As California grapples with decades of severe wildfires, the newly established UC ANR Fire Network plays an integral role in providing and advancing science-based solutions and delivering useful tools throughout the state. Recently, the Fire Network hosted an immersive field tour for California legislative staff in collaboration with Berkeley Forests to demonstrate their work in ongoing fire and forestry research.
“We have such a rich network of fire experts and thought leaders within UC ANR,” notes Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Fire Network Director. “It was great to have everyone in one place, thinking about how we can best inspire and empower positive change through our research, education and outreach, policy, and training.”
Held on November 17th at Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC ANR staff and academics shared their research and experiences with a diverse group of legislative staff. The tour provided an opportunity for scientists and policymakers to connect over shared goals of addressing California's growing wildfire and forestry management challenges.
Sitting on 4,000 acres of Sierra forestland, Blodgett Forest Research Station is the flagship site for research within the Berkeley Forests network. The in-person visit gave attendees the opportunity to learn about the different forest management approaches practiced at Blodgett, and understand the importance of maintaining research forests across the state. “We need research facilities like Blodgett,” expressed Forestry Advisor Yana Valachovic to the tour group. “It's a way to ask these questions [about forest management],” she continued. The research questions answered through experiments at Blodgett have implications that reach beyond the station's boundary, which was demonstrated to tour guests over three tour stops.
UC ANR Specialist and Berkeley Forests Co-Director Rob York led the four-hour tour, where visitors could view different forest management treatments and heavy equipment used for treatment, and learn firsthand about UC-led collaborative research projects.
Can you run through it? Can you see through it?
Tour guests joined York at the first stop, a stand (group of trees of similar age and size) which has not seen treatment by humans for over 60 years. This first stop was a glimpse at what an unmanaged forest looks like through a forester or a wildfire scientist's eyes. Small trees, less than a few feet tall, clustered under a dense overstory, can facilitate a wildfire's quick movement from forest floor to tree canopy. Close clusters of trees make it much easier for fires to burn across a stand, and the spongy layer of duff underneath the guests' feet burns hot when conditions are dry. These stand conditions, coupled with an abundance of downed woody material, can lead to intense fire behavior when conditions are hot and dry.
Leading California wildfire scientist and UC Berkeley Professor Scott Stephens shared his stance, stating that “Taking stands that look like this into the future with climate change…is nothing less than a trainwreck.” He and York emphasized that a forest's odds of persisting through wildfires are greatly increased when fuel loads are reduced and forests are thinned. York introduced his barometer for a healthy forest density, positing that guests ask themselves: “Can I run through it? Can I see through it?” the next time they visit a forest.
This is not to say that all fire is bad for a forest. Fire is a part of a healthy forest ecosystem and has been for thousands of years- thanks to natural ignitions from lightning and Indigenous stewardship and cultural practices.
The second stop on the tour was a stand where the overstory (canopy) had been thinned, but the surface fuels were not treated with prescribed fire. York explained to the group that solely thinning a forest was not the answer, and that the best treatment would merge prescribed fire and overstory thinning treatments. In fact, a primary facet of the Fire Network's goals has been to increase the number and strength of community-based Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs). 24 PBAs have formed throughout California since 2017, and they greatly increase community capacity for prescribed fire in both forested and non-forested ecosystems.
Eating broccoli before dessert?
The tour ended at a stand that had seen both thinning and prescribed fire treatments, and is part of an experiment comparing fire emissions to wildfire emissions. Another fuels management experiment happening at Blodgett is the use of livestock grazing as a tool to manage live fuel loads. This project is a collaborative effort between Livestock Advisor Dan Macon, Fire Network Coordinator Katie Low, and other ANR Advisors and Specialists. The effort exemplifies the way wildfire demands attention and innovation from outside the fire and forestry fields.
Macon and Low are examining the efficacy of goat grazing and its implications on animal health at Blodgett. This entails seeing how they can encourage goats to graze unfamiliar vegetation. Likening it to human behavior, Low asked the group, “If it was late at night, and you're craving a snack, which would you eat first: a bowl of steamed broccoli? Or your favorite dessert?” The goats that Macon and Low monitor clearly fill up on their ‘dessert' first and need extra encouragement to graze the woody vegetation, leading to more intervention on the herder's part. Through offering glimpses into their research, Macon, Low, and York demonstrated to the group the many approaches researchers are taking to help increase the state's wildfire resilience.
By sitting at a critical point of both research and application, UC ANR staff were able to give visitors their unique perspective on the topics of climate change, prescribed burning, and forest management on this tour. York, Stephens, and Fire Network members maintained that California policy is moving in the right direction, but encouraged staff to cease measuring impact through one lens. “It's not just about how many acres have been treated,” underscored Stephens, “it's about impact. It's about changing the direction of the forest.”