The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. Now, UC Cooperative Extension is beginning a dialog with many agencies involved to understand how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.
UC Cooperative Extension fire scientists and representatives of many California organizations conduct fire behavior research, study forest treatments – such as prescribed burns, timber harvest and mastication – and share best practices for home and community preparation. In the Butte County area where the Camp Fire took place, cooperating agencies include CalFIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, Sacramento River Watershed Program, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.
While the Camp Fire was devastating, it could have been far worse. Working together for decades, the partner agencies have improved community safety and resilience.
They have educated the public about defensible space, fire resistant homes, and evacuation plans. They have coordinated fuels treatments along evacuation routes and around the communities. Through their actions, they saved many lives and structures, protected the town's drinking water supply, and in some cases, provided access for hiking in areas that had been overgrown by brush.
“When you drive for miles through blackened, burned trees and then arrive in a thinning project area full of green tree tops, you know that these efforts are worth it, we are having success and we can make a difference together,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council.
Because of the Camp Fire tragedy, the partner agencies learned many lessons that can inform future maintenance and treatments to improve fire resilience in Butte County and other wildland areas. Kate Wilkin, the UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada counties, is able to point to projects implemented in the Camp Fire zone that saved lives and structures.
For example, one family in Paradise was featured by the news media for their successful advance fire planning, which even included the installation of sprinklers on top of the house.
“When I think about what saves a house, a sprinkler is a cherry on top of the cake,” Wilkin said. “If a house is constructed with a combustible roof and siding, if unprotected vents allow embers to get into the attic, or the landscape is not maintained, a sprinkler isn't going to save the house. The sprinkler's power from the grid or a generator will likely fail. High winds may even prevent the sprinkler's mist from hitting the house.”
Rather, passive resistance to fires through better building design, materials and maintenance greatly reduce structure loss.
“Maintenance is an unsung hero of fire resilience,” Wilkin said. “Individual actions at our homes matter.”
First 5 feet around a structure
State law requires homeowners in wildfire areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Most towns in wildfire-prone areas also have their own defensible space codes. Wilkin said where she lives in Grass Valley, anyone with less than an acre of land must maintain their entire property as defensible space.
This guideline is a start, but there is more that people who live in wildfire-prone areas can do to make their homes resilient to fire. UC Cooperative Extension scientists recommend creating a five-foot buffer immediately surrounding the home almost completely devoid of plants and anything that can burn - including wooden fences, firewood, deck chairs and pillows, brooms and other wooden tools.
This extra precaution is important as embers from a distant wildfire can land on or adjacent to a house and ignite combustible items which in turn ignite the home. It was evident in the Camp Fire that the first five feet around homes was a critical factor in the survivability of structures.
The zone can include noncombustible materials such as rock mulch, stone pavers, cement, bare earth, gravel or sand. Low combustibility materials, such as irrigated and maintained lawn or herbaceous plants less than five inches high, are okay. All leaves, needles or other vegetation that falls in this five-foot zone must be removed during the fire season.
“The non-combustible space adjoining the house may be the difference between losing it and all the contents to a wildfire versus returning to the property with the home unscathed,” Wilkin said.
Community fire resilience
Fire survival measures can also be taken at the community level.
In Paradise, the Butte County Fire Safe Council funded CalFIRE crews to thin a number of areas in the watershed below Paradise Lake in 2013 and 2014. Taking these actions allowed an area for firefighters to start a defense and start putting out the flame front, Wilkin said.
“A CalFIRE chief told residents, ‘You provide the offense, we provide the defense.' Homeowners and communities need to get everything set up for successful firefighting,” she said.
Forest thinning has the added benefit of improving recreational opportunities. Near Magalia Pine Ridge School, an 11-acre mastication project in 2018 funded with $30,000 from the Butte County Fire Safe Council cleared overgrown vegetation around the school. This helped strengthen the area's public assembly location, which was identified on the community's evacuation map, and opened up access to a forest hiking trail that was blocked by tangled brush.
The open space dramatically slowed the raging Camp Fire when it approached the school, which is now one of the only schools open in the Paradise Ridge community.
Forest thinning also protected the drinking water for the town of Paradise. A combination of projects undertaken by U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Pacific Industries and the Butte County Fire Safe Council aligned to allow fire fighters to combat the fire and ensure that the source of drinking water was protected.
Concow wildfire safety zone
In 2013 and 2014, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council created a wildfire public assembly safety zone in Concow. The work was completed by inmate crews. During the Camp Fire, dozens of lives were saved when sheriff deputies, firefighters and citizens were able to shelter in the area.
“Wildfire safety zones are pretty uncommon and we may want to create more in wildfire prone areas,” Wilkin said. “But there is a hitch.”
CalFIRE is reluctant to designate temporary refuges because they don't want people to rely on them in place of evacuation. During a quick-moving firestorm, it could be an area where people can shelter if they cannot get out.
“It's a complex and dangerous puzzle,” Wilkin said. “In Australia, they had a similar idea and some places where people sheltered in a fire caused them to die.”
Wilkin is working with Paradise parks to identify areas ahead of time with enough space to meet new national firefighter standards to protect people's lungs from superheated air.
“Historically, we thought sufficient space was four times as great as the flame heights. If you have a Ponderosa pine that's torching 150 feet high, you would need 800 feet around the people,” Wilkin said. “New research has found that the safety zone calculation must also consider potential wind speed and slope. Significantly more space may be needed.”
Two UC Agriculture and Natural Resources emeritus specialists, two UC ANR advisors and a UC ANR vice provost spent a week in March working in Guatemala to help implement a USDA-funded (UC Davis-managed) project that is rebuilding the extension system in Guatemala.
With a population of almost 17.5 million and a per capita income ranked 118th in the world, Guatemala is working to improve the livelihoods and incomes of it's rural population, which represents nearly half of the total population. The project is being implemented in Guatemala with the Universidad de San Carlos. Universidad de San Carlos is the biggest and oldest university in Guatemala and which - when established in 1676 - was the fourth university established in the Americas. The 150,000-student university includes a prominent and well-known agricultural school.
The UC contingent delivered modules on extension and marketing, two of five required for the participants to receive a certificate. Jim Hill, emeritus rice specialist based at UC Davis, is leading the second phase of the project.
The rest of the team for the week were Steve Temple, emeritus agronomy specialist, UC Davis; Jairo Diaz, director, UC Desert Research and Extension Center; Ramiro Lobo, advisor, UC Cooperative Extension, San Diego County; Mark Bell, vice provost, strategic initiatives and statewide programs; and Kate Lincoln, CAES Global Engagement, UC Davis. Bell led the project when he was part of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The interactive week-long course worked with 31 participants, mostly from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture extension offices, but also included agriculture teachers. The team shared the essential steps and associated skills required for successful extension. The course used the Spanish acronym ASISTE as a framework (previously developed by Mark Bell, Maria Paz Santibanez and Elana Peach-Fine) as an easy way to remember the key steps. ASISTE stands for audience (audience), soluciónes (solutions), información simple (simple information), transferencia (transfer), and evaluación (evaluation).
As part of the course, participants developed and delivered their own mini-workshops using local issues and context to reinforce workshop discussions. As Guatemala has a large indigenous population with more than 20 languages, one of the participants delivered his talk in Tzutuhil, the main language used for his constituents in Santiago Atitlan, Sonora department.
The West Side research plots are one of 120 locations in Canada, the United States and Mexico where the SHI scientists are collecting data to evaluate soil health indicators at a continental scale.
The initiative will identify acceptable soil health measurements and standards, as well as launch a comprehensive evaluation program that relates soil health to productivity, economic and environmental outcomes. Cappellazzi is project scientist for the Western U.S. and coordinates the soil health team's pastures and rangeland research.
“Our project at West Side started in 1999 and is a unique research resource in California because of its dedication to reduced soil disturbance and soil biodiversity in food production systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and leader of UC's Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation.
Since it was established, the research plots have been managed in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzo beans and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“There are few long-term study sites in California where this combination of core principles that underlie soil health have been applied for a long time frame like we have here at the West Side REC,” Mitchell said. “These principles include reducing disturbance of the soil, maintaining cover over the soil through the use of residues and cover crops, and accentuating diversity in crops and soil biology.”
“Our research project at the West Side REC has enabled scientists to reach many conclusions about soil health in the past. But this very exhaustive sampling by the Soil Health Institute is perhaps the most comprehensive battery of tests that have ever been performed on any study site in the San Joaquin Valley to date,” Mitchell said.
The research initiative is funded with a $9.4 million grant to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the Nature Conservancy to improve soil health and support positive economic and environmental outcomes for American farmers and ranchers.
The goal of this project is to support research and education that accelerates adoption and benefits of soil health management systems nationally. Farming practices that improve soil health can increase profitability while protecting natural resources like air and water for communities.
For more information about the sample collection process at the West Side REC, view a 14-minute video at https://youtu.be/WSNg6rJdvvE
Two UCANR Cooperative Extension specialists have recently launched CalLands, a powerful online tool that can help users understand how land ownership impacts California's croplands.
To build the CalLands' interactive website, Luke Macaulay and Van Butsic — both assistant UC Cooperative Extension specialists based in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management — combined satellite-generated maps of land cover created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with publicly available land ownership records. Next, they anonymized ownership identity and pulled data from all 58 California counties to include parcels of land larger than five acres. The result is a database that features 543,495 privately-owned properties across the state, creating a data-rich map of crops and ownership boundary lines in every county. The interactive map can be filtered by county to display characteristics of land ownership, percentages of private and public ownership, breakdowns by crop-type, and summaries of land-use statistics.
CalLands allows users to explore how crops are distributed within a county or across the state or understand how ownership size impacts how land is used. In a 2017 study on cropland ownership published in California Agriculture, Butsic and Macaulay discovered that the largest five percent of properties account for 50 percent of California cropland. The two created CalLands with the aim of helping a wide variety of stakeholders understand land cover and land use at the county and individual land ownership scale.
“CalLands helps expand people's understanding of the landscape and how farmers across the state are using their land,” Macaulay says.
The website tells the story in visual terms of the location of key crops over time, including water-intensive plants like alfalfa and almonds, and illustrates the locations and acreages of both annual and perennial crops. This information may be useful for those seeking to understand agricultural water use and expansion and change of crops over time. The team hopes that the tool will also help scientists conduct research that is beneficial to many agricultural stakeholders, such as UC Cooperative Extension specialists creating outreach programming, county officials proposing regulations, and resource managers hoping to understand cropland production.
Currently, CalLands features cropland data from 2013-2017, allowing users to toggle between these annual datasets. Macaulay and Butsic plan for future versions of CalLands to include the capability of producing graphs to help users understand how crop planting changes over time as farming shifts and land changes hands. “We look forward to adding more features to CalLands,” Butsic said. “We want to implement changes on the site based on what Californians need.”
UC Cooperative Extension plays an active and ongoing role in the effort to increase agricultural sustainability and minimize the industry's environmental impact, a role that was showcased at the third Ag Innovations Conference in March. Held in Santa Maria, the event was centered on the potential for using biological solutions for the challenges faced in agricultural production – such as pest control and nutrient management.
Many organic growers are already using these products successfully. Conference organizer Surendra Dara, UCCE advisor in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, believes increasing the use of biologicals in conventional agriculture, which represents a much larger part of the industry, holds promise for reducing the use of chemical pesticides, cutting back nitrogen inputs and sequestering carbon in healthy farmland soil.
The market for biologicals in agriculture is growing. Organic farming is increasing in acreage because of consumer demand for food grown without synthetic inputs. In the conventional sector, farmers are wary of the new biological projects, probably because of past experiences with “snake oil” products that made glowing claims, but came up short. They are looking for scientific research that confirms their effectiveness.
“The most important thing we can do is remove the stigma about efficacy,” Dara said. “Conventional options are inexpensive and they are generally perceived to work better. It is a hard thing to shake.”
Finding funding for research in biologicals is another obstacle.
“Much more funding is available to research in conventional practices,” Dara said. “It's challenging for us. We must rely on industry support.”
Dara has conducted multiple studies demonstrating the potential of biologicals in crop production. At the March conference, he shared the results of experiments in tomato, strawberry and grape production in which he compared products containing seaweed extracts, silicon and beneficial bacteria and fungi.
“Many of the treatments worked well,” Dara said. “We saw some improved yield and good pest control.”
Research results are a key for mainstreaming biologicals in the ag industry, said Bill Schwoerer a speaker at the conference who represents Concentric Ag in San Luis Obispo, a company that produces biological optimizers for soil, seed and plant vigor. Concentric and other companies that are marketing biologicals said expectations need to be managed.
“It's not a silver bullet,” he said. “It's a tool to help you farm and produce a better crop.”
Concentric's product is a unique metabolite brew that contains seven bacteria and three fungi.
“It mimics a healthy soil microbiome,” Schwoerer said. “It's important to note, with these products, we see more improvements under stress conditions. That's the nature of the product.”
Ashraf El-kereamy, the former UCCE viticulture advisor in Kern County who was recently promoted to UCCE specialist at the UC Lindcove Research and Extension Center, presented results of his first year of research on seaweed extract applications on Flame seedless and Allison grape varieties in Kern County.
The products are derived from wild and cultivated seaweed from oceans around the world. Their potential as agricultural inputs stem from seaweed's rapid cell division and growth, a function that is controlled by natural plant hormones.
“Increasing color on red seedless grapes is important for marketing,” El-kereamy said. “Growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley are having an issue with coloring. Some growers had to dry their red grapes to raisins or sell to the juice companies because stores didn't accept the crop without good color.”
The research results are preliminary. And more potential impacts of the seaweed products still need to be studied – such as the impact on vine growth and stress tolerance, and the impact of the compounds on grapes grown in other areas or in different varieties.
But El-kereamy is encouraged by the early findings. The increased value of the redder grapes more than offsets the cost of the seaweed treatment, he said.
Other speakers representing firms that produce biological compounds for the ag industry also shared information at the Ag Innovations Conference:
- Paul Zorner, chief executive officer of Locus Agricultural Solutions, said the products made by the company target the soil microbiome and focus on high-value horticultural crops. The company has found that their probiotic supports more robust, consistent root growth by creating better nutrient status and a better microbial environment.
- Drew Jackson, vice president of Cool Planet, shared information about biochar, a product made by burning organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment. He said biochar has unique properties that lend themselves healthy soil biology. “It's like luxury condos for microbes,” Zorner said.
- Antonin van der Lely of Biobest USA is working to move biocontrols that are used successfully in the greenhouse industry into outdoor agriculture.
- Katherine Walker, a technical service representative for BASF, discussed a biological fungicide from the company that can suppress root and foliar fungus. The product, called Serifel, can be used along with a chemical fungicide for added protection and resistance management.
- Melissa O'Neal of Marrone Bio Innovations presented information about two new Marrone products, Stargus and Ennoble. These products can also be used to alternate with conventional products to prevent resistance, she said. Stargus is a liquid fungicide that can inhibit botrytis in grapes and strawberries, sclerotinia in lettuce and downy mildew in lettuce. Ennoble is a granular bio fumigant that is incorporated into the soil, where it releases volatiles into plants' rootzones.
- Deb Shatley of Terramera said the company is formulating a product with cold-pressed neem oil that mixes with water in an application tank and stays in solution for days. Neem is a tree native of India and other South Asian countries that is a natural miticide, fungicide, insecticide and nematicide. The Terramera product, called Rango, provides more consistent neem spray coverage in the field.