Posts Tagged: wildfire
As the Beckwourth Complex Fire and Dixie Fire spread in Plumas and Lassen counties, Ryan Tompkins reminded residents of ways they could help limit damage.
“If you're under evacuation orders, abide by the evacuation notice, because lingering too long can complicate tactics of emergency responders,” said the University of California Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor, who recommends packing up important documents and valuables with an overnight bag in advance for a quick exit to safety.
Plan for pets and livestock and water access for a quick response to falling embers that ignite fires. The Plumas County resident said he packed a “go bag” for his dog filled with dog food and other necessities. Every year, Tompkins clears defensible space around his house, including defensible space around his chicken coop in case a fire starts while he isn't home. During wildfire season, he keeps a shovel and a backpack sprayer filled with water staged near his woodshed for easy retrieval if a fire were to start in his yard. If Tompkins needs to evacuate, he switches his circuit box to his generator so any firefighters performing structure triage can access his well water when the power grid shuts down.
To document possessions for insurance purposes if the house burns, Tompkins recommends shooting video. “Just walk through the house with your phone shooting video and narrating to document the household assets.”
Residents outside of the wildfire evacuation area can take more steps to improve the odds their homes will survive a wildfire.
Even with fire imminent, there are several actions you can do to help prepare your home to withstand fire exposure. UC Cooperative Extension guidance can help residents prepare their home in the days or hours before wildfire exposure.
If you believe you have at least a couple of hours before fire exposure, review the area around your home and outbuildings for flammable items that could lead fire to the structures, said Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
She recommends the following:
- Move combustible items inside or away from the buildings, especially within the first 5 feet of any structure or attached deck
- Clean gutters and other places where pine needles and leaves accumulate on or near the house
- Move BBQ propane tanks away from structures
- Bring in cushions from outside furniture
- Move doormats away from the house
- Seal vents (attic, foundation, drier, etc.) with plywood or heavy foil to prevent embers from entering
- Close all windows and pet doors
“The goal is to remove combustible items away from structures so that embers don't ignite these materials and result in flames touching the house,” Valachovic said. “Temporarily sealing up vents can help prevent embers, or small bits of burning vegetation, from being blown inside the home.”
If first responders get to your home, Valachovic says you can help them by leaving a ladder against the house, placing buckets or garbage cans of water around the home, and leaving connected garden hoses in easy-to-locate places. Also, leave out a shovel or other tool that could be used to put out small spot fires.
“After you have packed your essentials and your go bag, dress for the evacuation by wearing cotton or wool clothing, a hat, boots, bandanna or mask to protect your nose and mouth, and pack leather gloves,” she said. “These items will help you be prepared if you have to get out of your vehicle or move fallen trees during your escape to safety. Additionally, it may be helpful to pack a shovel, digging bar, chainsaw, or other tools just in case your evacuation route gets blocked.”
As you evacuate, Valachovic suggests leaving gates open or unlocked so first responders can access your property.
If time allows, turn on the lights in your house to increase visibility and leave a note on the door indicating where you went and who is with you. These instructions can help you reunite with your loved ones.
Thinking through these steps and implementing them if fire is near can help your home and your family survive wildfire. For more evacuation guidance, visit https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Safety/Evacuation.
If you have more time to prepare for wildfires, UC Cooperative Extension provides more information at https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Prepare, including a fire map and tips for home hardening and defensible space strategies.
How to Harden Homes against Wildfire, a free 20-page publication by University of Nevada, Reno Extension, UC Cooperative Extension, Tahoe Resource Conservation District and CAL FIRE is also available online at http://ucanr.edu/HomeRetrofitGuide. It includes recommendations for 12 vulnerable components of homes in wildfire-prone areas, including roofs, gutters, vents, siding, windows, decks and fences.
The massive die-off of conifers in the Sierra Nevada between 2012 and 2018 was predictable and unprecedented. Sadly, it is also likely to happen again, said UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor Susie Kocher.
To help landowners manage forests in a way that minimizes the risk of such catastrophic tree die-off and the threat of uncontrolled wildfire, Kocher and two colleagues produced a 20-page publication that summarizes current research on tree mortality and outlines actions that can be taken to make the forest more resilient. The publication, Mass Tree Mortality, Fuels, and Fire: A Guide for Sierra Nevada Forest Landowners, is available for free download from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources catalog.
Written by Stanford graduate student Devin McMahon (now graduated), UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension forest health specialist Jodi Axelson and Kocher, the publication presents the extent of the die-off in the Sierra Nevada, and describes different factors that contributed to the vast loss of tree life – including land management practices, weather patterns and geography. It includes detailed reporting on the mortality's impacts on fuels and fire risk so landowners and managers can understand and develop strategies to prevent similar destruction in the future.
While about two-thirds of California's 33 million acres of forests are public lands held by state and federal government agencies, the rest is in private hands. Large companies manage millions of acres for commercial timber production, but about 9 million acres are owned by individuals. Nearly 90% of individuals own 50 acres or less; 87,000 landowners have 10 acres or more of forest.
“That's a really large number of people,” Kocher said. “That's one of the reasons why it is so difficult for landowners to manage land to improve forest health and reduce fire risk. It's not economical to do forest management on small areas.”
It's also very complicated. As natural processes play out over time in a forest with mass mortality, the fire risk changes dramatically.
“In the new publication, we help people understand the nuances of forest management so they understand what actions are most appropriate throughout the whole cycle,” she said.
Assessing and addressing the fire risk
The publication provides an overview of fire risk reduction. A table lays out the seven components of fire risk – fuel load, fuel moisture, fuel continuity, probability of ignition, weather conditions, topography and vulnerability to fire – along with mitigation actions for each that landowners can take.
Intentional, controlled burning, or prescribed fire, is often the most effective way to decrease fuel loads and future risk from fires, the researchers wrote. Other management actions include masticating – chewing up brush and branches with specialized equipment – felling and removing dying and dead standing trees, and thinning live trees.
The authors conclude with a glimmer of hope for the future of California forest lands. “Carefully planned forest management can reduce the amount and continuity of fuel on the landscape and limit the risk of destructive fire after tree mortality.”
A summer of smoke and ash in many parts of California has raised questions about the safety of produce growing on farms and in the garden, eggs laid by chickens who peck around in ash-laden areas, and remediation needed to safely and effectively grow food in the future.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brought together experts who have researched the effects of previous fires' fallout and studied soil contaminants to share their insight in a two-hour webinar now available on YouTube.
“The No. 1 health concern during a fire is smoke inhalation, and it's been well documented that wildfire smoke can negatively impact both the heart and the lungs,” said Claire O'Brien, a pharmacology and toxicology doctoral student at UC Davis. “However, the chemicals found in the smoke don't just stay in the air. They can deposit onto plants and into soil and water.”
Although every fire is unique, some generalizations can be drawn from research conducted following previous fires. UC Cooperative Extension food systems advisor Julia Van Soelen Kim detailed a study conducted following the October 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County and across the North Bay.
With the help of UC Master Gardener and community volunteers, the researchers collected over 200 samples of homegrown collard greens, lettuces, kale and chard that were exposed to wildfire smoke and ash. A subset of the samples were analyzed by a private laboratory.
“There was very low concern about chemicals on produce,” Van Soelen Kim said. “No samples had detectable levels of lead, arsenic, mercury or chromium. And that's a huge sigh of relief.” However, analytical results vary by site, site history and by fire event, and few have pre-fire baseline data to compare with.
Van Soelen Kim said basic food-safety practices should be followed when preparing to eat food grown in a home garden, regardless of ash or smoke contamination.
“You should always wash your hands before and after harvesting, and wash your produce in running water to mitigate any kind of potential risk,” she said.
Are backyard chicken eggs safe to eat?
Another study outlined at the webinar used a similar process to determine whether there might be contaminants in the eggs laid by backyard poultry that live and feed in areas exposed to wildfire ash and smoke.
Scientists know from previous research that chickens exposed to lead in their environment can produce eggs with high lead content and that heavy metal content of ash from urban wildfires is higher than from rural wildfire.
“We combined those two pieces of research with what we know that chickens do all day: they peck at the ground for hours on end,” said Todd Kelman, a veterinarian in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. “That makes for a pretty good hypothesis that urban wildfire could pose a risk for the production of eggs and poultry that contain heavy metals.”
Kelman and his team put out a call for eggs from backyard poultry and received samples from 344 premises in fire-affected and non-fire-affected areas of California.
Surprisingly, egg samples that contained higher lead levels came from parts of the state that were not directly impacted by ash and smoke.
“Did our data support our hypothesis that proximity to urban wildfire is a driving source for lead in eggs of backyard poultry? The answer is not so much,” Kelman said. “So, is it safe to eat eggs from your backyard poultry? We can't give you a definitive answer to that question. But we do suggest you assess your risk and reduce the risk of contamination.”
Practices that reduce the risk include keeping chickens off the ground, using a chicken feeder that prevents spillage onto the ground and making calcium readily available, for example in the form of oyster shells, because calcium can prevent the absorption of lead. Making sure that chickens are provided uncontaminated water is also an important part of risk reduction.
For confirmation on the safety backyard chickens and their eggs, lab tests for eggs are available for $60 from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis, or chickens may be submitted to CAHFS for necropsy.
Are soils safe for growing food after a fire?
Fire effects on soil is another consideration in burned areas, said UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture advisor Rob Bennaton.
“Fires heat topsoil layers. They reduce the amount of living micro-organisms at the site of the burn, and also affect organic matter and nutrients. Ash deposits over time may make soils more alkaline,” he said. “As a result of these combined factors, there are temporary changes in nutrient levels and the capacity for soils to exchange nutrients for optimal plant growth and nutrition.”
With proper land care and management, soils can be remediated over time.
“It won't happen overnight. Soils were developed over millions of years,” he said.
Some ways to improve safety when gardening in fire-affected areas including keeping the soil covered with wood chips or other landscape mulch to reduce airborne soil dust. Use drip irrigation to prevent up splash onto the undersides of growing vegetables. Promote good drainage, especially at the bottom of slopes to prevent the concentration of contaminants.
Lab tests are often needed to determine the soils' post-fire characteristics. “Don't guess, but test,” Bennaton said.
The UC Master Gardener Program can provide technical assistance to help home gardeners find resources for home soil testing, he said.
Additional resources and information shared during the webinar include:
Post-fire soil resources and soil testing information
- UCCE publication on Soils in Urban Agriculture with soil testing & sampling information
- The UC ANR Healthy Soils Website, which has many resources worth reviewing.
- Tips for Interpreting Soil Analysis
- UC Master Gardener of Sonoma County 2018 workshop video “Effects of fire on soil”
Post-fire food safety
- Research on produce safety and backyard chicken egg safety after the 2017 wildfires in California is available on this web page. To view a past webinar recording with these research findings, click this link.
- Poultry wildfire resources from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:
- Best Practices for Produce Safety After Fire
- Understanding Risk: A community guide for assessing the potential health impacts of locally grown produce exposed to urban wildfire smoke
Firewise and sustainable home landscaping design in the defensible space zone
- Visit the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County firewise landscaping web page.
- For a recent firewise & sustainable design and maintenance video by the Resilient Landscapes Coalition.
Impact of smoke & ash on plants
[This article was first published Nov. 3, 2020]
When the Detwiler Fire broke out near his family's ranch in 2017, Tony Toso was home to take defensive action to protect his family and animals. The Mariposa County rancher feels fortunate that he was on site.
“We were on the front end of the fire damage and it started on a Sunday,” recalled Toso. “Had I not been home that day, it would have been very difficult for me to access my property and help keep our livestock safe. Within a matter of hours of the fire starting, the CHP had our county road closed and would not let anyone in.”
Emergency personnel close roads around wildfires for the safety of people and to prevent them from impeding fire suppression efforts. When fire threatens large ranching operations, ranchers need to move their livestock out of harm's way and make sure they have feed and water. While volunteer groups can assist in rescuing dogs, cats, and a few sheep or horses, they don't have a rancher's knowledge, expertise and experience that are essential for managing hundreds of cattle at large-scale ranching operations.
To help rural communities prepare for wildfire, it would be helpful for farmers and ranchers to have a plan in place to coordinate with first responders, according to Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist. Ag Pass is a program developed in Ventura County to identify farmers and ranchers to firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel so they can allow them onto their property to rescue animals and identify access roads and water sources.
“Because fires are increasingly impacting people and are not going away anytime soon, we need to figure out approaches to sustainably live on fire-prone landscapes. In a broader sense, the Ag Pass is another way that we can adapt to, and coexist with, wildfire,” Moritz said.
Matthew Shapero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range advisor, and Moritz have written a publication to guide people who would like to create an Ag Pass Program for wildfire preparedness in their own locale.
“Our neighbors had cattle just north of us and they tried to get in and could not,” said Toso. “An Ag Pass in that situation, would have been a huge benefit had I not been at home and then wanted to access my property.”
In Ventura County, agricultural workers can apply for identification cards from the Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council, which verifies farm information through the county's pesticide applicator permit database. Ag Pass members provide detailed maps of their farms that show access roads – including many that don't show up on other maps.
Shapero, who works in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has been working with ranchers and county agencies to create an Ag Pass program in Santa Barbara County.
“The last few fire seasons have made a program like the Ag Pass more urgent than ever, especially as awareness of wildfire's impacts to agriculture has grown,” Shapero said. “We hope that this publication provides localities with a workable blueprint that will expedite the adoption of this or similar programs.”
Shapero has been working with Anthony Stornetta of Santa Barbara County Fire and representatives of other agencies to develop a training for Ag Pass participants in Santa Barbara County.
“After being at the Carr, Sonoma, Creek and Camp fires for months at a time, I started developing the program from the fire side and presented it to California Cattlemen's Association a couple years ago,” Stornetta. “This was a great collaborative effort. After meeting with our fire safe council, we are looking at the program being fully adopted very soon.”
In September, the Bear Fire raged through the Plumas National Forest where 400 of Dave Daley's cattle roamed to graze. The fifth-generation rancher wrote in moving detail of his grueling search for surviving cows in the rugged terrain during the wildfire and posted it to the California Cattlemen's Association website.
“I was unable to get access initially,” Daley said. “After working with our sheriff, I was able to get access through his office. But it required a deputy to take his time every day for 10 days to meet me at the roadblocks and escort me for several miles into our cattle range. I am very thankful for their willingness to do so. However, it was probably not the best use of their time when they were dealing with so many crises simultaneously and the fire was still raging. If there had been an Ag Pass system, that would have simplified the process, freed up law enforcement and given me a chance to save more cattle.”
Toso, the Mariposa County rancher and president of the California Cattlemen's Association, thinks a program as described in the UC Cooperative Extension publication benefits both ranchers and first responders.
“We can not only help protect ranching families, but we can use the opportunity to build working relationships and create trust between landowners and emergency personnel, as well as provide valuable information to those first responders from knowing the lay of the land,” he said. “Helping other counties and our member ranchers get a program on the books with their respective counties will be a priority for our organization.”
“Given each community's unique agency and personnel structure, it is our belief that the Ag Pass is best administered at the local or county level, however we are working with the state to see if policy measures can be developed that would simplify and support the Ag Pass concept,” Shapero said.
The training developed for Santa Barbara County includes an overview of hazards and safety issues, entrapment avoidance, incident organization, fire behavior, working with law and fire liaisons, access to incident, carding and certification. Stornetta anticipates the Santa Barbara County training will be held in spring 2021 and hopes it can be used in other counties as well. Ranchers who are interested in the Ag Pass training should contact Stornetta or Shapero.
“Preparing for Disaster: Establishing an Ag Pass Program in Your Community,” can be downloaded for free at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8685.pdf.
(First published Dec. 21, 2020)
A team of California and Nevada fire scientists have produced a booklet with step-by-step guidance on retrofitting an existing home to be more resilient to fire.
Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor and co-author of the new guide, said some homeowners feel powerless to protect their homes against California's increasing wildfire threat.
The free 20-page publication, How to Harden Homes against Wildfire (http://ucanr.edu/HomeRetrofitGuide) is now available online. It includes recommendations for 12 vulnerable components of homes in wildfire-prone areas, including roofs, gutters, vents, siding, windows, decks and fences.
In the past, agencies have focused on recommending changes in vegetation and establishing defensible space. However, Kocher said recent advances in wildfire science have exposed vulnerabilities of structures themselves.
“Managing vegetation and retrofitting the home are both needed to decrease wildfire risk and help our communities become more fire adapted,” she said.
CAL FIRE awarded funding to develop and publish the wildfire home retrofit guide, funding that is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that assigns cap-and-trade dollars to projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy and improve public health and the environment.
In addition to CAL FIRE, organizations that contributed to the document are University of Nevada, Reno Extension; University of California Cooperative Extension; Living with Fire, Tahoe; Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team; Tahoe Resource Conservation District; and Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities.
The team also hosted three webinars to share home fire resilience information targeted to different audiences. Videos of the webinars are available on the Living with Fire YouTube Channel:
For the public: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX114wpPwmg&t=327s
For building professionals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccIAIg6xONs
For fire educators: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOsdyVSPxnA&t=177s
(First published Jan. 28, 2021)
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