no idea what to do. They absolutely freaked out.”  

While great efforts are being made to recruit women into fire management, women hold only 10 percent of wildland fire positions and 7 percent of leadership roles. A new training focuses on grooming women to lead in fire management.

To encourage to women build stronger networks and pursue leadership roles in fire management, Pincha-Tulley, who retired in 2015 after 36 years with the U.S. Forest Service, will be speaking from experience on gender roles at the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) in Northern California. She will also serve as deputy incident commander for the event.

The training will provide a "supportive environment for women and men to understand and elevate the need for diversity in fire management—not only in numbers, but also in approach," said Lenya Quinn-Davidson. Photo by Larry Luckham)

WHO:  Participants from 12 states and four countries, including 38 women and six men, who work for federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribes and universities. Organizers include Pincha-Tulley, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council; and Amanda Stamper, The Nature Conservancy fire management officer in Oregon, among others. Guest speakers include Sarah McCaffrey, USDA Forest Service research social scientist; Johnny Stowe, forester/biologist/yoga teacher/fire manager of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources; Gwen Sanchez, deputy fire chief for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and many more.

WHAT:  WTREX participants will serve in qualified and trainee firefighting positions to implement prescribed burns throughout the region. They will complete pre- and post-fire monitoring, train with equipment, practice fireline leadership skills and learn about local fire ecology and fire management.

WHERE: The training will take place in Trinity and Shasta counties. Sites include open prairies, oak woodlands, mixed-conifer forests and chaparral. Field trips will be made to areas burned in recent wildfires and to prescribed fire and fuels treatment project sites.

WHEN: Oct. 19-28, beginning in Hayfork, ending in Redding. Burning and other outdoor activities will depend on the weather.

DETAILS: The 12-day hands-on prescribed fire training, modeled after prescribed fire training events that take place across the country, will include beginners to seasoned professionals. The difference is that most of the participants are women.

“I'm excited for this event because it will transcend the usual TREX emphasis on cooperative burning and learning,” Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor, who is part of the team organizing the event. “It will explicitly recognize and reinforce the importance of female perspective and leadership in fire management, and provide a supportive environment for women and men to understand and elevate the need for diversity in fire management—not only in numbers, but also in approach.”

Women hold only 10 percent of wildland fire positions and 7 percent of leadership roles.

Based at the Tahoe National Forest, Pincha-Tulley oversaw 1.6 million acres, including fire suppression, prescribed fire and aviation operations.

As the only woman among the 17 national Incident Commanders, Pincha-Tulley looked for allies and mentors. In 2005, the year she was promoted to Type 1 Incident Commander, she led her team to Mississippi to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was essentially invisible to the Air Force generals and Navy admirals until she put general stars on her uniform. A NASA director, a man, coached her, saying, “Are you going to let them take over the meeting? You're their peer, make yourself one.” He proceeded to mentor her, based on NASA's training for women in management.

“When you look for those people who can help, you begin to attract them,” Pincha-Tulley said. One of the primary goals of the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange is to connect women who work in fire, providing them with new networking and mentoring opportunities.

WTREX is co-hosted by eight primary partners as well as additional collaborators. These include the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, the Fire Learning Network, the Cultural Fire Management Council, the Watershed Research and Training Center, the Bureau of Land Management, the USDA Forest Service, the California Fire Science Consortium, University of California Cooperative Extension, and other collaborators.

WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resiliency through Collaboration: Landscapes, Learning and Restoration, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior. 

Posted on Monday, October 17, 2016 at 4:23 PM

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