- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from the UCANR News Blog
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."
- 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: 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: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from the UCANR Green blog
After conducting extensive forest research and taking into consideration all aspects of forest health – including fire and wildlife behavior, water quality and quantity – a group of distinguished scientists have concluded that enough is now known about proposed U.S. Forest Service landscape management treatments for them to be implemented in Sierra Nevada forests.
“There is currently a great need for forest restoration and fire hazard reduction treatments to be implemented at large spatial scales in the Sierra Nevada,” the scientists wrote. “The next one to three decades are a critical period: after this time it may be very difficult to influence the character of Sierra Nevada forests, especially old forest characteristics.”
The scientists' recommendation is in the final report of a unique, 10-year experiment in collaboration: the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP). A 1,000-page final report on the project was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service at the end of 2015. In it, scientists reached 31 points of consensus about managing California forests to reduce wildfire hazards and protect wildlife and human communities.
“SNAMP was founded on a desire to work collaboratively to protect the forests of the Sierra Nevada,” said John Battles, professor of forest ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and SNAMP principle investigator. “The challenges are multifaceted with a huge diversity of perspective among the public, among managers, and among scientists. SNAMP tried to bring all these interests and talents together to safeguard a vital resource and a natural wonder."
SNAMP was created to help develop a collaborative management and monitoring plan consistent with the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, signed by regional forester Jack Blackwell on Jan. 21, 2004. The amendment called for the use of fuel reduction treatments – such as prescribed burning, mechanical chopping of underbrush, and harvesting certain trees – in strategically placed areas to slow down potential wildfires and improve forest health.
Because of disagreements over forest treatments in the past, which often led to lawsuits that languished in court for years, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Natural Resources Agency decided to take a new approach in 2005. They asked the University of California to provide unbiased scientific assessments of the impacts of the proposed treatments. UC was also charged with engaging the public concerned about repercussions of the forest treatments on wildlife habitat and water quality.
The scientific efforts and the forest treatments were all conducted in an open and transparent process. To ensure the greatest number of stakeholders were taking part, SNAMP included a public participation team of social scientists and UC Cooperative Extension outreach professionals to conduct and study the collaboration process.
Susan Kocher, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension forestry advisor in the Central Sierra, was a member the project since 2008 and served as the leader of the public participation team during the final two years, succeeding Kimberly Rodrigues, a UC forestry scientist who is now the director of the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County. Kocher said having outreach and public participation included as a funded part of a science project is unusual.
“We were able to make great strides in getting everybody on the same page,” Kocher said. “That's what our data shows, too.”
A large volume of new scientific information was generated by the science team, and was published in 46 journal articles. The science spread fast and far, according to citation analysis conducted by the public participation team.
“We found that the average time it took for a SNAMP publication to be cited in another journal was about seven months,” Kocher said. “Citations to our articles came from all over the United States and around the globe.”
In addition, SNAMP science-based information was immediately useful to forest managers, according to a 14-page response to the SNAMP final report by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and the California Natural Resources Agency. For example, an excerpt of the response submitted by California Fish and Wildlife noted that “SNAMP proved successful at modifying treatment methodology to meet the ever-changing reality of forest management.”
“The results were able to prove useful for managers past and future regarding how management can be implemented, in the face of wildfires while still retaining important owl nesting/roosting and foraging habitat features in and near owl activity features,” the document said.
SNAMP – funded with $15 million in grants mainly from the U.S. Forest Service, with support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, California Natural Resources Agency and University of California – ran from 2007 to 2015. The project ended with the submission of the final report that contains details about the study areas, the treatment processes and reports from each of the six science teams. The science teams and their final reports are:
- Fire and forest ecosystem health
- Spatial - The study of forest canopy and understory with remote sensing technology called lidar, which uses reflected light for analysis.
- Wildlife: California spotted owl – A bird that is dependent on high-canopy forests.
- Wildlife: Pacific fisher – A weasel-like nocturnal animal that roams a wide area and nests in the hollows of old-growth trees.
- Water quality and quality
- Public participation
A key chapter in the publication is titled Integrated Management Recommendations. In it, the 31 points of consensus are outlined.
“The integration in this project is also unique,” Kocher said. “Scientists tend to work in their own focus areas, but we can learn a lot from each other's research projects.”
Working together, the scientists looked at all the research outcomes. The first 18 recommendations in the chapter are the direct result of scientific research conducted in SNAMP projects; the remainder of the recommendations are based on other scientific work and research.
Each of the recommendations is linked to a management goal. Some goals may conflict with achieving one or more of the other management goals. This approach to organizing the recommendations was taken to demonstrate that, while many of the management recommendations do not clash, a few may. For example, suggesting treatments across a landscape in a way that minimizes the negative effects on wildlife might reduce the efficiency of treatments aimed at reducing wildfire behavior and impacts.
The next steps are for the U.S. Forest Service to consider and adapt the SNAMP results and recommendations to continue to restore and protect the natural resources at risk in the Sierra.
“My hope is the SNAMP will be seen as a promising first try to apply adaptive management in the Sierra Nevada,” Battles said. “We gained important new insights about the ecology of these forests and we learned how to conduct applied research in an inclusive manner that engages not only scientists from multiple disciplines but also managers and the public."