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California fire damage to homes is less 'random' than it seems

 

File 20171207 11315 1ygt36d.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Can California update its building codes to minimize fire damage? AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Faith Kearns, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

In the midst of the many wildfire emergencies that have faced California this year, it can often seem that the way houses burn, or don't, is random.

The thing is, though, it's not. Firefighters and researchers alike have a pretty solid understanding of why some houses are more vulnerable to wildfire than others. The real challenge ultimately lies in whether those with the power to act on that knowledge will do so.

Available science

It is commonly thought that it takes direct flame to spread a fire, but this isn't always the case. Small embers are instead often the culprits that begin house fires during wildfires. These small bits of burning debris can be lofted long distances by the wind. They can then end up igniting landscaping materials like combustible mulch, or enter homes through vulnerable spots – gutters teeming with debris, unscreened attic vents, open or broken windows, old roofs with missing shingles. Once there, the embers smolder and can ultimately catch a house on fire.

In California, iconic winds work to create ideal ember-driven ignition conditions. The Santa Ana winds in Southern California – known as the Diablo winds in northern part of the state – have generally followed fairly predictable seasonal and spatial patterns. “Red flag” fire warnings are often issued on dry days when the winds will be particularly fierce.

Avoiding fire on Highway 101 north of Ventura, California. AP Photo/Noah Berger

While humans can't really control as much as we'd like to believe when it comes to disasters, we do have the ability to control where and how we build. For decades, most wildfire education and enforcement campaigns have focused on creating so-called defensible space where landscaping vegetation is carefully selected and located on the property, as well as routinely maintained.

This is not enough, however. Officials in California – as in other fire-prone states – need to help homeowners, local governments and builders to understand there are also specific, science-based steps that can be taken to make structures themselves less vulnerable to fire.

Researchers recommend what is known as a “coupled approach” to home and building survival. This means the development and maintenance of an effective defensible space, as well as the careful selection of construction materials and correct installation to ensure that, for example, there are not gaps in siding or roofing that would allow embers to penetrate.

Decision-makers also need to be willing to take on the most taboo topic of them all: recognizing that there are places houses simply shouldn't be built, or rebuilt, at all.

(Not) too urban to burn

Earlier this year, California had the first strong winter rains after many years of drought. Now, after a typically dry summer, the state is experiencing a dry start to the rainy season, particularly in the south. At the same time, people have continued to build into places known to burn regularly. The result of this confluence of events has been fires deeply affecting many thousands of people up and down the state.

California residents are largely aware that not all fire is bad, and that many of our ecosystems thrive on regular fire. It's not something that we should, or ever could, hope to fully contain. Our only chance is learning, really and truly and finally learning, to live with it.

In that vein, the state must look long and hard at some of the steps that have been the hardest to take – not building in places that are particularly fire-prone and matching building codes with a modern understanding of wildfire risk – if there is to be any hope of alleviating the human suffering these fires cause.

We are being invited to free ourselves from the notion that wildfire destruction is random and unpredictable, and that therefore there is nothing to be done about it. As the fire season in California gets longer, the winds worsen and wildfires move into areas once deemed too urbanized to burn, maybe the knowledge about what makes houses burn can finally be put to good use.

Faith Kearns, Academic Coordinator, California Institute for Water Resources, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Posted on Saturday, December 9, 2017 at 1:23 AM
  • Author: Faith Kearns

Seeds: The Greatest Show on Earth

Milkweed seeds, Laura Lukes

By Laura Lukes, UC Butte County Master Gardener, December 8, 2017. They are capable of...

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 8:27 PM

Time Is Ticking...Do You Fuse Art with Science?

If fuse art with science through drawings, paintings, watercolors, photographs, sculptures, textiles, video, or mixed media, consider entering the Consilience of Art and Science Show at the Pence Gallery, Davis. Here a honey bee

Time is ticking...do you fuse art with science? Is your art ready to show? Organizers of...

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 3:57 PM

Building climate change into the work of UCANR

Snowmelt fills the South Yuba River near Emigrant Gap in March 2016. Climate change is expected to reduce the Sierra snowpack, resulting in major shifts in the timing and magnitude of flows in rivers fed by snowmelt.

UC Cooperative Extension researchers convey need for more climate change communication and curriculum tools

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from natural and working lands is one of California's key climate change strategies. In particular, the potential for farm and rangeland soils to serve as carbon sinks has been getting a lot of attention lately in the national media — and during California Healthy Soils week, which wrapped up Dec. 7.

These are areas where UC Cooperative Extension, with its local presence across the state, is well-positioned to drive change. But as a recent survey of UCCE advisors, specialists and faculty found, while there is a good deal of climate work happening, there are also some significant obstacles.

The survey results — reported in an article by UCCE academics Ted Grantham, Faith Kearns, Susie Kocher, Leslie Roche and Tapan Pathak in the latest issue of California Agriculture — showed that while nearly 90 percent of respondents believe it is important to incorporate climate science into extension programming, only 43 percent currently do so.

Results from the UC ANR climate science, outreach, and needs survey.

Respondents pointed to a number of issues. One was "limited familiarity with climate science fundamentals." It's one thing to cite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and is being driven largely by human activity; it is another to be able to respond quickly and convincingly to detailed questions from doubters. This list from Grist, for instance, details more than 100 common arguments raised by climate skeptics, many of which have non-trivially complex answers.

Another important issue cited by respondents was "fear of alienating clientele by talking about a contentious topic," a response that highlights the importance of personal relationships in UCCE's work, and the challenge of communicating an area of science that is highly politicized.

The authors conclude: "To further increase the capacity of UC ANR staff to support the needs of their clientele and the broader public, professional development around climate science fundamentals, communication, and adaptation strategies is critical." As an initial follow-up, the UCANR climate change program team (led by authors Grantham, Kocher and Pathak) is presenting a workshop and professional development meeting for extension professionals in February.

For more from California Agriculture, the research journal of UCANR, see the full issue with articles on mapping soil salinity in the San Joaquin Valley via satellite; choosing forage seed mixes for rangeland restoration; growing oilseeds in winter without irrigation; keeping dairy cows cool in the summer; breeding better carrots; and more.

 

 

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 10:45 AM
  • Author: Jim Downing

If You're Into Insects...and Good Causes...

A Peruvian walking stick changes hands among children visiting the Bohart Museum of Entomology. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

If you're into insects--who isn't?--and want to support the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the...

Posted on Thursday, December 7, 2017 at 6:14 PM

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