- Author: Glen Martin
Reprinted from California Magazine
Vista View at North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park // Detail of photo courtesy of harminder dhesi / flickr
When the Tubbs and Nuns wildfires exploded across Sonoma County in 2017, firefighters found they lacked critical information. Details on the vegetation, structures, and roads distributed across the landscape would have helped them better evacuate residents and allocate fire suppression resources.
It was only after the fires were extinguished that authorities realized much of that data was available—in the form of “veg maps.” Created by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Ag + Open Space as it's known locally, the maps deconstruct the terrain, depicting slope, aspect, soil type, hydrological qualities, buildings, roads and driveways—even the density of trees and brush—in exquisite detail.
Fine-scale vegetation map of Sonoma County // Image courtesy of Sonoma County Ag + Open Space
Such maps, officials realized, could be an immense asset when responding to wildfires. They could even serve a preventative purpose: helping “fireproof” undeveloped land by turning open space from a wildfire liability to a fire-prevention asset.
The maps are produced through LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, which is kind of like radar, except it uses pulsed lasers emitted from aircraft or satellites instead of radio waves. The process yields precise 3-D maps of the earth's surface, detailing vegetation type and density. Researchers can look at a LiDAR map and evaluate “fuel ladders”—deadwood on the forest floor combined with the limbs and branches running from the ground to the tree tops—in any given stand of trees, down to resolutions of one centimeter.
“Using the maps for wildfire response wasn't our original intent,” says Karen Gaffney, a UC Berkeley alumna and the conservation planning manager for Ag + Open Space. Originally part of a project supported by the Sonoma County Water Agency and grants from NASA, the maps were created for land and wildlife conservation purposes. “But it just so happens much of that data is proving valuable for disaster planning.”
The maps are being used to flag the best fire evacuation routes and the sites most susceptible to contamination or erosion post-fire.
When it comes to wildfire, it's largely about fuel. While the forests of the West were once subject to regular low-intensity fires that produced large, well-spaced trees and light accumulations of deadwood, more than a century of overzealous wildfire suppression and rising temperatures from climate change have reversed this dynamic. Combine the current dense, thicket-like stands of trees and piles of dead branches with hot, dry autumn winds, and the result is wildfires of devastating ferocity—wildfires like the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2018 Camp Fire in the town of Paradise.
Like many areas, Sonoma County has been attempting to use “prescribed” fire and tree thinning to reduce fuel loads, says Gaffney. Shortly before the Nuns Fire ripped through Glen Ellen, an experimental prescribed burn conducted at a nearby ranch demonstrated the effectiveness of such efforts. The encroaching wildfire immolated nearby woodlands and structures, but dropped to low, flickering flames when it hit the prescribed burn zone. There simply wasn't the fuel to sustain it.
The message was clear to the county's disaster response planners: the more wildlands that can be burned under controlled conditions, the better.
The district's veg maps are now being used by county officials to identify candidate open spaces for thinning and prescribed fire, with prioritization going to the most vulnerable areas.
“In conjunction with our partners at Pepperwood Preserve and Tukman Geospatial, we've created fuel loading maps from our LiDAR data that identify areas where heavy ladder fuels are located close to structures,” says Gaffney, who declined to comment on specific sites. “And because we can map development footprints down to resolutions of one centimeter, we can even identify risks for individual buildings.”
Ladder fuels maps of Sonoma County // Image courtesy of Sonoma County Ag + Open Space
The maps are also being used to flag the best fire evacuation routes and the sites most susceptible to contamination or erosion post-fire.
“For example, we can determine if a [burned] structure that contained toxic materials is at significant risk of contaminating a nearby stream,” Gaffney says. “While the maps first responders and firefighters typically use show all the major and secondary roads, our data let us create maps that show the much smaller routes that could also be used for evacuation.”
The veg map approach to wildfire response and planning is gaining fans beyond the borders of Sonoma County.
“Marin County and San Mateo County have acquired LiDAR technology and are creating their own veg maps,” says Allison Schichtel, the conservation GIS coordinator for Ag + Open Space, “and Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties are looking into it. I did a presentation at a forestry and GIS workshop, and there were folks from [far] northern California and southern Oregon who wanted to know all about it. Interest is growing—kind of like an amoeba.”
- Author: John Hickey
Reposted from the UC Berkeley News
Eight months after the Camp Fire consumed the Northern California town of Paradise and was pronounced the deadliest wildfire in state history, California is facing the potential in the coming months for more death and destruction.
Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor of fire science, says the heavy rains of February and March have left California grasslands with perhaps twice as much burnable fuel as this time a year ago.
“Most of the time, you'd have one ton of dry mass per acre, and right now it's about double that,” Stephens, who has spent a quarter century in Berkeley working on fire behavior, fire ecology and forest policy, says. “I would expect grassland fires to be more intense and move around more quickly because of that.
“All that dry grassland will be responsive to sparks and flying burning embers. The fuel load will increase flame lengths. Once the grasslands start to burn, they could produce more embers themselves, since they have higher fuel loads.”
Stephens says California could help itself greatly by following the Australian model of fire prevention, where there is regular governmental outreach to people who live in fire-prone areas.
That's one reason he's a keen booster for Senate Bill 462, which is currently under consideration in Sacramento. One segment of the bill calls for the development of a group of outreach advisors who could be in the field long before a firestorm, giving advice about fire issues to those most likely to need it.
“This is not an average year,” he says. “The grasslands in some places are twice as tall as normal. That makes fire prevention more challenging, particularly at the urban wildland interface,” where homes are built on or adjacent to fire-prone lands.
“In general,” he adds, “the state has not done well to engage people and acquaint them with their vulnerabilities.”
“The UC Extension programs across the state have been doing this kind of thing in agriculture for 50 years,” Stephens says. “These are people who live in the counties most impacted and who can make a difference. We should be taking some inspiration from Australia and do the outreach about fire within communities and city councils.”
Stephens has spoken several times in Sacramento on behalf of SB 462, calling it “a critical program for the state to move forward.” The Camp Fire, and the Carr and the Tubbs fires that preceded it, may have gotten California out of a legislative quagmire concerning fire, although it's an open question whether or not the legislature will ever get a bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk.
“In my two years doing this, I've never seen the state do what has been done the last two years,” Stephens says. “Both the legislature and the governor are moving into fire areas, trying to understand things better. This bill came out of the education committee in the Senate and got the support of a lot of environmental committees.”
As originally written, the bill's funding would have been $20 million. Once the bill arrived in the appropriations committee, however, that figure was reduced to $1 million, and the bill currently is awaiting consideration by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.
Stephens says the funding cut would mean only two or three people could be hired to do the kind of outreach he envisions across the state. The original funding would have seen the hiring of perhaps 15.
Wildfire season in California has typically run from mid-summer through late autumn, although the last two seasons have stretched that. Stephens says getting ahead of the wildfire season would include, in addition to outreach, the passage of Senate Bill 462 and a concerted effort to mow or trim the dried grasslands.
“We need to see what is happening,” Stephens says. “Right now, the people who are dying in these fires are the elderly, the vast majority of whom are over 65. These are people who are not as mobile and who don't have the same resources. They are the ones who need this outreach.”
- Author: Gretchen Kell
Reposted from the UC Berkeley News
UC Berkeley is globally famous for producing Nobel Prize-winning scientists, entrepreneurs, economists, artists and environmentalists. Now, a new group's got a spot — actually, a perch — on that list: peregrine falcons.
Falcons first hatched in a secluded nest atop the campus's 307-foot-tall Campanile in 2017, but not until Sean Peterson, a Berkeley Ph.D. student, and Lynn Schofield, a biologist in Marin County at the Institute for Bird Populations, began a social media project about them this year did Berkeley's raptor family achieve a following in more than 40 countries worldwide.
Two webcams installed on the bell tower in January made possible the pair's clever Cal Falcons Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts, many of them about Carson and Cade — recent offspring of parents Annie and Grinnell. So far, viewers have watched the brothers appear, sport flight feathers, get banded, feast on fresh prey, practice flying and, recently, take wing.
The posts also have included falcon facts, short videos, close-up shots taken with long-focus lenses and fun Photoshopped images — from Carson and Cade in graduation regalia to Annie receiving a Mother's Day bouquet of pigeons — designed to prompt awe and appreciation for these once-endangered animals.
“Our number one mission always will be to prioritize conservation of peregrine falcons,” says Peterson. “But close behind that, we want to stoke people's interest in these amazing animals and a grow a community for them. And, we want to increase awareness of the wildlife in everyone's backyard.”
Peterson and Schofield, who are married, happily educate falcon fans who pose questions via social media with responses that are factual, friendly and, if necessary, reassuring. A popular one this spring was why a third egg laid by Annie, the mother falcon, didn't hatch.
The couple's efforts — and a live, May 6 Berkeleyside interview that included Vireo, their now 9-month-old son, who wears raptor booties — have resulted in the famlly occasionally being greeted by passersby as “the Peregrine Falcon People.”
“It tells me people are interested in the falcons,” says Peterson, of the family's nickname, “but I also think it's our baby they remember.”
Cal Falcons is a joint effort by seven bird experts who represent UC Berkeley, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, East Bay Regional Park District, Institute for Bird Populations and Institute for Wildlife Studies.
Observatory director Allen Fish says Peterson and Schofield “are both serious and focused ornithologists. And yet, they've been able to reach hundreds, maybe thousands, of Cal Falcons fans with their informal and spot-on social media posts and answers.
“This is a great lesson for scientists everywhere; we have many roads to teaching.”
A visibility problem
In winter 2016, Schofield, a biologist at the nonprofit Institute for Bird Populations, was working in the courtyard of Berkeley's Valley Life Sciences Building when she heard peregrine falcon cries. “I asked around if there was a pair on campus,” she says, “but everyone said no.”
Still, Schofield knew what she'd heard. She'd been familiar with falcons since her childhood in Minnesota, where she spent lunch hours watching a pair nesting on her dad's office building. Before moving to California, she also worked at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center.
So, in early 2017, she and Peterson, along with Berkeley alumnus Doug Bell, the East Bay Regional Park District's wildlife program manager, and Mary Malec, a volunteer raptor nest monitor for the park district and Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, climbed high in the Campanile to look for falcons. The group soon was peeking through grates at a female falcon on a crude nest, on the western balcony above the tower's observation deck, “and she stared right back at us,” says Schofield.
“It's good we went up there,” she adds, “as the conditions weren't right. The balcony isn't quite level, Annie had laid four eggs — two had rolled away — and the birds were incubating the other two on a torn-open sand bag.”
Emergency permission was obtained from state and federal authorities and UC Facilities Services to provide the falcon family with a temporary nest shelf — a large tray with gravel. Peterson and Schofield visited the tower almost every day, watching from below for evidence that the parents were feeding babies at the nest.
“At that point, our main worry was the nest itself, whether they'd have a successful nest, and if the chicks would fledge successfully,” says Peterson, whose dissertation in the Department of Environmental Policy, Science and Management is on wetland birds in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
In late May 2017, chicks Fiat and Lux emerged, and a volunteer falcon fledge watch crew assembled below the Campanile. It would monitor the young birds through spotting scopes as the siblings readied to fly and help them if they became stranded.
Young Lux died that July after hitting a window, prompting a bird-proofing of windows around the tower. Yet, his parents, “because they'd had a successful nesting year,” says Peterson, persevered: The following year, three chicks — Berkelium, Californium and Lawrencium — were born on the Campanile, this time in a permanent, wooden box, and fledged successfully.
Still, it again was a struggle for Peterson and Schofield to view the nest. “We had no visibility up there, in the tower, and we didn't even know when the female had laid eggs,” says Schofield.
And, adds Peterson, “it was hard for people to experience the falcons from the ground.”
A fan club takes flight
“I think we were all thinking webcam from the beginning,” says Schofield, of the solution she and Peterson had for real-time observation of the birds on the tower. “There are a lot of great webcams for birds,” including one for a pair of bald eagles in Decorah, Iowa, and another for albatrosses in Kauai, Hawaii, that's currently on hiatus.
In October 2018, Berkeley launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for two 24/7 webcams, and last February, they were installed — one facing the nest, anotheron the northern balcony — in time for Cal Falcons and the public to observe a new and complete season of hatching and fledging.
As the chicks emerged, the nest webcam activity also was livestreamed on the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive's huge outdoor video screen. More than 500 people stopped by on April 25 to watch, and falcon experts were there to answer questions.
Peterson and Schofield say it's important that their Cal Falcons social media posts not only feature, but explain, the raptors' webcam activity.
“We know stuff will happen — birds die, sometimes— and we want to make sure there is a format where people are in communication with us, so we can help them understand natural history and realize they aren't watching pets,” says Schofield.
For example, when Carson and Cade fledged off the tower, with no branches nearby to land on and rest, says Peterson, “we never downplayed how dangerous that time period was. They could end up on the ground, and their flight muscles at first are not good enough for them to take off from there, and they become vulnerable to predators.”
Of Peterson and Schofield's posts, says Malec, “Their skill in answering questions is unsurpassed.”
The same could be said of their talent for sharing lighter moments, like the time aspiring hunters Cade and Carson caught a moth.
Cal Falcons fans live as far away as Japan, the United Kingdom and the Middle East, says Peterson, adding that neither he nor Schofield “anticipated how much of a following there would be for our posts, or the number of questions and cool opportunities to teach there would be.”
He predicts that Carson and Cade will leave the Campanile in August, but says he and Schofield “will keep people up to date with any sightings we have … until breeding season picks up again.” Lawrencium, known as “Larry,” has been spotted on Alcatraz Island, and she is likely establishing a territory there, says Peterson, adding that a researcher doing seabird surveys there reported that Larry had killed a Canada goose mid-air for a meal.
Schofield says Cal Falcons' social media efforts so far have inspired one fan to take a bird behavior course, several teachers to involve their classrooms and children to submit names for the chicks — Fluffy and Peeppeep made it into this season's naming contest.
“We want the Cal Falcons audience to grow,” she says, “and it seems that caring about Berkeley's falcons is something everyone can agree on. If it's a sign of success, the president of the Berkeley College Republicans and the president of Cal Berkeley Democrats began following us on the same day.”
- Author: Lorena Anderson
The most extreme drought event in hundreds of years caused a catastrophic die-off of the Sierra Nevada's mature trees in 2015-2016.
A study published today in Nature Geoscience details how UC Merced Professor Roger Bales and his colleague Professor Michael Goulden from UC Irvine tracked the progress of the devastation caused by years of dry conditions combined with abnormally warm temperatures.
The researchers warn that matters are expected to get worse as global mean temperatures increase.
“Parts of the Sierra Nevada reached a ‘tipping point' in 2015, where annual precipitation plus stored subsurface water were not enough to meet the water demand of the forest,” Bales said.
The trees in California's mixed-conifer mountain forests have roots that can draw water from as deep as 5 to 15 meters down, which has historically protected the trees against even the worst multi-year droughts.
But the severity of California's 2012-2015 dry-spell “exceeded this safety margin,” the researchers said. When forest stands exhausted the subsurface moisture, they became vulnerable to attack by pests, leading to widespread tree death.
From 2012 to 2015, the entire state experienced a crippling drought, but it was especially severe in the southern Sierra Nevada. The four-year period was the driest in the past century, combined with below-average precipitation and above-average warmth extending year after year.
“This forest die-off can be viewed as a ‘perfect storm' — the intersection of four years of low precipitation, hotter temperatures than in past droughts, and a heavily overstocked forest from centuries of fire suppression,” Bales said.
The research was supported by National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Observations by the U.S. Forest Service Aerial Detection Survey showed that many tree stands suffered complete loss of mature conifers. Pines were especially hard hit by an infestation of bark beetles.
Sierra Nevada Research Institute Director Bales, Distinguished Professor of Engineering with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering, and Earth System Science Professor Goulden examined tree communities at a variety of elevations and latitudes in the sprawling mountain range using field and remote-sensing observations.
A post-drought survey found that tree mortality was greatest near 3,800 feet of elevation, with nearly 80 percent loss in 2016.
The study outlines a key factor in the die-off: A period of unusually dense vegetation coinciding with a prolonged drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures. The heat and proximity of trees and plants to one another caused accelerated evapotranspiration — moisture evaporating from leaves and rising up in the sky as water vapor. This caused the trees to draw even more water from the ground.
“We expect climate change to further amplify evapotranspiration and ground moisture overdraft (when more water is taken out of the soil than is replaced by precipitation) during drought,” Goulden said. “This effect could result in a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in tree death for each additional degree of warming.”
With their improved understanding of the contributions of factors such as elevation, vegetation density, heat, precipitation and soil water amounts, the researchers said they now have a framework to diagnose and predict forest die-offs brought on by drought.
“Using readily available data, we can now predict where in mountain forests multi-year droughts are likely to have the greatest impact, and the threshold at which those impacts are expected to occur,” Bales said.
- Author: Kara Manke
Spotted owl populations are in decline all along the West Coast, and as climate change increases the risk of large and destructive wildfires in the region, these iconic animals face the real threat of losing even more of their forest habitat.
Rather than attempting to preserve the owl's remaining habitat exactly as is, wildfire management — through prescribed burning and restoration thinning — could help save the species, argues a new paper by fire ecologists and wildlife biologists and appearing today (July 2 ) in the journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
The paper compares the plight of the owl with that of another iconic threatened species, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has made significant comebacks in recent years — thanks, in part, to active forest management in the southern pine forests that the woodpecker calls home. Though the habitat needs of the two birds are different, both occupy forests that once harbored frequent blazes before fire suppression became the norm.
“In the South, the Endangered Species Act has been used as a vehicle to empower forest restoration through prescribed burning and restoration thinning, and the outcome for the red-cockaded woodpecker has been positive and enduring,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author on the study.
“In the West, it's just totally the opposite,” Stephens added. “Even though both places physically have strong connections to frequent fire, the feeling here is that the best thing to do is to try to protect what we have and not allow the return of frequent fire — but that's really difficult when you have unbridled fires just ripping through the landscape.”
A tale of two birds
Spotted owls make their homes in the dense forests of the Western and Southwestern U.S., feeding on flying squirrels and woodrats and nesting in broken-off treetops or tree hollows. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, meanwhile, reside in pine stands in the Southeastern U.S., provisioning nests from nest boxes or hollowed-out cavities in living pine trees and eating insects pried from under tree bark.
Development and logging have robbed both species of much of their former habitat, and their populations have both taken a hit: Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of spotted owls to be at 15,000 individuals.
What habitat remains is now largely protected under the Endangered Species Act — but when it comes to fire and forest management, the act has been interpreted in dramatically different ways in the two regions, said paper co-author Leda Kobziar, associate clinical professor of wildland fire science at the University of Idaho.
“In the South, the act is interpreted to support active management through forest thinning and prescribed burning, and in the West, it is interpreted to exclude most fires and active management from protected areas surrounding spotted owl nests,” Kobziar said.
One critical difference is the degree to which active management in red-cockaded woodpecker habitat provides complementary benefits. “In the South, active management is known to reduce wildfire hazards, and it benefits local economies, along with a host of other fire-dependent species. In the West, those complementary benefits are less well-defined,” Kobziar said.
Another part of the reason for the discrepancy is perceived differences in the habitat preferences of the two birds, Kobziar explains. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in more open, mature pine forests that result when low-intensity natural or prescribed burns limit the development of a forest midstory, where woodpecker predators take cover. Meanwhile, spotted owls generally prefer the dense, multi-layered forests that grow when fire is excluded.
However, suppressing all fires in order to encourage growth of these dense canopies also creates conditions that are ripe for large, severe wildfires that can take out not just the smaller trees, but entire forests, obliterating swaths of owl habitat in the process. The 2014 King Fire, for example, tore through regions of the Eldorado National Forest that were home to a long-term study of the California spotted owl and caused the bird's largest population decline in the 23-year history of the study.
“A key question to be asking is: Where would owl habitats be with more characteristic fire regimes, and could we tailor landscape conditions where these habitats are less vulnerable and more supportive of today's wildfires?” said co-author Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.
The solution would mean, “essentially creating less habitat in order to have more in the long run,” he said.
Fighting fire with fire
Before European settlement, many small- to medium-sized wildfires burned through the forests of the Southeastern and Western U.S., sparked by lightning or intentionally lit by native peoples to produce food, clear land or drive game. These fires would gobble up the dead wood, seedlings and saplings that made up the forest understory, while leaving taller, older trees standing and marked with fire scars recorded in their growth rings that fire ecologists use to track the frequency of historical fires.
In the mountainous landscape of the West, these fires didn't strike uniformly everywhere, to the potential benefit of the owls, Hessburg said. “If I took you back in the way-back machine 200 years ago, you would have seen that fire regimes in the Cascade Mountains differed very much by topographic setting,” he said. “Ridgetops and south slopes would often get pounded with lightning and fires, and so tree cover would be sparse. But in shaded and cool valley bottoms and north slopes, you would see complex layered forests, and some of these would have been incredible owl habitats.”
Targeted restoration thinning and prescribed burning on ridgetops and dry southern slopes where fire used to be a frequent visitor, while leaving valley bottoms and northern slopes to develop into complex forest, could be a way to discourage large wildfires from ripping through vast landscapes, while maintaining owl habitat in a more fire-protected context.
New evidence also hints that owls may not be so dependent on dense understory canopies as once thought, the paper notes. Recent findings indicate that other aspects of forest structure, particularly the presence of large, old, tall trees, may be more important to the owls. These findings hint that prescribed burning and restoration thinning to reduce the size and severity of wildfires may not be damaging to owl habitat, even in the short term.
“We're treating the habitat as if we know precisely what habitat characteristics are preferred. It might be that these birds are tolerant of a broader range of characteristics that would enable things like fuels reduction to protect them from high-intensity wildfires,” Kobziar said.
“The South has melded fire and rare species management in a holistic way, but in the West, we're doing one or the other — (in) most places (where) we do forest restoration, we are trying to avoid owls,” Stephens said. “But the King Fire showed that owls and their habitats are vulnerable to large wildfires. More restoration thinning and prescribed burning could help us keep the habitat that we have now, modify it and actually make it more sustainable in the future.”
Other co-authors on the study include Brandon M. Collins of UC Berkeley; Raymond Davis, Joseph Ganey, James M. Guldin, Serra Hoagland, John J. Keane, Warren Montague, Malcolm North and Thomas A. Spies of the U.S. Forest Service; Peter Z. Fulé of Northern Arizona University; William Gaines of the Washington Conservation Science Institute; Kevin Hiers of the Tall Timbers Research Station; Ronald E. Masters of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Ann E. McKellar of Environment and Climate Change Canada.