The recent outbreak in California of two devastating fires - the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and the Camp Fire in Butte County - are being covered extensively by the news media. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources fire scientists provide a valuable service by making themselves available to share their expertise during these tragedies. Below are a sampling of recent fire stories with comments from UC ANR sources.
Why Wildfires Are Burning So Hot And Moving So Fast
(NPR) Kirk Siegler
…One recent study predicted several million homes built in the West are at immediate risk. Susie Kocher is a forester with the University of California's Cooperative Extension service here in the Sierra.
“We haven't caught up, and to retrofit our existing housing stock to fend off embers is a long-term, expensive proposition.”
These wind-driven fires often carry air and embers that land on a roof or get sucked into a vent long after the main wall of flames has passed through. In fact, that's when most homes actually burn in wildfires.
“Even areas like Paradise that have been inhabited for 140 years as more vulnerable than they used to be. And that's not because there's new development but because there's a new climate around the old community.”
And that brings us to one of the biggest factors: climate change. Droughts are longer and more severe. The snow is melting quicker. The fire seasons are longer if not year-round.
As wildfires grow deadlier, officials search for solutions
(Associated Press) Matthew Brown and Ellen Knickmeyer, Nov. 14
…"There are ... so many ways that can go wrong, in the warning, the modes of getting the message out, the confusion ... the traffic jams," said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension program.
As deadly urban wildfires become more common, officials should also consider establishing "local retreat zones, local safety zones" in communities where residents can ride out the deadly firestorms if escape seems impossible, Moritz said.
… In the mid-20th century, California ranchers burned hundreds of thousands of acres annually to manage their lands, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
That was phased out in the 1980s after California's fire management agency stepped in to take over the burns, and by the last decade, the amount of acreage being treated had dropped to less than 10,000 acres annually, Quinn-Davidson said.
Former agricultural land that rings many towns in the state became overgrown, even as housing developments pushed deeper into those rural areas. That was the situation in the Northern California town of Redding leading up to a fire that began in July and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. It was blamed for eight deaths.
"You get these growing cities pushing out - housing developments going right up into brush and wooded areas. One ignition on a bad day, and all that is threatened," Quinn-Davidson said. "These fires are tragic, and they're telling us this is urgent. We can't sit on our hands."
Trump and Brown stir up rhetoric on wildfires but overlook pressing problems
(LA Times) Bettina Boxall, Nov. 14
… Similarly, UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens said that although climate change is playing a role in wildfire growth, he worries that a focus on global warming can leave the public thinking that “there's really nothing to be done.”
In fact, he said, “Communities could still be better prepared.”
How Does California's Wildlife Cope With Massive Wildfires?
(Atlas Obscura) Anna Kusmer, Nov. 13
While many animals are indeed displaced by wildfires, it's important to note that fire is not wholly bad for landscapes in an ecological sense. In fact, many California ecosystems rely on fire to thrive. “Fire in the human sense can often be catastrophic, but it's not necessarily the same for animals,” says Greg Giusti, a retired University of California researcher and an expert on the relationship between wildfires and wildlife. He says California wildlife have evolved to respond to fires, and can even sometimes benefit from the disruption. “It's harsh out there, but you know these animals have evolved to survive in that hostile environment.”
There are a variety to survival tactics that California wildlife will use, says Giusti. For example, birds are easily able to fly away and are usually not impacted as long as fires don't occur during the spring when they are nesting and raising their offspring.
The Manmade Causes Of California's Endless Fire Season
(OnPoint) Meghna Chakrabarti, Nov 13
California's endless fire season. Whether it's climate change, development or forest management, we'll look at the causes — all manmade.
Scott McLean, deputy chief, chief of information for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Ryan Lillis, reporter for the Sacramento Bee who has covered most of Northern California's fires for last 12 years. (@Ryan_Lillis)
J. Keith Gilless, professor of forest economics at University of California, Berkeley and chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection on Cal Fire's policy board.
Glen MacDonald, professor of geography at University of California, Los Angeles who has spent decades studying climate and the effects of wildfires. He and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated their homes because of the Woolsey Fire. (@GlenMMacDonald1)
California Must Better Prepare For The Inevitability Of Future Fires (reprint of The Conversation originally published in August)
(Pacific Standard) Max Moritz, Naomi Tague & Sarah Anderson, Nov 13
Wildfire has been an integral part of California ecosystems for centuries. Now, however, nearly a third of homes in California are in wildland urban interface areas where houses intermingling with wildlands and fire is a natural phenomenon. Just as Californians must live with earthquake risk, they must live with wildfires.
Forest management debate
(KTVU) Heather Holmes, Nov. 12
In a live interview, Bill Stewart, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley, said,
“It was actually on the private land that we saw better performance in terms of being able to put out the fire quicker and a lot less smoke being produced. There is a package of vegetation management and fire suppression on private lands that have proved to be more effective than what's being used on federal land.
“What we found is about half the difference comes from the private land managers do more aggressive timber harvesting and some of that profit they spend to reduce the shrubs and fuels that are on the ground because they have that cashflow. They're protecting their long-term assets. The other half is CALFIRE is much more aggressive when it comes to fire suppression in forests or shrublands.
Trump's Misleading Claims About California's Fire ‘Mismanagement'
(New York Times) Kendra Pierre-Louis, Nov. 12
…Mr. Trump is suggesting that forest management played a role, but California's current wildfires aren't forest fires.
“These fires aren't even in forests,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
…“We have vulnerable housing stock already out there on the landscape. These are structures that were often built to building codes from earlier decades and they're not as fire resistant as they could be,” Dr. Moritz said. “This issue of where and how we built our homes has left us very exposed to home losses and fatalities like these.”
California's year-round wildfire threat: Why aren't communities doing more?
(SF Chronicle) Peter Fimrite and Kurtis Alexander Nov. 10,
…“To have a president come out and say it's all because of forest management is ridiculous. It completely ignores the dynamic of what's going on around us.” said LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at UC Merced, who blamed the increasing number of fires on rising temperatures and more variable precipitation, leading to longer spells of dry weather.
…“It's like a tragic replay of last year, with strong winds in both Northern California and Southern California blowing fire,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, recalling the 2017 Wine Country fires and the Thomas Fire, which burned through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December.
…“We had a lot of discussion after the fires last year about the liability issue with utilities, but it's interesting to see what didn't happen,” Moritz said. “Nobody has talked about mapping neighborhoods and homes in fire-prone areas like they do in flood plain hazard zones, engineering resilience into communities, or building a little smarter.”
…Everybody agrees the situation is dire. Fire officials blame shorter winters, hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, but very little is being done to improve the situation, said Scott Stevens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley.
“There is an under-appreciation of fire risk in a lot of communities,” Stevens said. “It feels like we can do better at allowing local communities to access information, reduce their vulnerability and understand their vulnerability a little bit more.”
Stevens urged the creation of cooperative programs at his and other universities that would allow local government officials to collaborate with fire experts on safety planning.
California's most destructive wildfire should not have come as a surprise
(LA Times) Bettina Boxall and Paige St. John
…“We have these Santa Ana-like events happening in places that are appearing to catch people by surprise,” said Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara's Bren School. “But they shouldn't be catching people by surprise.”
“These are areas that have burned before,” he said. “And if we were to go back and do the wind mapping, we would find that at some intervals, these areas are prone to these north and northeasterly Santa Ana-like events.”
… “We have all kinds of tools to help us do this smarter, to build in a more sustainable way and to co-exist with fire,” he said. “But everybody throws up their hands and says, ‘Oh, all land-use planning is local. You can't tell people that they can't build there.' And the conversation stops right there.”
Glenda Humiston has always been involved in rural issues from her days growing up on a cattle ranch to her current efforts to connect rural communities to more resources as University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
In recognition of her contributions to sustain California as a place to create and thrive and to bestow to future generations, Humiston will be presented the 2018 California Steward Leader Award by California Forward and the California Stewardship Network at the California Economic Summit in Santa Rosa on Nov. 16. She currently serves on the 2018 Economic Summit Steering Committee and is the Action Team co-lead for Working Landscapes and co-chair of Elevate Rural California.
She has been involved with the California Economic Summit from the beginning, chairing the Access to Capital Action Team at the first Summit in 2012. To raise awareness of innovative options for financing projects, she founded and chaired the California Financial Opportunities Roundtable and was instrumental in producing the Access to Capital Guidebook, a widely used resource for small business owners, policymakers and financial institutions.
Humiston served as deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment at USDA from 1998 to 2001 under President Clinton. She then managed the Sustainable Development Institute at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in South Africa and the 2006 World Water Forum in Mexico City. In 2009, Humiston was appointed by President Obama to serve as the California State Director at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Rural Development.
Working landscapes a significant sector of the economy
He added, “The fact that rural issues are on the agenda, the fact that we're talking about ecosystem services and the contributions that Working Landscapes can make in terms of meeting the Economic Summit's million-acre feet of water goal, Glenda has done a tremendous amount to make that possible.”
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore agreed. “Glenda is a powerful and relentless advocate for triple bottom line prosperity. She has championed and delivered in every position I have seen her in. As one of the Co-chairs/Steering Committee for the Economic Summit, she has ensured that working landscapes remains a driver for rural prosperity.”
“Glenda embodies what CA Forward and the California Stewardship Network are all about: empowering regional hubs to own their own future,” added Gore, who served with Humiston at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as presidential appointees under President Obama.
Her work on rural issues continues. “Our Ecosystems Services Team has done a fantastic job in highlighting the opportunities for ecosystem services to be a powerful policy instrument as well as a compensation instrument for landowners to ensure that the many benefits from ecosystem services are available to the general public,” Humiston said. She added that recommendations from last year's Summit may be included in upcoming legislation.
Biomass, rural broadband and water infrastructure
As co-chair of Elevate Rural California, she is working on three main areas: biomass, rural broadband and water infrastructure. “We identified those issues at last year's Summit and worked this year to identify where the opportunities were as well as options to pursue. We're bringing that information to the Summit this year to get people to really rally around those three issues and move forward working on implementation.”
To support these initiatives, Humiston is working to enhance economic development efforts throughout the state by ensuring that the research and resources of the University of California are delivered to every single community in the state. UC Cooperative Extension is in 70 communities and serves all 58 counties; its mission is to conduct research and extend knowledge that supports food security, healthy environments, science literacy, youth development and economic success in a global economy.
Humiston, who joined the university in 2015 and clearly loves her work, said, “I love the mission of the programs I oversee for the University of California. This work is critical as we seek solutions to the challenges we all face: climate change, invasive species, changing workforce demands, water management and more.”
Vision based on partnerships
Her vision is really based on partnerships. “I also see great opportunity for increased collaboration between UC, CSU and the Community Colleges," she said. "Working together we can offer more robust support for innovation, regional industry clusters, new business opportunities and other aspects of local economic development; we can bring a lot of resources to the table. Working with the California Economic Summit allows us to leverage the resources of various regional initiatives as well as other sectors; this helps all the Summit's efforts to be more successful.”
As for the award, Humiston is humbled. “It's quite heart-warming to be selected by people I respect for something like that and certainly to be in the company of people who have won it in past years,” she said.
Previous recipients of the California Steward Leader Award include former California State Senator Becky Morgan, California Emerging Technology Fund's Sunne McPeak and Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges.
Humiston will receive the award on Friday, Nov. 16, at the annual gathering of the California Economic Summit in Santa Rosa.
When it comes to watering walnuts, most California growers believe you need to start early to keep trees healthy and productive throughout the long, hot summer. But according to striking results from a long-term experiment in a walnut orchard in Red Bluff, growers can improve crop production if they hold off irrigation until later in the season and directly measure their trees' water needs.
The findings from researchers at the University of California may help farmers optimize water use.
“It's a game-changer,” said walnut grower Hal Crain, who welcomed researchers on to his orchard to test irrigation optimization. “It's clear to me you can improve nut quality and yield by applying water based on what the tree wants and needs, rather than just watering when it's hot outside and the soil is dry. That's a big deal for walnut growers and for the entire agricultural industry.”
Changing the paradigm
Crain is a second-generation farmer whose family has been growing walnuts in Butte and Tehama counties for 55 years. Like most walnut farmers, Crain had always started irrigating in early to mid-May when the days grew warmer and the trees sprouted leaves.
“That's standard practice for probably 90 percent of California's walnut growers,” said Crain, walking amid his trees on a sunny afternoon. “The theory is that when you irrigate early, you preserve the deep moisture in the soil that trees need to survive the heat of summer.”
But that's not how it works, the research shows. Instead, trees that grow in saturated soil early in the season don't develop the deep roots they need to thrive.
“With all the water right there at the surface, the lower roots suffer,” explained Bruce Lampinen, UC Cooperative Extension orchard management specialist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “Trees end up with a very shallow root system, which doesn't serve them well as they try to extract moisture from the soil later on.”
Lampinen has long suspected that walnuts were getting too much water in the spring.
“A lot of the symptoms we see like yellowing leaves and various diseases can all be explained by overwatering,” said Lampinen.
So Lampinen did what scientists do: He set up an experiment. Five years ago, with funding from the California Walnut Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he joined forces with Ken Shackel, a plant sciences professor with UC Davis, and Allan Fulton, an irrigation adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. Together, they led a team of scientists testing irrigation on Crain's ranch.
“Hal is an exceptional partner,” Fulton said. “Farmers have a lot to accommodate when they host an experiment like this, with researchers going in and out of the orchard at all hours. He had to work around our people and the timing of our water treatments. He's always eager to experiment with technology and learn new things, and he shares what he learns with other growers. Hal completes the circle.”
Tough nut to crack
When is the best time to irrigate? Researchers say the trees hold the answer. Scientists use pressure chambers, which are air-pressure devices that measure a leaf or small shoot to gauge how hard the plant is working to pull moisture from the soil.
“Just because the soil looks dry doesn't mean the plant is suffering,” said Shackel, who specializes in plant physiology. “Pressure chambers let you ask the tree how it's feeling — sort of like taking a human's blood pressure — which is a much more accurate way to measure a plant's water needs.”
For the last five years, the team has been applying different water treatments to five blocks of trees. One block is getting standard, early irrigation. Crain's orchard managers begin irrigating the other blocks when the trees reach different levels of water stress based on pressure-chamber readings.
The trees that experience moderate stress are doing the best. Their irrigation usually starts in mid-to-late June, several weeks later than when standard watering begins.
“You can tell just by looking at that block that the trees are healthier,” said Crain, standing beneath a canopy of lush, green trees. “And, we're starting to see greater yields and better nut quality.”
Translating the research
The research is helping scientists advise farmers on irrigation.
“My biggest take-away is knowing when to start watering is a really important factor to the health of your trees,” Lampinen says.
Pressure chambers — sometimes called pressure bombs — can cost more than $3,000, and high-tech versions are under development.
“I tell growers a pressure bomb would pay for itself even if you just used it once a year to determine when to start watering,” Lampinen said.
Crain is certainly convinced.
“When you irrigate based on your trees' needs, you optimize water,” Crain says. “I'm not using less water overall, but the water I do use is producing more food. That's good news for everyone.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Outlook Magazine, the alumni magazine for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
A key issue in the race for California insurance commissioner between former commissioner Steve Poinzer and democratic senator Richard Lara is widlfire, reported Ezra David Romero on Capital Public Radio.
The new commissioner will have to deal with a complicated insurance system and a warming climate that's increasing the number, size and impact of California wildfires, said Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor.
For many Californians, the possibility of losing their insurance due to wildfire risk is a real threat.
"I recently talked to a homeowner who had his insurance canceled about three months before his house was destroyed by a wildfire,” Kocher said.
Lara says people or companies that start fires need to be held liable and not given a free pass, and that homeowners need better protection. He says in the past some insurance companies have dropped homeowners because of the risk from wildfires.
"Unfortunately, this is our new normal,” Lara said of recent wildfires in the state. “We're going to see fires with much more veracity.”
Poinzer, a tech industry entrepreneur and career-long Republican, is on the ballot as an independent.
“There's no room in this job for a partisan politician,” Poizner told the Los Angeles Times.
UC scientists, students and water agency professionals took a critical look inwards and a radical look outwards when they gathered in Sacramento in October to reimagine California water.
The event was the fourth annual gathering sponsored by UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, UC Water.
While science is the hallmark of a research-oriented institution like UC, the participants were asked to recognize their important role not just as scientists but also communicators.
“We have a big role in educating the public,” said Roger Bales, engineering professor at UC Merced who has been active in water and climate research for more than 30 years. “Scientists are political actors. Facts do not speak for themselves.”
Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Water Resources Control Board and a conference panelist, asked the scientists to make their work accessible, and if they are uncomfortable with plain language, “write it both ways.”
“Complexity can lose people easily,” she said.
The conference keynote speaker, futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, also addressed the divide between scientific discourse and popular understanding, in particular when speaking about climate change.
“There is a strange disconnect between what the scientific community is telling the world and what the world is hearing. As a result of data analysis, science is announcing to the world there is climate change. Individuals cannot perceive climate change,” he said. “Show them in ways that can be understood by the senses. The story has to be told with pragmatism and common sense.”
The Reimagining California Water Conference pursued the water journey from the high-mountain headwaters of the Sierra Nevada to the vast groundwater basins in the valleys below. Over the last century, the mountains were blanketed with snow each winter, storing water that melted slowly in the spring and summer to provide a reliable source of water for farming and communities below. However, climate change is telling a new tale. Warmer weather means less snow and more rain will fall on the mountains during the winter. The quick runoff must be managed in a way that preserves it for use in the summer.
“We need groundwater recharge because we're losing the snow pack quicker than we thought we would,” Bales said.
The new California water narrative has prompted scientists and policy makers to take a serious look at the potential for “flood-managed aquifer recharge” or Flood-MAR. Flood-MAR is a management strategy that uses water from rain or snowmelt to flood agricultural lands and working landscapes, such as refuges, floodplains and flood bypasses.
Successful implementation of Flood-MAR requires the identification of land for groundwater recharge, understanding the economic and agronomic impact of using agricultural land for recharge, and impacts of high-volume recharge on groundwater quality. But the potential is enormous.
“The state's underground basins are capable of storing 500 million acre-feet of water,” said Graham Fogg, UC Davis professor of hydrogeology. “That's like 500 Folsom reservoirs.”
Though the enormity of rewriting the California water story might seem an insurmountable challenge, panelist Debbie Franco noted that the passage of Sustainable Groundwater Management in 2014 happened when the state's unsustainable reliance of groundwater spiked during the 2011-2016 drought, reducing municipal water quality, drying domestic wells and causing land to sink.
“What seems impossible, after four years of drought, can be possible,” Franco said. “What will be the next thing? Get a sense of the solutions now.”