Posts Tagged: wildfire
Fire scientist Kate Wilkin was on the job just a few weeks when ferocious winds whipped up the Northern California firestorm of 2017. The national media focused on Napa and Sonoma counties, where the deadly Tubbs fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, while devastating fires also broke out in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.
It was crunch time for Wilkin, who stepped in as the new forestry, fire science and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties that fall. Four lives and 200 homes were lost in her new work community. Wilkin hosts workshops to help families and businesses build communities that are more resilient to fire. She draws experience from maintaining her own Grass Valley home fire resilient.
From the Bay Area to the small town of Grass Valley
Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston moved into their first home, a ranch-style rambler atop a hill in Grass Valley, on Sept. 15, 2017, three days before Wilkin reported to work in the Sutter-Yuba County UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City.
The couple moved from a small apartment in Berkeley, where Wilkin was conducting research as a post-doc in the lab of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher and UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. The move from a hyper-urban Bay Area city to a small hamlet in the hills wasn't too much of shock to their systems. Johnston was raised on a farm with chickens and goats. Wilkin grew up in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va. After completing her bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., introduced Wilkin to fire science.
“In the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the landscape would burn then flood every year,” Wilkin said. “I became fascinated with how these disturbances catalyzed diversity.”
What better place to continue a fire education than California?
Wilkin enrolled at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, earning a master's degree in biology. She spent the next three years in Yosemite National Park, working with a team of scientists to understand the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.
“We found that the current policies led to meadow degradation,” Wilkin said. Yosemite then changed its policy to reduce the amount of horse grazing on these tender, sensitive mountain resources.
In 2011, Wilkin started work on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, where she studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. Wilkin signed up for the pilot Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, launched in 2014 to train and recruit graduate students for careers in research and outreach.
“The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” Wilkin told Science Magazine for an article about the innovative program. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions.”
Beginning at home
With full knowledge of the dangers of living in fire-prone areas, Wilkin and Johnston purchased a home close to the outdoor amenities they adore – hiking, backpacking and skiing.
“Tahoe is just an hour away,” Wilkin said. “I love the view from the house and the wooded setting. But we live in an area CalFire has designated as very high fire danger.”
As a fire scientist, Wilkin was well equipped to make changes to the home and landscape to minimize the risk.
“We moved in during peak fire season,” Wilkin said. “We didn't hang artwork. My priority was to make the home and deck more fire resistant. We put in one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents, caulked around doors and windows, blew leaves off the roof and deck, removed lattice wrapping the deck and cleaned the gutters. Then we created defensible space starting close to the house and working our way outward."
The couple labored about 200 hours and spent about $800 in the first six weeks buying and renting tools, including a chipper, saw and a truck to haul away tinder-dry lattice, foliage and pine needles. With the most critical fireproofing completed, the couple is now tallying the work that should be done to further enhance the fire safety of their home.
“We probably need another $6,000 to $7,000 of work,” Wilkin said.
When the North Winds blow
Wilkin recalled the terrifying time about a month after moving into their new home when howling winds whipped around the house and fires were breaking out across Northern California.
“The North Winds are haunting,” she said. “I hadn't felt wind like that since I lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes.”
Wilkin and Johnston were fortunate. The closest fire to their home was the McCourtney Fire, which burned 76 acres in Grass Valley. The wildfire stayed two miles away.
When wildfires burn in California, people often call them forest fires or brushfires, but the odds are high that an invasive weed is an unrecognized fuels component, says a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientist.
“We have all of the nasty non-native Bromus species here in California, and these weeds are key drivers of increasing fire frequency,” said Travis Bean, UC Cooperative Extension weed science specialist based at UC Riverside.
The invasive, non-native Bromus species aggressively outcompete native plants, forming dense stands that grow fast and dry out quickly, becoming highly flammable. Fire can move rapidly through these dense patches of dry grass, especially during windy conditions or on slopes.
“When you have understory of dry Bromus or other weedy grasses, their ease of ignition can allow fire to spread from areas like roadsides where ignition sources are plentiful to more pristine native plant communities,” Bean said. “Additionally, these fast-moving fires can throw embers that allows the fire to jump long distances or even reach high into the air, igniting structures.”
Identifying fire fuel
Bean would like to see the fuels in wildfires identified so people have a chance to consider managing them to mitigate the increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfire across the state.
With training, citizen scientists such as California Naturalists could help cities, counties, utilities and government agencies identify the invasive plant species that fuel urban wildfires.
“On a landscape scale, I would focus on managing Bromus anywhere human-caused ignitions occur,” Bean said. “Resources for management are scarce, and these species are widespread and can't be controlled everywhere they occur. Roadsides, hiking trails, and campgrounds are critical areas where people can start fires that spread, so It makes sense to concentrate management there.”
“When I talk to land managers about these species, they recognize that some areas will have to be sacrificed and it may not be possible to eliminate these species from the landscape,” Bean said. They are prioritizing areas with smaller invasive populations where there is an actual chance to eliminate them, or are managing larger populations for containment so they don't spread.”
Timing is everything
The key to reducing the spread of invasive, non-native Bromus species or any annual weed is preventing the plants from producing seeds, Bean said. “Whatever control method you chose, if deployed too early or too late, you gain nothing for considerable expense.” Too early and the plants may simply resprout, while too late and they will have already set seed and further contributed to next year's weed crop.
Herbicide is an effective and inexpensive means of control, though many prefer non-chemical methods. Hand pulling can be effective in small areas, but is discouraged for large patches due to the sheer amount of labor required and risks of actually spreading the weed seeds.
Another way land managers can try to prevent the weeds from spreading is by mowing or grazing with goats, sheep or cattle, Bean said, adding that using livestock can require more intensive management and proper timing is critical.
“For mowing and grazing, the key is to wait until the plants have started to flower, but the seeds are not mature,” Bean said. “If you mow when there's mature seed, you'll just spread the seed and make the problem worse. And once the seedheads mature, grazing animals won't eat it.”
Prescribed fire is another option for containing invasive grasses, but is generally discouraged as there's a very high chance of exacerbating the problem. These Bromus species are very fire-adapted and tend to increase following burns. Prescribed fire should only be used by professional land managers. If this strategy is used, a burn plan, permits and training are essential. If not done correctly, prescribed burns may escape control and become wildfires, producing smoke that impairs visibility on highways, impacts air quality and human health, and damages native vegetation.
“Timing is everything,” Bean said, explaining the temperature difference between the plant and soil surface. “The grass has to be dry enough to carry fire, but not so dry that the seeds have fallen from the plant to the soil surface, where temperatures are much cooler than just a few inches up in the air where the seedheads are. Some research has shown this strategy to have been successfully used for certain invasive grasses like barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncilias), but is not recommended for Brome species.”
He expects the changing climate to lead to more invasive plant species. “Invasive plants can be more resilient during drought and can quickly bounce back when rain returns, overwhelming natives,” Bean said. “And invasive species are often key drivers of wildfires and increasing fire frequencies and intensities, which prevents the recovery of native plants.“
Why are we in this situation? Multiple factors are involved. We suppressed wildfires in our forests for 100 years, and stopped using prescribed fire as a tool for ecosystem benefits and fuel reduction. Further, we have been experiencing hotter summers (so the window for burning is wider) and we've continued to build into wildfire-prone areas with home construction, lot layout and community planning that often are not up to the fire challenge.
Is there hope? I present these as my take always, noting there is more detail to be seen at the UC ANR fire and other websites (e.g., CFSC). I was impressed by the three relatively clear battle grounds we need to attend to:
- Our homes: how we build, layout and landscape our homes
- Our communities: how we structure our neighborhoods and communities
- Our forests and beyond: how we manage (what I'll call) the forests and wildlands. Each has particular needs and opportunities
While the above focuses on prevention and management of fires, the Summit had good representation of the health sector, reminding us of the need to help humans, domestic animals and wildlife affected and traumatized by fire events.
The Summit was deemed by the participants themselves as very successful. Kudos to the many organizations who participated. There is momentum building with a genuine desire to work together to help the people of California.
Want to learn more? Contact some of our experts, who served as the chairs of the Summit coordinating committee:
David Lile, Leader, Sustainable Natural Ecosystems Strategic Initiative, UC ANR
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt County, UC ANR
Yana Valachovic, forest advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt and Del Norte County, UC ANR
Want more? See UC ANR fire
California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.
At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.
Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.
“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.
“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”
However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.
“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”
The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.
“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”
At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.
“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”
There is still much more research to be done.
“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”
The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.
She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.
The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like.
“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”
The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.
“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”
Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.
Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.
Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.
Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.
“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.
On Oct. 2, the prescribed-fire workshop will be held at Colfax Veterans Memorial Hall, 22 Sunset Circle, Colfax.
On Oct. 4, the workshop will be held at Ebbett's Pass Fire District, 1037 Blagen Road, Arnold.
The one-day workshop is designed for landowners and land managers who want to learn skills in prescribed-fire planning and implementation. In addition to reducing wildfire fuels, prescribed fire is used to control invasive plant species and for ecological restoration.
Each workshop will feature similar content including presentations on prescribed fire, including local fire history and current fire research, prescribed fire permitting and legal considerations, fire weather forecasting and online tools, air quality and smoke management, fire terms and fire behavior, burn plan development, burn unit preparation and fire tools and equipment. Instructors will also discuss models for accomplishing prescribed fire on private lands, including prescribed burn associations and CAL FIRE's Vegetation Management Program.
During the last week of October, participants in each workshop will be invited by UC Cooperative Extension to a field trip to look at lands actively managed with prescribed fire and to participate in a live training burn (weather permitting) at UC Berkeley's Blodgett Research Forest in Georgetown in El Dorado County.
For more information, contact Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension advisor, at (530) 542-2571 or email@example.com.