- Author: Glen Martin
Reposted from California Magazine
Back when mastodons and giant ground sloths still roamed the earth – the late 70s and early 80s – I worked as a wildfire fighter for the U.S. Forest Service, both on hand crews and engine crews. Our training was narrow but relatively deep. Mainly, we were taught to construct fire lines with hand tools and chain saws. Water, when it was available, generally was used to protect the line and firefighters; seldom was it employed to directly extinguish the flames.
Our basic strategy consisted of digging and cutting line around the flanks of the fire, then burning out fuels to the advancing flames with fusees (devices resembling highway flares) or drip torches. In this way, the “head” of the fire could be steered to natural barriers or areas sufficiently devoid of fuels to make a direct attack possible. We received zero training for structure firefighting. The one time I responded to a burning structure was in Trinity County: A vacation cabin was ablaze due to a faulty propane line. Several engines responded. Federal Forest Service engines are smaller and hold far less water than municipal or state engines, but collectively, we mustered a lot of water on the scene. A direct attack could have been possible, but we knew our training for battling such a fire was inadequate. Instead, we dug a line around the cabin so the flames wouldn't encroach into the surrounding woods, and watched it burn to the ground.
Things are different now. For one thing, wildfires are bigger and more frequent. This is due to drought, climate change, and the sins of past forest managers. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, vast tracts of old growth timber were liquidated in massive clear cuts. These deforested landscapes were replanted as conifer monocrops, resulting in expansive stands of spindly, closely-spaced, second-growth trees that are as flammable as kerosene.
Meanwhile, the goal for wildfire fighters has changed drastically. The emphasis now is on “protecting interface,” which means preventing fires from immolating the homes that have sprouted across the West's woodlands like morel mushrooms after a rain (back when we had rain). This shift has made fighting wildfires far more expensive, more dangerous for firefighters, and has altered priorities from protecting public forests to protecting private assets. Wildfire fighters now receive training in structure fires, but that has diluted, perhaps even vitiated, their original mission. As Berkeley Environmental Science Professor and Wildfire Researcher Scott Stephens noted, more than half the U.S. Forest Service budget for the current fiscal year is dedicated to fire suppression; in the early 1990s, that figure was about 20 percent. Assuming the trend will continue, which seems certain, firefighting could consume 70 percent of the agency's budget by the 2020s.
That means there's less money than ever for restorative work. And this is work that must be done, and soon. Unless we alter the essential characteristics of our coniferous forests, they will quite literally vanish. It's already happening: Stephens observes that significant portions of California's forests are shifting from pine and fir to mixed hardwoods or even grasslands, the result of repeated, high-intensity fires and drought. And once our conifers are gone, we're not getting them back. The change will be permanent.
Even with drought and accelerating climate change, we can still have healthy coniferous forests in the West. But we won't get them by simply letting them grow — and burn (and burn). Stephens observes we need active management: intensive thinning by both mechanical means and prescriptive fire. This will result in forests with fewer but healthier trees, forests that are largely resistant to any but the most catastrophic fires.
A hundred years ago, disastrous wildfires were rare in California. Forests were characterized by widely spaced, extremely large trees; You could ride through them on horseback, unimpeded. Any fires that did ignite generally crept along. They didn't have the “fuel ladders” — dead limbs and needles on the ground, brush and ascending foliage higher up — needed to climb into the crowns of the trees and explode into rolling fireballs. Being large, the trees were thick-barked and resistant to fire. Indeed, periodic low-level fires disposed of deadwood, killed destructive insects, and returned nutrients to the soil as ashes. It was a virtuous cycle, assuring healthy, resilient wild lands that depended on fires, but were not destroyed by them.
That changed with the aggressive fire suppression of the Smokey the Bear era and accelerated clear-cut logging. But as Stephens notes, we can revitalize the “dog hair” (as in, thick as the hair on a dog's back) forests we now have. We can re-create the vibrant, fire-resistant forests of the early 20th century. We know how to do it. We have the tools: chain saws, heavy equipment, and prescriptive fire. It's not that complicated.
But it will take political will and money. It won't require a Manhattan Project-style response —but it'll require one similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps in scope and commitment. We need to put young men and women back into the woods in force, cutting trees and conducting controlled burns. By re-introducing fire into forest ecosystems, we can, paradoxically, protect them from fire. This will entail triage. We'll have to identify those areas that are most vulnerable to fire (e.g., interface communities). The first projects should be shaded fuel breaks, strips of thinned forests around highways and rural towns and residential developments. Following that, more ambitious projects could proceed on larger tracts.
Who pays? The state and feds must contribute, of course. But local communities, commercial timber companies, and private landowners must also cough up. In particular, the counties and interface residents must participate. So far, they've gotten a free ride. County planners have encouraged development in wild-land areas without thought to the implications of wildfire; After all, taxpayers have always picked up fire suppression costs. More suppression costs must be passed on to the counties so they are incentivized to discourage development in our wild lands, and homeowners must pay appropriately heavy premiums if they choose to build in the woods.
Stephens estimates we have about 30 years before it's too — before our coniferous forests are gone forever, replaced with oak woodlands, brush fields, or grassy savannas. And even then, of course, the wildfires will continue. As we saw with the recent Middletown conflagration, hardwood forests and scrublands can burn just as ferociously as conifers. As long as homes intrude into the wild lands, their continued destruction is assured.
We can continue down the current path of increasing fires and escalating suppression costs, or we can invest in forest restoration. The first course is a death spiral. The second will reduce wildfires, preserve the essential character of our wild lands, provide tens of thousands of jobs to young Americans, yield economic benefits ranging from timber production to recreation, stabilize watersheds, and preserve wildlife diversity. Let's just hope we do the right thing.
- Author: Kat Kerlin
Reposted from UC Davis News
With nearly 9 million acres burned this year across the nation, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most destructive wildfire seasons yet in a decade strung with devastating fire seasons. And with drought and climate change, wildfires are only predicted to get worse.
At a time when forest fires are predicted to grow throughout the West, national forest managers, policymakers and the public currently have unique opportunities to reform wildfire management. (U.S. Army/photo)
In a commentary published Sept. 17 in the journal Science, a team of scientists led by a UC Davis affiliate describe unique opportunities and suggestions to reform forest fire management to lessen the impacts of inevitable wildfires in future years.
In the U.S., 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before reaching 300 acres. Yet the 2 percent that escape containment account for 97 percent of fire-fighting costs and total burned area, the paper said.
The current funding structure for fire management encourages that imbalance. The authors write that, for individual national forests, “fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations,” which are supplemented with emergency funding. However, funding for fuels reduction and prescribed burns comes out of a limited budget allotted to each national forest and is often borrowed to cover suppression costs.
‘Management reform has failed'
The recently released National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and the U.S. Forest Service's current efforts to revise national forest plans provide incentives — and distinct opportunities — for change. Most of the 155 national forests will begin writing new plans and holding public forums within the next 10 years.
Further, public resistance to controlled fire management, such as objections to smoke and negative perceptions of forest fires, is starting to change.
This growing public and congressional awareness of the problem is placing additional pressure on state and federal agencies to better manage forests and fire. The authors said this kind of support is needed to enact true change — not just at the policy level but also with actual wildfire response.
“Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire,” the authors write.
The paper suggests that change come in the form of more prescribed and managed burns, increased thinning, and less suppression. The authors point to Parks Canada, which divides the landscape into different zones for fire management.
For example, U.S. forest plans could:
- Use mechanical thinning and suppression near homes;
- Use prescribed fire and mechanical treatments just outside of the wildland-urban interface;
- Allow more remote lands to burn as managed wildfires when naturally ignited and use prescribed fires.
Additional authoring institutions include UC Berkeley, University of Washington, The Wilderness Society, Northern Arizona University, and the U.S. Forest Service.
- Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-7704, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Author: Shayna Foreman
Reposted from the UCANR news blog
In the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, people sometimes forget that Southern California actually has a wealth of natural open spaces. From the Mojave desert to four National Forests, Southern California supports vast wilderness spaces, many just a stone's throw from major cities. And if one looks closely, even those urban centers are filled with recreational parks and trails in an attempt to sate our appetite to connect with nature.
This hungry audience is driving rapid growth of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' California Naturalist Program. Established programs such as those offered by Pasadena City College, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy are being joined by new and developing partners. Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority manages land in both the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown Los Angeles. MRCA incorporated the CalNat curriculum into a longer Bridge to Park Careers workforce training program, resulting in the hiring of a cadre of new rangers well-versed in California natural history.
The University of Southern California Sea Grant program and the LA Conservation Corps SEA Lab teamed up to expose young adults from underserved communities to the coastal ecosystems of Southern California and potential jobs in the environmental field. The Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum brings together California's rich cultural and natural histories in the heart of south Los Angeles County. Additional CalNat programs will soon be popping up in Cambria, Carlsbad, Riverside, Ojai, and Big Bear, and we're working to develop partnerships in San Diego and Orange Counties and along the L.A. River.
The CalNat curriculum highlights the incredible diversity of our state; the California Floristic Province is considered one of the 25 global biodiversity hotspots. This designation means that the region is home to a huge number of endemic species (those found nowhere else), but also that it shows an alarmingly high degree of habitat loss. Our mild Mediterranean climate and varying topography contribute to a diversity of species, but these are also attractive features to humans.
The 10 counties that define Southern California cover only a third of the state geographically, but they hold nearly two-thirds of the population, more than 22 million people. What an amazing pool of potential naturalists! And in neat symmetry with our diversity in geology and biology, perhaps no place in California exemplifies demographic diversity like Los Angeles. As our program expands, especially in the southern part of the state, CalNat is placing great emphasis on bringing our approach of “stewardship through discovery and action” to participants from a broad range of backgrounds.
But interpreting nature in Southern California holds unique challenges. In this arid land, agriculture and urban residents fight fiercely over scarce water (much of it imported from elsewhere), an even more contentious resource in our current drought conditions. And fire, though common throughout the state, is a particularly prickly topic in a region with so many homes.
Urban ecology is an emerging science built around the complexity of survival pressures and species interactions in human-impacted environments. In Southern California, dense human populations live cheek-by-jowl with coyotes, raccoons, rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions, and our habits and infrastructure influence their movements. Human development often fragments natural habitats, creating isolated islands that may not support viable populations of native species and may favor invasions by non-natives. As these environments lose functionality, we lose important “ecosystem services,” such as flood buffering by coastal wetlands.
So it's all the more important that Southern Californians take a greater interest in understanding and shaping our place in the natural world. If we can forge meaningful connections with the natural resources in the places we live, we can learn to protect those resources. This is already starting to happen, with initiatives like L.A.'s Sustainable City pLAn, the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and countless Internet blogs about local hiking trails, not to mention plenty of conservation organizations that have operated in Southern California for years and often partner with CalNat to offer courses.
In 2014, nearly 200 California Naturalists from partner organizations throughout the state came together in Asilomar for a conference to appreciate our natural resources and to celebrate each others efforts in habitat restoration, citizen science, and interpretation. But our CalNat community has grown immensely, and we expect an even greater number to join us for field trips, lectures, trainings, and fun when we convene again in 2016, this time in Southern California. In the meantime, CalNat courses will continue to spring up all over the Southland, so those 22 million people won't have to fight traffic to find a class, and some nature, close to home.
- Author: Faith Kearns
Reposted from the Confluence, Blog of the California Institute for Water Resources
When we think water in California, we tend to think big: the Sacramento River, the American, the Delta. But, the state is also filled with small headwater streams that can be particularly easy to overlook when, during the state's dry summers, they start to resemble a series of pools rather than flowing creeks. Adding insult to injury is a longstanding view that the fish and insect communities in these intermittent streams will be less diverse than those found in the larger rivers they run into.
It is against this backdrop that scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, with support from the California Institute for Water Resources, set out to study some small creeks in the northern part of the state. They have been both surprised and excited by the diversity they are encountering. For example, at John West Fork in Marin County, they observed California giant salamanders, California newts, and Pacific chorus frogs, along with imperiled steelhead trout and coho salmon. In nearby Pine Gulch, they have observed a similar suite (minus the coho salmon), including several pools supporting older steelhead trout. The presence of these larger animals is an encouraging sign of resilience. They also found an abundant and diverse range of small invertebrates like mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies—insects that are an important part of the food chain.
“These are small streams that lack flow for part or most of the year, yet they are totally filled with life. Understanding how these tiny little aquatic organisms manage to navigate this crazy and variable landscape, and thrive in conditions that most species would find very challenging, is really cool,” says project researcher Michael Bogan.
This finding is a great reward for difficult field work in a setting where streams can go from several months of dryness to raging flood waters with a single storm. “There's a lot of slogging up and down stream channels, crawling over downed trees & logs, sliding on wet rocks, and avoiding poison oak and stinging nettle,” says Bogan, though you mostly get the sense that he doesn't mind.
“In the long run, it's really exciting to think about how we can use this understanding of species ecology to inform water resource management and maximize our ability to support aquatic biodiversity and mindful agriculture and water use. In many situations, I do believe we can have the best of both worlds,” says Bogan.
The full study results are in: Bogan, Michael T., Jason L. Hwan, and Stephanie M. Carlson. In Press. High aquatic biodiversity in an intermittent coastal headwater stream at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. Northwest Science. Contact email@example.com for a pre-press copy.
This research was supported in part through a grant to Principal Investigator Stephanie Carlson at the University of California, Berkeley from the California Institute for Water Resources in the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Responding to the giant fire that burned 39 homes and 70,000 acres in the Clear Lake area, Warren Olney of KCRW's Which Way LA asked a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) fire expert in Southern California, "Could it happen here?"
"It happens here all the time," said Tom Scott, wildlife and urban interface UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. (Scott is based at UC Riverside.)
He said of the 50 major fires recorded on the CalFire website, 30 were in Southern California. "It will probably happen again."
Media outlets are reporting that the Rocky Fire in Northern California is burning so hot, it is creating its own weather. Scott said the phenomenon is less likely to occur in Southern California fires.
"A lot of times our fires are coupled with Santa Ana winds," he said. "You don't necessarily see the fire creating its own wind because winds are already blowing 50 or 60 miles per hour."
One thing that can lead to particularly hot fires in the LA area is the lack of summer rain.
"This creates a very dry environment in the summertime," Scott said. "Plants can dry down to a point where they ... are very low moisture, which makes them very flammable. The other thing is, our plants don't decompose. We have a lot of biomass hanging around for a long time, sometimes centuries. When that burns, there's a tremendous amount of fuel and it causes hot and quick-moving fires."
Clearing a defensible zone around homes in fire-prone areas is one way to reduce the risk that a house will burn down. But it takes a long-term concerted effort to manage the landscape to prevent fires from becoming major conflagrations that roar from the mountains to the sea, Scott said.
"One of the things that a lot of people imagine," he said, "is where we can get back to a point where the landscape has fires that are smaller, at a time (of year) when it's not as hot and we don't have Santa Ana winds."
In the meantime, people in fire-prone areas may consider putting their irreplaceable valuables in storage from April to November, he said.