- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from the UCANR News
Newly minted UC fire scientist Kate Wilkin moves into fire country
Fire scientist Kate Wilkin was on the job just a few weeks when ferocious winds whipped up the Northern California firestorm of 2017. The national media focused on Napa and Sonoma counties, where the deadly Tubbs fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, while devastating fires also broke out in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.
It was crunch time for Wilkin, who stepped in as the new forestry, fire science and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties that fall. Four lives and 200 homes were lost in her new work community. Wilkin will now host workshops to help families and businesses recover from the firestorm and rebuild in a way that is more resilient to fire. Fire resiliency will start at her own home.
From the Bay Area to the small town of Grass Valley
Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston moved into their first home, a ranch-style rambler atop a hill in Grass Valley, on Sept. 15, three days before Wilkin reported to work in the Sutter-Yuba County UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City.
The couple moved from a small apartment in Berkeley, where Wilkin was conducting research as a post-doc in the lab of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher and UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. The move from a hyper-urban Bay Area city to a small hamlet in the hills wasn't too much of shock to their systems. Johnston was raised on a farm with chickens and goats. Wilkin grew up in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va. After completing her bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., introduced Wilkin to fire science.
“In the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the landscape would burn then flood every year,” Wilkin said. “I became fascinated with how these disturbances catalyzed diversity.”
What better place to continue a fire education than California?
Wilkin enrolled at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, earning a master's degree in biology. She spent the next three years in Yosemite National Park, working with a team of scientists to understand the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.
“We found that the current policies led to meadow degradation,” Wilkin said. Yosemite then changed its policy to reduce the amount of horse grazing on these tender, sensitive mountain resources.
In 2011, Wilkin started work on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, where she studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. Wilkin signed up for the pilot Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, launched in 2014 to train and recruit graduate students for careers in research and outreach.
“The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” Wilkin told Science Magazine for an article about the innovative program. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions.”
Beginning at home
With full knowledge of the dangers of living in fire-prone areas, Wilkin and Johnston purchased a home close to the outdoor amenities they adore – hiking, backpacking and skiing.
“Tahoe is just an hour away,” Wilkin said. “I love the view from the house and the wooded setting. But we live in an area CalFire has designated as very high fire danger.”
As a fire scientist, Wilkin was well equipped to make changes to the home and landscape to minimize the risk.
“We moved in during peak fire season,” Wilkin said. “We didn't hang artwork. My priority was to make the home and deck more fire resistant. We put in one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents, caulked around doors and windows, blew leaves off the roof and deck, removed lattice wrapping the deck and cleaned the gutters. Then we created defensible space starting close to the house and working our way outward."
The couple labored about 200 hours and spent about $800 in the first six weeks buying and renting tools, including a chipper, saw and a truck to haul away tinder-dry lattice, foliage and pine needles. With the most critical fireproofing completed, the couple is now tallying the work that should be done to further enhance the fire safety of their home.
“We probably need another $6,000 to $7,000 of work,” Wilkin said.
When the North Winds blow
Wilkin recalled the terrifying time about a month after moving into their new home when howling winds whipped around the house and fires were breaking out across Northern California.
“The North Winds are haunting,” she said. “I hadn't felt wind like that since I lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes.”
Wilkin and Johnston were fortunate. The closest fire to their home was the McCourtney Fire, which burned 76 acres in Grass Valley. The wildfire stayed two miles away.
- Author: Yana Valachovic
Reposted from the UC IGIS blog
Recently I was fortunate to work with the IGIS team in Santa Rosa and Sonoma to explore why so many homes and buildings were lost in the October Tubbs and Nuns Fires. With the IGIS's Shane Feirer we collected drone-based video to record how the fires burned through the vegetation near and around the lost structures.
We observed several sites where there was little fire activity in the forests or woodlands, yet the homes burned. This type of video helps us document how devastating a wind-driven ember fire can be and of the important lessons we can learn to be better prepared for wildfire.
From this experience I came away with a painful reminder that we all need to do a better job at focusing on fuels near our homes (e.g. combustible wood mulches used in landscaping, lawn furniture, leaf accumulations, dry landscape plants, etc.), especially in the 5 feet immediately adjacent to our homes. While the Tubbs Fire originated in grassy area in Calistoga it easily picked up embers from the burning vegetation which were moved by the 40-70 mph winds and created spot fires ahead of the flaming front. In short time these embers were blasted into homes via attic or soffit vents (critical to let moisture out of a building) or they ignited combustible materials close to buildings; these types of exposures are the primary way the Tubbs Fire started to consume homes. Eventually the Tubbs Fire moved to the more densely populated areas of the Fountain Grove subdivision in Santa Rosa and with each new home that was ignited a new source of embers were created. The embers that came from the burning buildings included 2 x 4s, chunks of wood the size of a frisbee, and other materials. These materials were blasted over Highway 101 on to homes and businesses in the urban center of Santa Rosa- a place most thought could not be impacted by wildfire. The winds persisted till mid-morning on October 9th providing considerable time for an ember to find a weakness in the home. All of us hope we never have a fire like this again, but as history shows us, California's most damaging fires typically occur in the September and October and are often wind-driven.
For many years UC has worked in educating homeowners about fire preparedness in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). These fires have resulted in the largest number of structure losses to date in California and we all need tools to better understand how to learn from these experiences. I greatly appreciate IGIS's willingness to help me collect some critical data in a time sensitive manner.
- Author: Lenya Quinn-Davidson
Reposted from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network blog
I was nine years old when my dad's family home burned in the Oakland Hills Fire. As a country kid from one of the most fire-prone counties in northern California, I was no stranger to wildfire. Still, I remember the shock of driving through his childhood neighborhood in the weeks after the fire, seeing nothing but the skeletal remains of vehicles and homes — so different than the forest fires that I was used to back in Trinity County.
Those images came back to me a few weeks ago when I gave a presentation at a workshop in Redwood Valley, California. That community, which is in Mendocino County, suffered a devastating wildfire in October, during the same week that fires were burning throughout Sonoma and Napa counties. During the Redwood Valley Fire, nine people were killed and more than 500 structures were destroyed. Now more fires are burning in southern California, and in some ways, it seems that the human connection — the loss of lives, the loss of homes — is the defining feature of this year's fire season in California.
One of my close colleagues at the University of California Cooperative Extension, Yana Valachovic, has no doubt felt the human implications of the 2017 fire season. Her phone has been ringing off the hook for months because of her expertise and experience in home ignitions and home survival: concepts that people are desperate to understand and implement in light of the ongoing losses throughout the state.
In some ways, the research on home survival during wildfire is intuitive; most people understand defensible space concepts and the basics of fuels management. But there are so many ways that most of us could do better — ways that are well illustrated by my own friends, colleagues and family.
Yana talks about how even she — someone who studies this topic — stores paper bags full of her kids' old schoolwork in her attic, right next to the vents. And if you read the literature on this topic, you know that vents represent a major vulnerability during wildfire. Most homes burn from the inside out, meaning that embers make their way into the home through vents and other crevices, and they then ignite fuels inside the house. Once embers infiltrate, it's hard to slow them down — hence the photos we often see of blackened homes surrounded by green trees and intact neighborhoods.
Current research supports the use of finer mesh vent screens (typically a second screen behind the outer screen), and/or temporary vent covers during wildfire events. There is an impressive amount of information available on home venting and fire, including the desired fineness of screen meshes, the use of ridge vents and the appropriateness of unvented attics (PDF, 213 MB). Much of this work comes from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). Steve Quarles leads IBHS's fire-related research program and has published a number of papers on this topic, including a new report, Vulnerability of Vents to Wind-Blown Embers.
Homes can also burn from the outside in, thanks again, in large part, to embers. A few years ago, when a wildfire came within a half mile of my mom's house, I found her gutters packed with dry leaves. This is a classic problem, and one that I was surprised to see at my own mom's house. How did we let the gutters fill up like that, knowing what we know? Gutters full of debris, if ignited, will provide direct flame and ignition to the edge of the roof; if the roof is not adequately protected by metal flashing, or if the gutter is below the roof edge exposing the vulnerable roof sheathing, it can be difficult to keep fire from spreading from the gutter into the house. In 2010, when Quarles was with University of California, he co-authored a great publication that discusses rain gutters, vents, roofing, decks and other home vulnerabilities (PDF, 4.87 MB).
There is also a fair amount of research on features adjacent or attached to the home — features like decks, fences and landscaping (PDF, 416 KB). Still, on a recent trip to a research station in southwest Georgia (a place known for its fire science research and active fire management), I was surprised to see that the landscaping around every building had a thick mulching of longleaf pine needles — literally one of the most flammable types of leaf litter in the world. It looked great but wouldn't be particularly helpful if a fire came through. And IBHS wildfire demonstrations, like this one from 2011, have shown that mulches and other near-home landscaping can become serious points of weakness during wildfire. (I highly recommend checking out their video demonstrations if you haven't before; they have a lab where they actually burn down full-sized homes.)
Now I know that this information is likely old news to many of you; I hesitated to write about this topic because our readership is probably fairly fluent in the research on home ignitions and survival. But the images of Yana's attic full of well-cured paper, my mom's gutters full of leaves, and the pine needle mulch at the research station in Georgia reminded me that we all have more we can do — even if we're well-versed in how homes burn. Home hardening is, of course, only one facet of fire adaptation, but this year's fires reinforced the importance of all efforts at all scales, from the vent and the gutters to the community wildfire protection plan and the prescribed burn.
- Author: Gabrielle Boisramé
Reposted from the California Water Blog
Now that summer is over and rain has returned to California, it appears that the dramatic 2017 fire season is finally behind us. The effects of fire season can linger, however, with the possibilities of erosion and polluted runoff from burned areas. Napa County has even issued suggestions for how to protect waterways in burned landscapes.
Not all news is bad when it comes to the interactions between fire and water, however. These two seemingly opposite elements can actually work in tandem under the right circumstances, to the benefit of people as well as the environment.
While the North Bay fires were filling the headlines in October, another fire 200 miles away was quietly entering its third month of burning in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. This other fire, known as the Empire Fire, was ignited by lightning. By allowing this fire to slowly burn, the park service allowed natural processes to remove fuels that could otherwise build up and lead to more dangerous fires in the future.
The Empire fire burned through an area in Yosemite where fires have been allowed to burn for over 40 years, the longest period managed with such a strategy anywhere in California. Research in Yosemite and other areas shows that allowing these wilderness fires to burn can increase the amount of water stored in the soil or flowing downstream. In the winter, forest clearings opened up by fires often store deeper snow that melts later than in densely forested areas, meaning more water is released slowly in the spring and summer rather than all rushing out as floods in the winter.
Fires can also open up meadow areas that have been overgrown by forest. Although wet meadows cover only a small percentage of California's landscape, they provide important benefits to the water supply. Meadows reduce the size of floods by storing water during high runoff periods. They also help to store water for the dry summer months by holding that water like sponges and slowly releasing it.
The biggest news about fire and water, unfortunately, is usually about how burned landscapes contribute to erosion, which then pollutes streams and clogs reservoirs. When fires burn homes, pollution risks can be especially high due to the presence of hazardous chemicals. Fires can also lead to larger floods since there is less vegetation to slow water's path from rainfall to stream runoff.
These negative effects, however, usually happen because a large portion of a watershed has been completely stripped of vegetation, and plants have not been able to re-grow in time to stabilize the soil. These kinds of fires are usually caused by a combination of dense fuels and extreme weather. When fires burn under less extreme conditions (lower fuel loads, high humidity, low temperatures, and/or low wind speeds), they can clear out dead fuels and remove a small number of trees while leaving most large trees intact. After the fire, the remaining trees (as well as new growth of understory plants) often enjoy wetter soils and less competition. This increases the ability of plants to survive drought conditions.
Wildfire has always been a part of California – especially northern California and the Sierra Nevada – for as long as it has had lush vegetation and dry summers. Native Californian plants have adapted to this process. Some species, like redwoods, even depend on fire for regeneration. Native Californian people historically used fire as a tool to promote the growth of desired plants.
In the early 1900s, however, those in charge came to what seemed to be a very logical decision: to protect our homes and forests from fire, we should put out all fires as quickly as possible. Although this policy was initially very successful, a century later we have flammable forests with heavy fuel loads, as well as densely packed trees that send large amounts of water into the air through their leaves rather than allowing it to flow downstream or remain underground to be used during droughts.
Large public land managers such as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have lately been shifting away from the strategy of suppressing every single fire. Instead, lightning-ignited fires that are burning under acceptable conditions (not too windy, not too close to infrastructure, etc.) are allowed to burn and perform their natural functions of clearing fuels and thinning forests to sustainable tree densities. Prescribed fires and mechanical thinning are also used in situations where greater control is required to reduce risk.
In this way, letting some fires burn today can prevent catastrophic fires from burning through dense fuel in the future. Preventing such catastrophic fires removes their threat to the water supply – as well as the potentially devastating human losses, as we saw from the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and other fires this year. Increased streamflow, snowpack, and drought resistance in burned watersheds all add to this increased water security. The water benefits of more natural forests are receiving increased attention lately, with some companies even working to set up markets for downstream water users to pay for upstream forest care.
We cannot prevent all wildfires in California. However, by understanding their role in our natural systems and incorporating them into our land management, we can benefit from them.
Gabrielle Boisramé has a PhD in environmental engineering from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied the effects of wildfire on water balance in the Sierra Nevada with Prof. Sally Thompson. She continued this work as a post-doctoral scholar with Prof. Scott Stephens, also at U.C. Berkeley.
Boisramé, Gabrielle, S. Thompson, B. Collins, and S. Stephens. “Managed wildfire effects on forest resilience and water in the Sierra Nevada.”
Lundquist, J. D., S. E. Dickerson-Lange, J. A. Lutz, and N. C. Cristea. Lower forest density enhances snow retention in regions with warmer winters: A global framework developed from plot-scale observations and modeling.
Neary, D., K. C. Ryan, and L. F. DeBano. Wildland fire in ecosystems: Effects of fire on soil and water.
van Wagtendonk, J. W. The history and evolution of wildland fire use.
- Author: Glen Martin
Reposted from California Magazine
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could've been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.
“As things stand, cities and municipal or regional agencies — like the East Bay Regional Park District or the East Bay Municipal Utility District — are responsible for dealing with fuel buildup and other potential fire safety issues,” says Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. “Cites particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there's a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do clean-up work and billing the homeowner. But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren't done.”
Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at Cal, also believes city officials are often unable or unwilling to enforce strict fire ordinance options. The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, Stephens says. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk, such as the scorched Fountaingrove complex in Santa Rosa, and fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.
As Santa Rosa newspaper columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron has written, the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa could've been predicted; in 1964, another wildfire followed almost the exact same path. But that earlier fire burned mostly forest and agricultural land. Fountaingrove's pricey developments weren't put in until the 1990s, rammed through by local officials anxious for the tax revenues, and in apparent violation of an ordinance that proscribed development on ridge tops overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley.
Along with mushrooming development, ongoing climate change is resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons, affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires with the destruction of Coffey Park, a large tract of middle-class homes in western Santa Rosa far from any forested areas.
“Coffey Park was a huge surprise for me,” says Stephens. “I've never seen anything like it, and I had never expected to see anything like it. But you had this terrible confluence of events. Incredibly powerful, dry winds swept down eastward-facing canyons, and threw burning embers west clear across the Highway 101 corridor into Coffey Park, where they ignited dry leaves and other fuels. Now that we know these kinds of scenarios can play out, we need to prepare for them.”
How? McBride believes that it would be wise to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and place it with the state. State agencies, he observes, are largely immune to both the blandishments and intimidation of local development bigwigs and are motivated by larger issues than municipal and county tax bases. He points to the California Coastal Commission as a promising template. Prior to the Coastal Commission's formation in 1972, development pressures along the state's incomparably beautiful coastline were increasing dramatically. It seemed certain that California's future would include a solid wall of strip malls and gimcrack bungalow developments from Crescent City to San Diego.
“Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren't necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved. We avoided the ‘Miamification' of California that otherwise would've been inevitable. A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”
Stephens agrees with McBride that state authority is likely to be more effective than local agencies in establishing and enforcing effective fire regulations, and suggests that the University of California could also play a role.
“We have to educate as well as enforce, and in fact, education and cooperation at the community level may be the best way to accomplish fire safety goals,” Stephens says. “One of the tragic things about the Santa Rosa fires is that most of the fatalities were older people: 60 and older. People in neighborhoods in fire-vulnerable areas should meet regularly to identify older neighbors who may need help in evacuating, identify escape routes for different scenarios, and discuss risk reduction measures they could take.”
As far as Cal goes, continues Stephens, “UC Cooperative Extension [under the university's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources] maintains [agricultural and conservation] programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators. We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn't be very expensive.”
Both Stephens and McBride think certain types of ornamental trees should be minimized — even eliminated — from the urban landscape. Grasslands and native oak savannas burn readily, says McBride, but at a low intensity; grass fires can usually be countered relatively easily by firefighters. But some exotic trees, particularly eucalyptus and Monterey pine, are impregnated with oils and resins that burn explosively, often producing flame lengths of 200 feet or more and creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes, making effective firefighting impossible.
“We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes banning eucalyptus and other problematic trees as much as possible.”
McBride says some communities are approaching fire risk in a progressive and effective way, and they should be emulated.
“Landscaping at Sea Ranch [on the Sonoma Coast] largely consists of native grassland and prairie, and that provides a lot of security for the homes,” says McBride. “They also plow firebreaks throughout the development every year. They do have stands of native bishop pine, which burns with high intensity, but they prune and thin them to break up the fuel ladders, and that minimizes fire risk.”
The homes at Sea Ranch are modeled on the old barns of the ranchers who originally settled the Sonoma Coast, another factor that reduces fire risk, observes McBride.
“They don't have eves or roof overhangs, which is a very wise design feature in wildfire-prone areas,” says McBride. “Overhangs trap burning cinders driven by the wind, and encourage fires either on roofs and walls or in attics.”
Indeed, says McBride, modern architects and urban planners can learn about a lot about minimizing fire risk by studying some of the historic structures from California's past.
“Windows are a big entry point for heat,” says McBride. “In fact, heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking. When you go through the old Gold Rush towns in the Sierra, you see these stone buildings with big iron shutters that could be closed over the windows. That was a fire prevention strategy, and it was very effective. We don't need to make shutters from heavy iron sheets, of course, but we could certainly design shutters from modern materials for the large plate glass windows that are so popular in modern homes. The [Forty-Niners] really understood the risks of wildfires, and they designed their buildings with fires in mind. We need to do the same thing.”