Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

NEWS FEED

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

UC California Naturalists interpret nature with art

Art is an expression of creativity, a conveyance of beauty, and for naturalists, it is a way to process, remember and interpret nature.

Many branches of nature art are popular, such as photography, painting and sketching. The UC California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous in October introduced an old but uncommon method for documenting natural objects – cyanotype.

A completed cyanotype print.
Cyanotype is a photographic printing process invented in the mid-1800s. It is best known as the long-time technique for duplicating building designs and the reason they are still called “blue prints.” Now the deep cyan blue can be an artistic backdrop to the interesting shapes and forms of natural treasures.

At the CalNat Rendezvous at the Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa artist Jessica Layton taught the cyanotype process to volunteers certified by the UC California Naturalist program, giving them a new tool to use in educating and engaging children and adults in conservation organizations they work with around the state.

The cyanotype process begins by mixing two chemicals - ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide – to create the blue photo reactive solution. The chemicals may be purchased at art stores and online by searching for cyanotype solutions.

California Naturalists paint on the cyanotype solution in a darkened room.

Once blended, the chemicals are painted on paper or cotton cloth and allowed to dry. Leaves, grasses, seeds, pine cones, flowers, stones – any number of natural objects collected outside may be artfully arranged on the blue background and, if needed, held in place with a pane of glass.

The project is then set out in bright sunlight for 5 to 7 minutes, brought back inside to be washed in clean water and allowed to dry. The areas of the paper or cloth exposed to the sun are a radiant lapis blue; the areas that were shaded by the natural objects appear in silhouette.

Director of the UC California Naturalist program, Adina Merenlender, collects natural objects at Pepperwood Preserve for making cyanotype art.
The director of the UC California Naturalist Program, Adina Merenlender, participated in the cyanotype training.

“I have come to appreciate art as a way to improve observation skills and deepen an appreciation for nature,” Merenlender said. “We offered this session to our volunteers for them to improve their capacity and become better naturalists.”

Artist Jessica Layton, left, shows a cyanotype mural project made by the group. The fabric was commercially treated with the cyanotype solutions and captured the silhouettes of a wide variety of objects, including feathers, hands, sunglasses and a water bottle.
 
California Naturalist Kat Green said she's seen cyanotype before and always want to try it, so jumped at the chance to practice the project at the CalNat Regional Rendezvous.
 
"Different people connect with nature in different ways," Greene said. "I don't have an artistic knack, so being able to share this experience with people allows me to connect with them in a way I couldn't connect otherwise."
Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2017 at 10:15 AM

More Latinos are joining 4-H, according to initial UC ANR outreach report

Latino youth participation in 4-H is on the rise, according to a report on the first year of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' three-year 4-H Latino Initiative.

Increasing Latino participation in 4-H has been a priority for some time. Over the last five years, participation in 4-H increased 41 percent; Latino participation increased 173 percent. While growing, the fraction of 4-H members who are Latino still falls below their proportion of the state's population.

“We're just getting started in implementing a new statewide comprehensive plan to reach Latino youth,” said Lupita Fabregas, assistant director for 4-H diversity and expansion. “We know 4-H helps prepare kids for success in college and life. We're thrilled to be involving more Latinos.”

When 4-H was formed 100 years ago, it was an educational club for farm kids. Often seen in spotless white and kelly green garments, participants raised animals, gardened, cooked and sewed while learning leadership and public speaking skills. In the latter half of the 20th century, when California became more urbanized, 4-H began adding education in broader program areas, such as rocketry, robotics, computer science and environmental stewardship.

Youth experiment at a 4-H Junk Drawer Robotics booth at Bay Area Science Festival Discovery Day. (Photo: Sonoma County 4-H)

California demographics were also changing. The state became more ethnically diverse. In 2014, Latinos surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group. But they weren't reaping the benefits of 4-H membership at the same rate.

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) the 4-H parent organization in California, researched the reasons for low Latino 4-H membership, and realized there were opportunities to develop new program models and methods to reach minority populations without changing the 4-H core values.

“As an organization, we identified the values and core elements of 4-H that make us unique,” said Shannon Horrillo, UC ANR statewide 4-H director. “We decided that no matter how we adapted the program, we would not stray from those foundational elements.”

4-H members compete in a chili cookoff. (Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Core elements include youth leadership, youth-adult partnerships, life skills learning, community service and service learning, the 4-H Pledge, and well-known 4-H name and green four-leaf clover emblem. It became apparent that some of the requirements that were part of the community club tradition – such as the required meeting attendances, parliamentary procedures and officer structure – were barriers to extending the program to a more diverse population.

“We can be more flexible in how the program looks and in requirements while maintaining what has made 4-H an impactful program for more than 100 years,” Horrillo said.

New club models were launched, including special interest clubs (called SPIN clubs), in-school clubs and after-school clubs.

4-H members learn about agricultural science.

4-H membership began looking a lot more like the highly diverse citizenry in the state's densely populated cities. In 2016, UC ANR allocated funds to employ bilingual 4-H community education specialists in seven California counties for three years to further boost Latino participation. The specialists are making a concerted effort to reach out to Latino youth, parents, community leaders, schools, churches and other organizations to extend 4-H programming to wider and more diverse audiences in Kern, Merced, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties.

“Our staff are making strides in adapting 4-H to be culturally relevant for Latino youth,” Fabregas said. “This work will help all youth feel welcome, appreciated and valued in 4-H programs.”

The new effort will include a fundraising program to maintain and expand the emphasis on Latino outreach after the current three-year funding period concludes. The UC ANR Development office is working with the 4-H Latino Initiative to develop a plan to combine local fundraising, grant awards, contracts with schools and agencies, and foundation and private gifts to keep the program going beyond the current three-year term.

“Though the progress to date has been significant, we know that we'll need to hire more community educators to strengthen our resources if we're going to bring 4-H to a great number of Latinos,” said Andrea Ambrose, UC ANR director of development.

 

Hesperia Highlighters 4-H Club in San Bernardino, Calif.
Posted on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 at 1:57 PM

Hybrid oak trees muddle identification at California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous

Knowing the names of trees is a point of pride for many California Naturalists. So a walk among the diversity of oaks at the Pepperwood Preserve left many feeling humbled.

The three-hour excursion was part of the UC California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous in October at the 3,200-acre nature preserve nestled in the foothills between Napa Valley and Santa Rosa.

Excursion leader Steve Barnhart, academic director emeritus at Pepperwood, said there are 500 oak species in the world; 21 in California. But cohabitating on the rolling hills and valleys of the Golden State, many oaks have produced hybrids that combine characteristics, making identification challenging.

Steve Barnhart opens the 'Oaks of Pepperwood' excursion during the California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous.

Doctoral candidate Phrahlada Papper, who is studying oak tree genetics, said, “I'm of the mind that you shouldn't ever name an oak.”

Even the tan oak, long thought to be misnamed, is coming under new scrutiny.

“It's not an oak,” Barnhart said. “It has acorns, male and female flowers on the same stalk, but tan oaks are insect pollinated. True oaks are wind pollinated. Tan oaks are closer to chestnuts.”

But Papper raised his hand. “Genetically, it might be an oak,” he said.

Barnhart laughed. “So tan oak is up in the air. That's why it's so much fun to be in science,” he said. “I learned something today.”

Doctoral student Phrahlada Papper discusses oak tree genetics.

In popular culture, oaks are thought to be majestic, towering trees, with wide spreading branches. However, Barnhart said, most California oaks are shrubs, including the leather oak.

Leather oaks grow in serpentine soils and have the ability to produce two types of flowers, one in the spring and another quite different in the fall. Leather oaks are monoecious, they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. On a particular leather oak at Pepperwood, Papper was surprised to find male and female flower parts in one bract and surmised that weather patterns may be responsible.

“California has weird weather and with climate change, it's getting even more weird,” Papper said.

Leather oak details.

Papper believes tracking phenology, the cyclic and seasonal changes in plants, is an ideal citizen science project for California Naturalists. One such project underway at Pepperwood is led by Wendy Herniman. A University of Edinburgh, Scotland, master's student, Heniman is documenting the phenology of 10 Pepperwood oak trees: 2 blue oaks, 3 coast live oaks, 2 black oaks and 3 Oregon oaks.

“Pepperwood is looking at climate change. It's a designated sentinel site. We're monitoring fog, we have soil probes, and we're collecting all weather and climate information. We can tie that to phenology,” she said. “We're trying to find out if phenophases are changing.”

Understanding the changing phenophases is important, Barnhart said.

“Everything is connected,” he said. “If acorns are produced early, animals species that depend on the food source will be disrupted. You have imbalances in the timing of the natural world. With climate change, what are the effects we'll be seeing?”

Wendy Heniman talks about her research near a hybrid Oregon-blue oak.
 
The acorn shape is Oregon oak-like. The leaf contours are blue oak-like. The specimen is evidence of hybridization in oaks.
 
California native poison oak is also found on the Pepperwood Preserve. It is unpopular with humans, but birds like the golden berries.
A 15-year-old Douglas fir was mechanically removed to stop it from crowding a 50- to 60-year-old oak tree, Steve Barnhart said. Fire suppression is giving oak competitors like firs a greater foothold in oak woodlands. "Fire suppression was an unhealthy thing to do," Barnhart said.
Posted on Monday, October 16, 2017 at 1:30 PM

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

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