Even though there has been a deficit of fire in California forests for decades, their future is not hopeless, said UC Berkeley fire science professor and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher Scott Stephens in an interview with Craig Miller on KQED Science.
"The next 25 to 30 years are paramount. If you begin to do restoration, reduce density, make forests more variable in pattern, and less fuel, when you have episodes of drought and fire, it's going to be fine. The forests have been doing this for millennia. It's going to be fine," Stephens said.
However, under current conditions, in which fires have been regularly suppressed, the situation is dire.
"The forests used to burn every 12 to 15 years, but most places haven't been touched for 50 to 100 years. Today we have areas with 300 or 400 trees per acre, where you used to have 50 to 80," he said.
Even though, Stephens said he is an optimist. "There's still opportunity today to do restoration, so that when it does get warmer and warmer, as projected, the forests will be able to deal with that, deal with insects and disease and keep themselves intact."
Burning chaparral, tall grass and timber in a rugged and remote part of Monterey County are posing serious challenges to firefighters battling the Soberanes Wildfire in Monterey County, reported Ed Joyce on Capital Public Radio. Joyce spoke to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher Scott Stephens about the factors driving the growing fire.
"Since it's so remote, in terms of road access, just difficult terrain in general - very steep slopes - you get a fire in there like it is right now, it really is a difficult conundrum for managers," Stephens said. Stephens is a UC Berkeley professor of fire science and an Agricultural Experiment Station researcher who also serves as co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
"I don't think the fire managers in that kind of terrain can do more than actually look at it strategically and figure out where they can make a stand and actually try to keep that fire from causing harm to human facilities. But other than that, it's a very difficult fire to access, very dangerous for firefighters," Stephens said in the interview with Joyce.
Climate change has had an impact on the California fire season since the beginning or mid-1980s, said UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researcher Scott Stephens, during a interview on Capitol Public Radio with Ed Joyce. Stephens is a professor at UC Berkeley, a UC ANR Agricultural Experiment Station researcher and co-director of the UC Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
“The amount of snow left on the ground is decreasing because it is melting earlier,” Stephens said. "This creates a longer period of time when wildfires can ignite."
Also the density of trees in the state's forests has increased dramatically.
“We've gone from about 60 to 100 trees per acre to places we have today with 400 or 500 trees per acre, a massive change that has increased their vulnerability to fire, drought and insects,” Stephens said.
Stephens spoke about how the overly dense forest can be addressed by land managers.
"Thinning is sometimes controversial," he said. "It's very easy to think that you're going to remove some trees to reduce the community of crowns, but if you're going to do a restoration treatment with fire in mind, you have to deal with the surface fuels. Also, just the culmination of mortality for decades and decades is already on the ground of the forest."
Joyce noted the astonishing number of dead trees in the Southern Sierra, which the U.S. Forest Service recently pegged at 66 million.
"That's a great example of a manifestation of an unsustainable forest condition," Stephens said. "I was just down in the Southern Sierra about five days ago and I saw those landscapes of thousands of dead trees, many of them large, especially in the ecozone where we go from shrubs to forests. Those areas have been very dry."
Stephens continued: "We really are in this warming climate with more variability. So, it's on us. . . . We can't just keep kicking the can down the road. We're running out of time."
Weather is one factor causing greater wildfire damage in California, but more critical is the state's exploding population, spawning communities in the once sparsely inhabited ranch and timberland regions long known to burn, reported Scott Smith of Associated Press. The story was picked up by the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the Texarkana Gazette, and other publications.
The Erskine Fire destroyed 285 homes and an AT&T microwave cell hub in a rural-residential neighborhood near Lake Isabella last month. Twelve more homes were damaged. An elderly couple died of smoke inhalation.
Bill Stewart, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley said rural areas throughout California, where cattle grazed and loggers harvested trees, have given way to subdivisions of homes in the last 50 years. Residents in these places must be aware of the danger, and not rely on the local fire department to tell them when to clear the grass and trees that could easily spread fire to their homes, he said.
"That's the issue — more people living right next to wildland," Stewart said of the wildfire near Lake Isabella. "If no one lived there, this wouldn't have been a big story."
Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources — everything from cigarettes on the highway, to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California.
“More and more researchers are arguing that anthropogenic influences are really important [to understanding wildfires],” Moritz said. “By leaving them out we're missing a critical piece of the solution.”
While the U.S. Forest Service spends more than $2.5 billion each year fighting fires, other public agencies are exacerbating the wildfire problem. Public funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, are going into construction in fire-prone districts.
"It's already a huge problem from a public expenditure perspective for the whole country,” Moritz said. “We need to take a magnifying glass to that. Like, ‘Wait a minute, is this OK?' Do we want instead to redirect those funds to concentrate on lower-hazard parts of the landscape?”
He said human systems and landscapes they live on are linked, and the interactions go both ways. Failing to recognize that leads to "an overly simplified view of what the solutions might be. Our perception of the problem and perception of what the solution is [becomes] very limited."