- Author: Kat Kerlin
Reposted from UC Davis Magazine
When wildfire ripped through two UC Davis natural reserves last summer, scientists conducting research there first took a pained look to see if their months or years of research just went up in flames. Then they did what one would expect from scientists: They began to study the effects.
Wildfires burned a record-busting 10.12 million acres in the U.S. in 2015. Among the first lands ignited that dry, hot summer were Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve, just 30 minutes west of Davis, and Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve, two hours northwest of campus. These lands have served as outdoor labs and classrooms for decades.
Since the fires, researchers have started comparing before-and-after data on everything from wildflowers and insects to the impacts of climate change on species recovery.
Such research is expected to become increasingly relevant as the trend of warmer, drier climates and hotter, more intense fires continues across the state and world.
There's one thing Cathy Koehler wants to set straight: Fire is not “devastating.” At least not from an ecological perspective. It's simply a part of life in this area of the world.
She and her husband, Paul Aigner, are co-directors of McLaughlin Reserve, where they have lived for 13 years.
A former gold mining site, the reserve stretches across 7,000 acres of grassland, woodland and chaparral habitats.
It is revered by scientists as one of the few places on the planet where serpentine soils — which give rise to rare and endemic plants able to tolerate extreme soil conditions — sit side by side with “normal” soils. This makes comparison experiments between radically different soils in a natural environment fairly easy to arrange.
Koehler and Aigner know McLaughlin's nuances, nooks and crannies. They know where to find different patches of vegetation and where wildlife lives. And they can locate every experimental plot — down to a patch of plants along a side road.
So when, one after the other, the Rocky, and then the Jerusalem fires came raging through in late July and into August, the couple stayed. The reserve field station, which is well-protected from fire, became a staging area for the firefighters and a community refuge. Koehler and Aigner looked at the swirling flames coming over the hillside in awe, not fear.
“It was spectacular,” Koehler said, eyes wide with excitement and wonder at the memory. “Whenever a fire occurs, we drop everything and monitor the activity. Every summer, you have to expect that possibility.”
In some cases, the couple saved scientific experiments themselves by dousing nearby areas with water. But mostly, they helped the firefighters respond in the least intrusive way possible for the environment and the scientific experiments underway.
For example, the co-directors helped firefighters find existing firebreaks instead of bulldozing lines across natural lands. This helped spare experiments and sensitive habitat—places that would recover from fire but not necessarily from the disturbance of a bulldozer line.
On a dirt road inside the reserve last winter, fresh deer tracks dotted the mud. Koehler pointed to a series of pin flags in the distance. They marked some of environmental science and policy professor Susan Harrison's experimental plots, where research equipment would have been lost in the firefighting effort if not for the reserve directors.
“More and more, I feel like I couldn't do anything I do without the reserves,” Harrison said. “Reserve staff played an essential role in setting up a watering system for my climate study. And with the fires, Paul and Cathy not only protected these rare serpentine meadows, they saved experiments out there.”
Harrison studies the resiliency of ecosystems under climate change. She's been studying 80 grassland sites annually at McLaughlin for almost two decades, and 39 of them were affected by last summer's fires. Now Harrison is studying how quickly grassland plant species recover after fire.
She's not the only one viewing the fires as a new research opportunity.
Graduate student Moria Robinson is looking at how insects regenerate on plants after fire. Before the fires, she'd spent two years at McLaughlin collecting caterpillars to study food-web interactions among soils, plants and insects. The fires burned many of the plants where she'd been gathering specimens.
“McLaughlin is a place that's become a big part of my life, where I love being,” Robinson said. “I've become connected to the landscape. So it was hard to see it change.”
But while Robinson initially focused on what was lost, her adviser, UC Davis professor of ecology and evolution Sharon Strauss, helped her see what an asset two years of data on plants and insects before the fire could be for a post-fire comparison.
As the wildfire season now gives way to the wildflowers, Robinson said she's more excited for a field season than she has been in a long time.
“Once I started reading about fire ecology, I realized there are a lot of neat questions we can ask,” she said.
Wragg to riches
A faint buzzing sound came from atop a slope at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve this past winter. Graduate student Jordan Carey was flying a white drone above the hill taking aerial images. Forecasters predicted a wet winter, and he was studying how rock, mud, leaves and other debris flow down steep slopes and into streams after a fire. The data could be used to inform hazard debris flow models for urban areas, like Los Angeles.
Carey hadn't considered doing this project until the combination of the fires and an El Niño winter presented itself.
“In populated areas, debris flows present the potential for loss of life and hazards,” Carey said. “Obviously that's not the case here, but this is a good place to study it.”
The Wragg Fire was ignited a few hundred yards from the edge of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve on July 22, 2015, putting the reserve first in its path. It ripped through, burning cottonwoods, thick patches of chaparral, iconic blue oaks and railroad ties built into the trail. It even vaporized the reserve's one Porta-Potty.
Before the fire, Stebbins was a verdant canyon, punctuated by a ridgeline looking over Lake Berryessa. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was designated just 12 days before the Wragg Fire's first spark. Stebbins is used by entomologists studying native bees and ants, veterinary researchers studying parasites and disease vectors on wildlife, and many other scientists.
The UC system has 10 natural reserves, and very few of them are open to the public. Stebbins is one of those rarities. Students from local schools visit for outdoor education, and the public takes advantage of what is arguably the area's most popular hiking trail. With the advent of social media, the once sleepy local secret now receives nearly 65,000 visitors a year. The reserve temporarily closed after the fire but reopens in May.
“It is emotional, in its way,” reserve director Jeffrey Clary said of the fire. “I'm a scientist, and I know that fire is part of the cycle. But at the same time, I spend a lot of time here and get to know the individual trees. There are all these nighttime photographs of the wildlife, of the gray foxes and the wood rats. I've seen their footprints. So you have to think about what's happened to all of them.
“But then what really kicks in is getting to see this kind of rebirth process and all the science that's getting to happen because we're here, so close to campus. We can get out right away and learn something from this. We can make all of California better positioned to deal with these big disturbances.”
For now, the reserve is recovering. Signs of rebirth are everywhere. New life grows beneath charred shrubs and trees. Green seedlings emerge from blackened earth. Life, insistently, goes on.
And yet questions remain: What will the future forest look like under a changing climate? And how should we as humans prepare for it and respond to it?
“We're going to learn a lot, and some of it is going to be troubling,” Clary said. “It's one thing for a fire to happen. It's another for it to be documented so that everyone gets to learn from it.”
This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of UC Davis Magazine./h3>/h3>
- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from UCANR news
The prescribed burn was carefully orchestrated by CalFire. Wide swaths of vegetation had been cleared around the 7-acre and 9-acre study areas and the weather carefully monitored before a truck-mounted “terra torch” sent streams of flammable gel into the brush, igniting a raging fire.
The fires at Hopland set up a study for a UC Berkeley doctoral student researching post-fire nitrogen cycling, provided a training ground for new CalFire recruits who will be battling blazes in the summer, and launched a new partnership between HREC and CalFire.
Chaparral shrublands, which cover about 7 percent of California natural lands, are vital California ecosystems. Chaparral contains 25 percent of the state's endemic plant and animal diversity. Nature and Native Americans burned chaparral at regular intervals for millennia, providing fresh new growth for foraging animals.
“After a chaparral fire, you typically get a flush of ephemeral wildflowers, some of which are very rare, which you haven't seen for 30 years or since the last fire,” said Lindsey Hendricks-Franco, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who is conducting research at Hopland. “The amazing thing about these plants is their seeds can survive in the seedbank for decades. Then heat or smoke or an open canopy can stimulate them to germinate. It can be beautiful.”
The most abundant plant in Hopland chaparral, chamise, is barely fazed by fire. The plant's underground burl will soon sprout after a fire, and chamise seeds readily germinate in ash-enriched soil.
To understand the role of nitrogen cycling in the post-fire chaparral ecosystem, Hendricks-Franco and her research staff clambered over dense brush before the fire to collect soil samples and place ingenious heat sensors that document the burn temperature. After the fire, she returned to each site to collect post-treatment soil samples and heat sensors.
“It's a challenge to put sensors in a fire this hot. Most heat sensors are destroyed by the intense heat,” Hendricks-Franco said. “I painted four- by four-inch tiles with a variety of heat-sensitive paints. The paints change color at different temperatures. When I collect the tiles, they will give me an idea about the temperatures reached in the fire.”
The controlled burn at Hopland was the first step in rebuilding a partnership with CalFire, said Kim Rodrigues, who has served as the facility's director since 2014. The areas burned in April were previously burned by CalFire for fire research in the 1990s.
“We've been here since 1951 offering applied and relevant research,” Rodrigues said. “It's primarily research on ecosystem management in oak woodlands, grassland and chaparral. Fire on the landscape is a management tool.”
The 5,800-acre research facility is one of nine such centers managed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in a variety of California ecosystems, from high desert near the Oregon border, low desert in the Imperial Valley, Sierra Nevada forests and San Joaquin Valley farmland. Hopland is also home to 500 sheep.
Hopland CalFire battalion chief Michael Maynard was the incident commander at the April controlled burns, which he said also fulfilled CalFire objectives.
“It's good to be back here to join up with the University of California,” Maynard said. “The fire falls into our realm of training and expertise and we're helping their realm of expertise, which is research. There are 10 plots on this specific research project, so we'll be back soon.”
Maynard brought in newly hired firefighters for training on setting and controlling a prescribed burn.
“It's important that we brush up on our skills. We have seasonal employees that have hired on early and are participating. So the all-around training value is incredible and pays off later in the summer,” Maynard said.
CalFire will be back at Hopland in the fall to implement another chaparral burn so Hendricks-Franco can compare the fate of nitrogen in areas that burn before the hot, dry summer season to areas that burn in the fall and are followed by rain.
View scenes from the controlled burn in the video posted on YouTube.
- Author: jeannette warnert
Reposted from the UCANR news
The findings suggest many models of wildfire predictions do not accurately account for anthropogenic factors and may therefore be misleading when identifying the main causes/drivers of wildfires. The newest model proportionately accounts for climate change and human behavioral threats and allows experts to more accurately predict how much land is at risk of burning in California through 2050, which is estimated at more than 7 million acres in the next 25 years.
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.
“Individuals don't have much control over how climate change will effect wildfires in the future. However, we do have the ability to influence the other half of the equation, those variables that control our impact on the landscape,” said Michal Mann, assistant professor of geography at George Washington University and lead author of the study. “We can reduce our risks by disincentivizing housing development in fire-prone areas, better managing public land, and rethinking the effectiveness of our current firefighting approach.”
The researchers found that by omitting the human influence on California wildfires, they were overstating the influence of climate change. The authors recommend considering climate change and human variables at the same time for future models.
“There is widespread agreement about the importance of climate on wildfire at relatively broad scales. At more local scales, however, you can get the story quite wrong if you don't include human development patterns,” said co-author Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension fire ecology specialist whose lab is at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is an important finding about how we model climate change effects, and it also confirms that getting a handle on where and how we build our communities is essential to limiting future losses.”
Between 1999 and 2011, California reported an average of $160 million in annual wildfire-related damages, with nearly 13,000 homes and other structures destroyed in so-called state responsibility areas - fire jurisdictions maintained by California, according to Mann. During this same period, California and the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $5 billion on wildfire suppression.
In a model from 2014 that examined California wildfires' destruction over the last 60 years, Dr. Mann estimated that fire damage will more than triple by mid-century, increasing to nearly half a billion dollars annually. “This information is critical to policymakers, planners, and fire managers, to determine wildfire risks,” he said.
The paper, “Incorporating Anthropogenic Influences into Fire Probability Models: Effects of Human Activity and Climate Change on Fire Activity in California,” published Thursday in PLOS ONE.
Press release written by Emily Grebenstein, George Washington University, email@example.com, 202-994-3087
- Author: Sarah Nightingale
Reposted from University of California News
When plant matter burns, it releases a complex mixture of gases and aerosols into the atmosphere. In forests subject to air pollution, these emissions may be more toxic than in areas of good air quality, according to a new study by the University of California, Riverside and the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station.
The results suggest biomass burning of polluted forest fuels may exacerbate poor air quality—and related health concerns—in some of the world's most heavily polluted areas, among them, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which is expected to suffer from more wildfires as drought conditions continue.
The study, which was led by Akua Asa-Awuku, a researcher at the Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) at UC Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering, was published online recently (March 2) in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
As people burn fuels—in cars, power plants and factories—nitrogen is released into the atmosphere and absorbed by plants. While essential for plant growth, an over-abundance of this biologically-available nitrogen can result in ‘nitrogen saturation,' a phenomenon previously reported by Forest Service scientists in Riverside. Nitrogen saturation can cause a cascade of adverse effects including a decrease in biodiversity, changes in plant species, soil acidification and water contamination.
In this paper, UCR and Forest Service researchers teamed up to explore a previously unstudied aspect of nitrogen saturation: its effect on the gases and aerosols released during burning of forest fuels from an area experiencing nitrogen saturation.
Polluted sites released up to 30 percent more nitrogen oxides than clean sites
Scientists conducted the study in the San Bernardino Mountains, a 60-mile stretch of federal and private forest land to the east of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Since the pollution concentration decreases from west to east, as the distance from Los Angeles increases, the forests offered a rare opportunity to compare emissions from wildland fuels subjected to different levels of chronic air pollution. At sites 55 miles apart, the researchers collected recently deposited material from the forest floor, called litter, which is a primary fuel in these forests. Both sites have a similar mixture of conifer tree species, and, at the time of collection, had experienced similar temperatures and rainfall.
As shown in previous studies, the litter from the polluted site, which had endured high levels of atmospheric nitrogen oxides and ozone, had higher nitrogen content than litter from the clean site. The researchers then burned the litter in controlled lab tests, collected the emissions and analyzed them. The results showed:
- Fuel from the polluted site released more nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of smog and ozone. In some cases, polluted fuels released 30 percent more nitrogen oxides than fuels from the clean site.
- Polluted fuels released more small fine particles (PM<2.5), which are known cause of respiratory health problems.
- The composition of the particles from polluted regions were different; they were less likely to evaporate but underwent similar atmospheric processing as emissions from clean fuels exposed to sunlight.
Implications for agencies in charge of controlled burns
Asa-Awuku, an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the CE-CERT, said agencies that oversee prescribed burns should consider these findings when they predict the likely impact of prescribed burning of forest fuels in areas subjected to chronic air pollution.
“The environmental impact of prescribed burns has historically been based on data from clean fuels in areas of good air quality, so we have likely been under-predicting the impact of biomass emissions in polluted areas,” Asa-Awuku said.
She added that the study supports growing evidence that humans need to reduce our pollutant footprint associated with burning fossil fuels.
“This study, and specifically the concern that biomass grown and burned in polluted areas is potentially more toxic to human health, is additional evidence that human activities have consequences not yet explored and therefore not understood,” she said.
The research was conducted by Asa-Awuku and Michael Giordano, at UCR's CE-CERT, and Research Forester David Weise and Physical Science Technician Joey Chong from the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station.
Headquartered in Albany, Calif., the Pacific Southwest Research Station develops and communicates science needed to sustain forest ecosystems and other benefits to society. It has research facilities in California, Hawaii and the U.S.–affiliated Pacific Islands. For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us/psw/./h3>/h3>
- Author: Pam Kan-Rice
Reposted from UCANR News
The loss of oak woodlands in California's North Coast is a critical conservation concern because it is associated with losses of biodiversity and wildlife habitat, range values, cultural resources, and other oak-dependent ecosystem services. In the absence of natural disturbances like fire, conifers can outcompete deciduous oaks and eventually the oaks die. In recent years, the effects of conifer encroachment on oaks have become a focal point for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, which has conducted important research on oak woodland conservation in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
“UC ANR research has shown that conifer encroachment is threatening oak woodlands throughout the North Coast. This project is really exciting because it will give landowners the resources they need to restore their oak stands — resources that haven't been there in the past,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC ANR Cooperative Extension staff research associate, who led development of the project proposal.
Oak woodland restoration requires removing conifers from oak stands with prescribed fire or by cutting down the conifer trees.
“The North Coast Oak Woodland Conservation Project will provide technical guidance and resources for landowners who wish to restore or conserve their oak woodlands, and foster a strong alliance of organizations and agencies who can continue oak woodland conservation efforts into the future,” said Quinn-Davidson, who is based in Eureka.
For more information about the project or funds for oak conservation activities on private lands, contact Quinn-Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org and (707) 445-7351.
The North Coast Oak Woodland Conservation Project was one of six projects in California selected for Regional Conservation Partnership Program funding. The funded projects focus on a range of issues, including bird habitat, climate change and forest health. The program, which is funding 84 projects totaling $220 million nationwide, is highly competitive, requiring strong partnerships that address critical conservation issues.
"We are excited and energized by these new projects that bring together a diverse mix of partners to improve California's ecosystems and landscape," said Carlos Suarez, Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist. "It is very powerful to be able to engage in partnerships that embrace both agricultural and environmental interests and perspectives—and find collaborative ways of making progress on critical issues."
Partners in the North Coast Oak Woodland Conservation Project include University of California Cooperative Extension, CAL FIRE, the Watershed Research and Training Center, the North Coast Regional Land Trust, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mattole Restoration Council, Yager/Van Duzen Environmental Stewards, and the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District.