Posts Tagged: wildfire
Current wildfire policy can't adequately protect people, homes and ecosystems from the longer, hotter fire seasons climate change is causing, according to a new paper led by the University of Colorado Boulder.
Efforts to extinguish every blaze and reduce the buildup of dead wood and forest undergrowth are becoming increasingly inadequate on their own. Instead, the authors—a team of wildfire experts—urge policymakers and communities to embrace policy reform that will promote adaptation to increasing wildfire and warming.
“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said lead author Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We're learning our old tools aren't enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”
This means accepting wildfire as an inevitable part of the landscape, states the new paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The western U.S. has seen a 2-degrees-Celsius rise in annual average temperature and lengthening of the fire season by almost three months since the 1970s; both elements contribute to what the authors refer to as the “new era of western wildfires.” This pattern of bigger, hotter fires, along with the influx of homes into fire-prone areas—over 2 million since 1990—has made wildfire vastly more costly and dangerous.
“For a long time, we've thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” said Schoennagel, who also is an adjunct faculty member in CU Boulder's Geography Department. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we're going to have to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”
As part of this adaptation process, the authors advocate for actions that may be unpopular, such as allowing more fires to burn largely unimpeded in wildland areas and intentionally setting more fires, or “controlled burns,” to reduce natural fuels like undergrowth in more developed areas. Both these steps would reduce future risk and help ecosystems adapt to increasing wildfire and warming.
They also argue for reforming federal, state and local policies that have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to develop in fire-prone areas. Currently, federal taxpayers pick up the tab for preventing and fighting western wildfires—a cost that has averaged some $2 billion a year in recent years. If states and counties were to bear more of that cost, it would provide incentive to adopt planning efforts and fire-resistant building codes that would reduce risk.
Re-targeting forest thinning efforts is another beneficial reform suggested by the authors. The federal government has spent some $5 billion since 2006 on thinning dense forests and removing fuel from some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of land, often in remote areas. But these widespread efforts have done little to reduce record-setting fires. Directing thinning projects to particularly high-risk areas, including communities in fire-prone regions and forests in particularly dry areas, would increase adaptation to wildfire, the authors said.
Additionally, as climate change forces species to move their ranges, some may vanish entirely. Familiar landscapes will disappear, a fact that makes many people balk. But such changes, including those caused by wildfire, could be necessary for the environment in the long run, says Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist and a co-author on the paper.
“We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” Moritz said. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”
Critical to making a policy of adaptation successful, said Schoennagel, will be education and changing people's perception of wildfire. “We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are. We've tried to control fire, but it's not a control we can maintain. Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”
Workshop aims to spark women's ambition to become leaders in fire management
Shortly after her son was born, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley was promoted to fire chief of a national forest. For the first six months, she brought the baby to work.
“Most of my colleagues were men between 40 and 50. I was 31,” recalled Pincha-Tulley, who was the first woman to achieve the rank of U.S. Forest Service fire chief in California. “My second son was 6 weeks old and nursing. They had no idea what to do. They absolutely freaked out.”
While great efforts are being made to recruit women into fire management, women hold only 10 percent of wildland fire positions and 7 percent of leadership roles. A new training focuses on grooming women to lead in fire management.
To encourage to women build stronger networks and pursue leadership roles in fire management, Pincha-Tulley, who retired in 2015 after 36 years with the U.S. Forest Service, will be speaking from experience on gender roles at the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) in Northern California. She will also serve as deputy incident commander for the event.
WHO: Participants from 12 states and four countries, including 38 women and six men, who work for federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribes and universities. Organizers include Pincha-Tulley, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council; and Amanda Stamper, The Nature Conservancy fire management officer in Oregon, among others. Guest speakers include Sarah McCaffrey, USDA Forest Service research social scientist; Johnny Stowe, forester/biologist/yoga teacher/fire manager of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources; Gwen Sanchez, deputy fire chief for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and many more.
WHAT: WTREX participants will serve in qualified and trainee firefighting positions to implement prescribed burns throughout the region. They will complete pre- and post-fire monitoring, train with equipment, practice fireline leadership skills and learn about local fire ecology and fire management.
WHERE: The training will take place in Trinity and Shasta counties. Sites include open prairies, oak woodlands, mixed-conifer forests and chaparral. Field trips will be made to areas burned in recent wildfires and to prescribed fire and fuels treatment project sites.
WHEN: Oct. 19-28, beginning in Hayfork, ending in Redding. Burning and other outdoor activities will depend on the weather.
DETAILS: The 12-day hands-on prescribed fire training, modeled after prescribed fire training events that take place across the country, will include beginners to seasoned professionals. The difference is that most of the participants are women.
“I'm excited for this event because it will transcend the usual TREX emphasis on cooperative burning and learning,” Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UC Cooperative Extension wildland fire advisor, who is part of the team organizing the event. “It will explicitly recognize and reinforce the importance of female perspective and leadership in fire management, and provide a supportive environment for women and men to understand and elevate the need for diversity in fire management—not only in numbers, but also in approach.”
Based at the Tahoe National Forest, Pincha-Tulley oversaw 1.6 million acres, including fire suppression, prescribed fire and aviation operations.
As the only woman among the 17 national Incident Commanders, Pincha-Tulley looked for allies and mentors. In 2005, the year she was promoted to Type 1 Incident Commander, she led her team to Mississippi to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was essentially invisible to the Air Force generals and Navy admirals until she put general stars on her uniform. A NASA director, a man, coached her, saying, “Are you going to let them take over the meeting? You're their peer, make yourself one.” He proceeded to mentor her, based on NASA's training for women in management.
“When you look for those people who can help, you begin to attract them,” Pincha-Tulley said. One of the primary goals of the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange is to connect women who work in fire, providing them with new networking and mentoring opportunities.
WTREX is co-hosted by eight primary partners as well as additional collaborators. These include the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, the Fire Learning Network, the Cultural Fire Management Council, the Watershed Research and Training Center, the Bureau of Land Management, the USDA Forest Service, the California Fire Science Consortium, University of California Cooperative Extension, and other collaborators.
WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resiliency through Collaboration: Landscapes, Learning and Restoration, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior.
The prescribed burn was carefully orchestrated by CalFire. Wide swaths of vegetation had been cleared around the 7-acre and 9-acre study areas and the weather carefully monitored before a truck-mounted “terra torch” sent streams of flammable gel into the brush, igniting a raging fire.
The fires at Hopland set up a study for a UC Berkeley doctoral student researching post-fire nitrogen cycling, provided a training ground for new CalFire recruits who will be battling blazes in the summer, and launched a new partnership between HREC and CalFire.
Chaparral shrublands, which cover about 7 percent of California natural lands, are vital California ecosystems. Chaparral contains 25 percent of the state's endemic plant and animal diversity. Nature and Native Americans burned chaparral at regular intervals for millennia, providing fresh new growth for foraging animals.
“After a chaparral fire, you typically get a flush of ephemeral wildflowers, some of which are very rare, which you haven't seen for 30 years or since the last fire,” said Lindsey Hendricks-Franco, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who is conducting research at Hopland. “The amazing thing about these plants is their seeds can survive in the seedbank for decades. Then heat or smoke or an open canopy can stimulate them to germinate. It can be beautiful.”
The most abundant plant in Hopland chaparral, chamise, is barely fazed by fire. The plant's underground burl will soon sprout after a fire, and chamise seeds readily germinate in ash-enriched soil.
To understand the role of nitrogen cycling in the post-fire chaparral ecosystem, Hendricks-Franco and her research staff clambered over dense brush before the fire to collect soil samples and place ingenious heat sensors that document the burn temperature. After the fire, she returned to each site to collect post-treatment soil samples and heat sensors.
“It's a challenge to put sensors in a fire this hot. Most heat sensors are destroyed by the intense heat,” Hendricks-Franco said. “I painted four- by four-inch tiles with a variety of heat-sensitive paints. The paints change color at different temperatures. When I collect the tiles, they will give me an idea about the temperatures reached in the fire.”
The controlled burn at Hopland was the first step in rebuilding a partnership with CalFire, said Kim Rodrigues, who has served as the facility's director since 2014. The areas burned in April were previously burned by CalFire for fire research in the 1990s.
“We've been here since 1951 offering applied and relevant research,” Rodrigues said. “It's primarily research on ecosystem management in oak woodlands, grassland and chaparral. Fire on the landscape is a management tool.”
The 5,800-acre research facility is one of nine such centers managed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in a variety of California ecosystems, from high desert near the Oregon border, low desert in the Imperial Valley, Sierra Nevada forests and San Joaquin Valley farmland. Hopland is also home to 500 sheep.
Hopland CalFire battalion chief Michael Maynard was the incident commander at the April controlled burns, which he said also fulfilled CalFire objectives.
“It's good to be back here to join up with the University of California,” Maynard said. “The fire falls into our realm of training and expertise and we're helping their realm of expertise, which is research. There are 10 plots on this specific research project, so we'll be back soon.”
Maynard brought in newly hired firefighters for training on setting and controlling a prescribed burn.
“It's important that we brush up on our skills. We have seasonal employees that have hired on early and are participating. So the all-around training value is incredible and pays off later in the summer,” Maynard said.
CalFire will be back at Hopland in the fall to implement another chaparral burn so Hendricks-Franco can compare the fate of nitrogen in areas that burn before the hot, dry summer season to areas that burn in the fall and are followed by rain.
View scenes from the controlled burn in the video below:
Lake County community groups have raised nearly $60,000 to reforest the areas ravaged by last September's Valley Fire. The funds have allowed the greenhouse planting of 100,000 native conifer seedlings that will be ready for distribution in time for the winter 2016 planting season. The Valley Fire, which started in Cobb on Sept. 12, burned more than 76,000 acres.
In October, Greg Giusti, UC ANR Cooperative Extension director and forestry advisor in Lake County, and Korinn Woodard, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS), began to estimate the numbers of seeds needed for the first year of planting.
Two local entities have provided funds to jumpstart the much-needed reforestation in the areas affected by fire. #LakeCountyRising is a collaborative fundraising effort of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, Lake County Winery Association and Lake County Wine Alliance. The Lake Area Rotary Club Association (LARCA) is a nonprofit foundation that comprises the four Rotary Clubs in Lake County – Lakeport, Middletown, Clearlake and Kelseyville. Together they have allocated the nearly $60,000 to the East Lake Resource Conservation District (RCD) to get the seedlings planted and the program in place.
By collaborating with the El Dorado/Georgetown Divide RCD's established native-plant seed collection and propagation program, the funds have resulted in the greenhouse planting of 100,000 native conifers – mostly ponderosa pine, but also some Douglas fir and sugar pine. The species available are suitable for higher elevation burned areas such as Cobb Mountain.
“Getting our forest lands replanted as soon as possible is a cornerstone in the healing process of the spirit of these communities,” said Andy Peterson, chair of the LARCA Fire Relief Committee. “The LARCA Fire Relief Committee identified that as a top priority from day one and we are extremely pleased to be partnering with these other agencies to get that done.”
#LakeCountyRising representatives were interested in helping to support the effort, but any donation would need to go to an established organization responsible for the program. At the same time, LARCA had also identified funding for reforestation efforts as a major priority.
“An experienced agency was needed to lead this effort, and our board agreed that we had the experience and resources to make it happen, if funds were available,” said Charlotte Griswold, East Lake RCD president.
This is where #LakeCountyRising and LARCA stepped up to the plate. Timing was of the essence, as seeds would need to be purchased in time for winter planting in order to have seedling stock available by late 2016.
“It was evident there was urgency, so we presented it to our steering committee and they wholeheartedly supported it,” said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, one of the three organizations involved in the #LakeCountyRising fundraising effort.
“The intention is to make conifer seedlings available for planting each winter for the next few years at a pace that will align with the community rebuilding process and demand,” Griswold said. “We expect to work with NRCS to start taking advance orders before the end of April and to partner with the ag and natural resources programs at area high schools to organize several community planting projects.”
“The loosened soil and ash can move quickly under proper storm conditions,” said Greg Giusti, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension forestry advisor. “Property owners should take immediate action.”
A longstanding practice in the West has been spreading grass seed after a fire, however, the seed is slow to germinate and grow during the cold months that follow fire season.
“Seeding is generally ineffective,” Giusti said. “The seed simply moves and erodes with the soil and ash following an initial rain event.”
After losing a home, homeowners may feel the need to clean up their property. However, leaving woody debris, downed trees and limbs will arrest soil movement. Stumps and standing dead trees also help protect the soil.
“The roots are still in the soil and will help hold it in place,” Giusti said. “As long as they don't pose a danger, trees should be left in place.”
Spreading rice straw or weed-free hay on the ground is another way to protect the soil from erosion. Whole bales of hay can be placed in natural drainages to slow water movement and reduce erosion. Straw wattles – long tubes of compressed straw encased in jute or another material – may be laid out across a slope and secured with stakes.
“I suggest landowners focus on areas of their property where they can have the greatest positive effect,” Giusti said. “You can't cover a whole hillside with straw. People can only do what they can do.”
An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.