- Author: Robert Sanders
Reposted from UC Berkeley News
An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.
After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park's Illilouette Creek basin, UC Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.
“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study.
Boisramé and co-author Sally Thompson, a UC Berkeley ecohydrologist and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, found that even in the drought years covered by the study, the basin retained more water than similar areas outside the park. That translated into more runoff into the Upper Merced River, which flows through Yosemite Valley, at a time when other rivers in the surrounding areas without a restored fire regime showed the same or decreased flow.
“We know that forests are deep-rooted and that they have a large leaf area, which means they are both thirsty and able to get to water resources,” Thompson said. “So if fire removes 20 percent of that demand from the landscape, that frees up some of the water to do different things, from recharging groundwater resources to supporting different kinds of vegetation, and it could start to move into the surface water supplies as stream flow.”
The study is published in the current issue of the journal Ecosystems.
If the results are confirmed from other studies, including the UC Berkeley team's new project analyzing the Sugarloaf Creek Basin in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, they could alter the way the federal government as well as water districts deal with fire, benefiting not only the forest environment but potentially also agriculture and cities because of more runoff into streams and reservoirs.
“I think it has the potential to change the conversation about wildfire management,” said co-author Scott Stephens, a fire expert and UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management who has studied the Illilouette basin since 2002.
This “wildfire management” strategy is counter to the federal government's 110-year-old Smokey Bear policy, which is followed throughout the West and emphasizes suppressing fires wherever they occur for fear they will get out of control. With persistent drought and a warming climate, the U.S. Forest Service budget is increasingly going to firefighting. On most federal land, only forest thinning and human-initiated prescribed burns are allowed as a way to manage the trees and underbrush.
Stephens noted, however, that these agencies have recognized the folly of total suppression — thanks in part to his own studies throughout the Sierra Nevada over several decades — and current draft wildland management policies for three of the state's national forests allow active wildfire management in up to 60 percent of the forests.
The value of forest clearings
Wildfire management, as opposed to suppression, comes with major changes in the way the forest looks, Stephens and Thompson said. Unlike the dense stands of pine and fir most people associate with Yosemite and similar mid-elevation Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain forests, the Illilouette Creek basin has thinner forests and more clearings with dead trees.
“There is much more dramatic structural change in this forest than most people would probably feel comfortable with,” he said. “You are talking about low-density forests and gaps of 4 or 5 acres, up to maybe 100 acres. These are the result of major fires about every decade or so, large enough to cause tree scarring and affecting as much as one-quarter of the basin.”
These fire-caused clearings, however, act as natural fire breaks and make the area resistant to catastrophic fires such as the 2013 Rim Fire in the western part of the park, which burned 250,000 acres and left patches up to 20,000 acres in which not a single conifer tree survived. These areas could take a century to recover, Stephens said.
“In the Illilouette basin we lost about 20 percent of the forest cover, but there was a 200 percent increase in wetland vegetation: meadows starting to reemerge from forests that have probably encroached on historical locations,” Thompson said. “That sets us up to think that this new regime should be leakier as far as water goes — leaky in the way that suits us as a society.”
Even if these wildfire management techniques don't produce more runoff, Thompson added, “I think it is a fabulous result in terms of forest management if you end up with a healthier forest with some better intact aquatic habitat, even if you don't see a drop of water further downstream. It is still the right thing to do from an ecological point of view.
“Bottom line, this strategy might be a triple win-win-win for water, forest structure and fire risk,” she said.
The ‘jewel' of Yosemite National Park
The findings are the culmination of a 14-year study led by Stephens and his UC Berkeley colleagues to learn how monitoring natural, lightning-caused fires with a bias toward letting them burn affects the landscape, the vegetation and the groundwater. Only four areas in the western U.S., including two in California — the Illilouette Creek basin and the Sugarloaf Creek basin — have allowed lightning fires to burn in large areas for decades.
Most studies of different ways to manage wildland fires have been limited to a few hundred acres, and it's hard to extrapolate from such limited experiments to an entire forest. Luckily, Yosemite National Park started its experiment in 1973 — spurred by a 1963 report authored by the late UC Berkeley forester Starker Leopold — to let nature take its course in the Illilouette Creek watershed, stepping in only when fires in the basin threatened to get out of control or sent too much smoke into Yosemite Valley two miles to the northwest.
“This is the first study that looks at fire regime restoration on a watershed scale with empirical data,” he said. “Others do smaller areas or modeling, but this is 40,000 acres — a big place — over many years.”
One reason the basin was chosen was that it was surrounded by granite walls, which naturally prevented fires from spreading outside the basin. It had not been burned by the indigenous tribes of the region, which often set fires to increase acorn production, and had no history of prescribed burns. In fact, it saw only natural, lightning-caused fires except for an interval of nearly a century — 1875 to 1972 — when the park suppressed all fires.
While Stephens and his many students documented the changes in fire over the past 400 years, Boisramé and Thompson analyzed aerial photos to document vegetation change. Then, with the help of installed sensors and more than 3,000 soil moisture measurements throughout the basin, the team was able to estimate the amount of water in the landscape today versus in the past. They found similar or marginally drier conditions where forests had been replaced with shrubs, but these were balanced by much wetter conditions in small areas where meadows expanded.
They observed more snow reaching the ground because of the clearings, and more snow remaining during the spring, delaying runoff. And in recent drought years, when surrounding basins saw more trees die, there was almost no tree mortality in the Illilouette basin.
“In order to really understand whether this approach should be part of our management toolkit, I would recommend that we give it a crack in a few other places,” Thompson said. “This appears to be a promising management strategy without significant harm and with several very strongly quantifiable benefits and several very suggestive outcomes.”
Boisramé, who spent the past four summers sampling and camping in the Illilouette Creek basin, emphasized that this is not a strategy that would work everywhere. But in wilderness areas where wildfire management is being considered because of its safety benefits — to reduce underbrush and eliminate fuel for out-of-control and catastrophic fires that risk lives and property — the ecological and hydrological benefits are a big bonus. Areas with similar elevation and climatic conditions to the Illilouette basin, and thus perhaps suitable for managed wildfire, comprise about 18 percent of the Sierra Nevada, though the strategy may work at lower elevations as well.
“The whole ecosystem will be better off if we let the natural fire process back in,” she said.
The research was supported by a grant from the federal Joint Fire Science Program.
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
Workshop aims to spark women's ambition to become leaders in fire management
Shortly after her son was born, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley was promoted to fire chief of a national forest. For the first six months, she brought the baby to work.
“Most of my colleagues were men between 40 and 50. I was 31,” recalled Pincha-Tulley, who was the first woman to achieve the rank of U.S. Forest Service fire chief in California. “My second son was 6 weeks old and nursing. They had no idea what to do. They absolutely freaked out.”
While great efforts are being made to recruit women into fire management, women hold only 10 percent of wildland fire positions and 7 percent of leadership roles. A new training focuses on grooming women to lead in fire management.
To encourage to women build stronger networks and pursue leadership roles in fire management, Pincha-Tulley, who retired in 2015 after 36 years with the U.S. Forest Service, will be speaking from experience on gender roles at the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) in Northern California. She will also serve as deputy incident commander for the event.
WHO: Participants from 12 states and four countries, including 38 women and six men, who work for federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribes and universities. Organizers include Pincha-Tulley, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council; and Amanda Stamper, The Nature Conservancy fire management officer in Oregon, among others. Guest speakers include Sarah McCaffrey, USDA Forest Service research social scientist; Johnny Stowe, forester/biologist/yoga teacher/fire manager of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources; Gwen Sanchez, deputy fire chief for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and many more.
WHAT: WTREX participants will serve in qualified and trainee firefighting positions to implement prescribed burns throughout the region. They will complete pre- and post-fire monitoring, train with equipment, practice fireline leadership skills and learn about local fire ecology and fire management.
WHERE: The training will take place in Trinity and Shasta counties. Sites include open prairies, oak woodlands, mixed-conifer forests and chaparral. Field trips will be made to areas burned in recent wildfires and to prescribed fire and fuels treatment project sites.
WHEN: Oct. 19-28, beginning in Hayfork, ending in Redding. Burning and other outdoor activities will depend on the weather.
DETAILS: The 12-day hands-on prescribed fire training, modeled after prescribed fire training events that take place across the country, will include beginners to seasoned professionals. The difference is that most of the participants are women.
“I'm excited for this event because it will transcend the usual TREX emphasis on cooperative burning and learning,” Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor, who is part of the team organizing the event. “It will explicitly recognize and reinforce the importance of female perspective and leadership in fire management, and provide a supportive environment for women and men to understand and elevate the need for diversity in fire management—not only in numbers, but also in approach.”
Based at the Tahoe National Forest, Pincha-Tulley oversaw 1.6 million acres, including fire suppression, prescribed fire and aviation operations.
As the only woman among the 17 national Incident Commanders, Pincha-Tulley looked for allies and mentors. In 2005, the year she was promoted to Type 1 Incident Commander, she led her team to Mississippi to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was essentially invisible to the Air Force generals and Navy admirals until she put general stars on her uniform. A NASA director, a man, coached her, saying, “Are you going to let them take over the meeting? You're their peer, make yourself one.” He proceeded to mentor her, based on NASA's training for women in management.
“When you look for those people who can help, you begin to attract them,” Pincha-Tulley said. One of the primary goals of the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange is to connect women who work in fire, providing them with new networking and mentoring opportunities.
WTREX is co-hosted by eight primary partners as well as additional collaborators. These include the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, the Fire Learning Network, the Cultural Fire Management Council, the Watershed Research and Training Center, the Bureau of Land Management, the USDA Forest Service, the California Fire Science Consortium, University of California Cooperative Extension, and other collaborators.
WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resiliency through Collaboration: Landscapes, Learning and Restoration, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior.
- Author: Pam Kan-Rice
Reprinted from UCANR news
In August, the Clayton Fire burned nearly 4,000 acres and 198 homes and businesses in Lake County. In 2015, the Valley, Rocky and Jerusalem fires together burned 170,623 acres and destroyed 2,078 structures. But the devastating Lake County wildfires haven't put a damper on fishing at Clear Lake, which reels in roughly $1 million to the community annually, according to a report from UC Cooperative Extension.
“The lake's economic attraction has not been negatively impacted by the fires,” said Greg Giusti, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Lake County and author of the study. “The fish are fine and the anglers keep coming.”
Giusti's report outlines the economic value of fishing on Clear Lake, highlighting the importance of the outdoor pastime to the local economy.
Bass, crappie, catfish and bluegill thrive in Clear Lake's warm water, with its rich plant life and abundant food supply.
“People come from all over the country to fish Clear Lake,” said Giusti, who studies fisheries and freshwater ecology.
Teeming with fish, Clear Lake's reputation attracts serious anglers. Bass Master Magazine (July/August 2016) rated Clear Lake third out of the top 100 bass fishing lakes in the country and first among the nine western states.
More data need to estimate true economic value of fishing
Based on a conservative estimate of the number of anglers and multiplying by $58.16, (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's estimate of an angler's average daily fishing-related expenditure), Giusti concluded Clear Lake fishing is a $1 million enterprise. He considers the true value of fishing on Clear Lake to be much higher because limited data was available to understand the full economic value.
To estimate the number of anglers, Giusti doubled the number of quagga mussel stickers sold and added the number of people registered for Clear Lake fishing tournaments. Before entering the lake, boats must pass the county's monthly quagga mussel inspection for the invasive species and receive the sticker. Giusti assumed an average of two anglers per boat, for a total of 10,156 spending $590,673 annually. Since 6,498 Lake County residents have fishing licenses, he estimated that they spend at least $377,923.68 on fishing annually.
He thinks local businesses can capitalize on fishing to bring even more revenue into the community by enticing anglers and their families to engage in other activities during their visit.
“Because access to the lake is open and free, we don't know how often anglers return to Clear Lake and for how long they stay,” Giusti said. “While they're here, folks are spending money on food, gas, tackle and maybe lodging. If they bring their families, Dad may be fishing while Mom and the kids might be at the movies.”
California Department of Fish and Wildlife collects about $57 million in fishing license sales each year. Giusti found that more than 150,000 licenses were sold in 2014 to anglers in Lake County and neighboring Mendocino, Sonoma, Colusa and Sacramento counties, which are close enough to make a day trip to Clear Lake.
Opportunities to catch more angler dollars
Although local businesses typically gear up for summer tourists, Giusti sees marketing opportunities around fishing during the spring and fall, as the primary angling months occur before and after summer.
“Right now all the focus is on summer tourism and wine, while the most active visitor months are not recognized,” Giusti said. “Spring months are the most popular boating months. Businesses should be hanging banners downtown, putting posters in the windows welcoming anglers with specials for meals, promotional events highlighting fishing, and even sponsored fishing tournaments.”
Other California communities could also benefit by capitalizing on fishing, in Giusti's opinion.
“Freshwater fishing in California represents a $1.4 billion industry, generating 22,000 jobs and providing more than $920 million in salaries and wages,” said Giusti. “California ranks fifth in the nation based on the value of fishing economics.”
The American Sportfishing Association estimates that more than 33 million people enjoy fishing in America, and spend an average of $1,441 per year on fishing.
To download the full report, “Understanding the economic value of angling on Clear Lake – A profile of a famous lake,” visit http://ucanr.edu/sites/ClearLakeAquaticWebsite.
- 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>