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 will now host workshops to help families and businesses recover from the firestorm and rebuild in a way that is more resilient to fire. Fire resiliency will start at her own home.
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, 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.
The thing is, though, it's not. Firefighters and researchers alike have a pretty solid understanding of why some houses are more vulnerable to wildfire than others. The real challenge ultimately lies in whether those with the power to act on that knowledge will do so.
It is commonly thought that it takes direct flame to spread a fire, but this isn't always the case. Small embers are instead often the culprits that begin house fires during wildfires. These small bits of burning debris can be lofted long distances by the wind. They can then end up igniting landscaping materials like combustible mulch, or enter homes through vulnerable spots – gutters teeming with debris, unscreened attic vents, open or broken windows, old roofs with missing shingles. Once there, the embers smolder and can ultimately catch a house on fire.
In California, iconic winds work to create ideal ember-driven ignition conditions. The Santa Ana winds in Southern California – known as the Diablo winds in northern part of the state – have generally followed fairly predictable seasonal and spatial patterns. “Red flag” fire warnings are often issued on dry days when the winds will be particularly fierce.
While humans can't really control as much as we'd like to believe when it comes to disasters, we do have the ability to control where and how we build. For decades, most wildfire education and enforcement campaigns have focused on creating so-called defensible space where landscaping vegetation is carefully selected and located on the property, as well as routinely maintained.
This is not enough, however. Officials in California – as in other fire-prone states – need to help homeowners, local governments and builders to understand there are also specific, science-based steps that can be taken to make structures themselves less vulnerable to fire.
Researchers recommend what is known as a “coupled approach” to home and building survival. This means the development and maintenance of an effective defensible space, as well as the careful selection of construction materials and correct installation to ensure that, for example, there are not gaps in siding or roofing that would allow embers to penetrate.
Decision-makers also need to be willing to take on the most taboo topic of them all: recognizing that there are places houses simply shouldn't be built, or rebuilt, at all.
(Not) too urban to burn
Earlier this year, California had the first strong winter rains after many years of drought. Now, after a typically dry summer, the state is experiencing a dry start to the rainy season, particularly in the south. At the same time, people have continued to build into places known to burn regularly. The result of this confluence of events has been fires deeply affecting many thousands of people up and down the state.
California residents are largely aware that not all fire is bad, and that many of our ecosystems thrive on regular fire. It's not something that we should, or ever could, hope to fully contain. Our only chance is learning, really and truly and finally learning, to live with it.
In that vein, the state must look long and hard at some of the steps that have been the hardest to take – not building in places that are particularly fire-prone and matching building codes with a modern understanding of wildfire risk – if there is to be any hope of alleviating the human suffering these fires cause.
We are being invited to free ourselves from the notion that wildfire destruction is random and unpredictable, and that therefore there is nothing to be done about it. As the fire season in California gets longer, the winds worsen and wildfires move into areas once deemed too urbanized to burn, maybe the knowledge about what makes houses burn can finally be put to good use.
Faith Kearns, Academic Coordinator, California Institute for Water Resources, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
It's Deja Vu all over again
- Yogi Berra
Once again I'm asked to provide some perspective on yet another catastrophic situation affecting the North Coast. In 2015, it was the Valley Fire. In 2016, it was the Clayton Fire. This year there are so many fires I'm having difficulty recalling their names...14 at last count.
The cause for these 2017 conflagrations will be apparent once the elements of the fires are assessed. Tornadic winds hitting 50 mph Sunday, October 8, will most likely have started most if not all. Winds of this intensity can ignite fires by impacting electrical infrastructure by breaking lines and causing transformers to explode. The cause of the fires will come out in time. Thick stands of vegetation, the result of mid-20th century land management practices, years of fire suppression, homes built in rural locations in steep terrain, old legacy roads too small to accommodate modern fire-fighting equipment, and exurban development without the necessary resources to address fire prevention. All this leads to almost impossible conditions to arrest a fire being pushed by wind.
I would argue there is no better fire-fighting force in the world than those found in California. What these men and women do is nothing short of extraordinary. But they are faced with an impossible task in the absence of an equally focused program of fire prevention.
What have I learned from Lake County as a result of the Valley and Clayton fires?
The Lake County fires have provided insights that can help with the recovery and reconstruction of the most recent events. Specifically, resources must be secured to assist landowners and communities in better incorporating fire resilience into local rural and suburban planning and projects, to prepare for the eventuality of another fire by creating and maintaining conditions that allow the fire to be controlled before getting out of hand. Admittedly, the recent fires were wind-driven events that became uncontrollable. However, these fires are the exception to the rule. There are hundreds of fires a year in California that are quickly controlled and extinguished. Fire resiliency must incorporate plans and projects that can address less catastrophic conditions, in the hopes of arresting a fire before it becomes a conflagration.
None of this will be easy or inexpensive. But neither is fighting hundreds of thousand acres of wildland fires every year.
Admittedly, the weather conditions responsible for these fires may negate the best plans and efforts. But again, those conditions are the exception to the rule.
For every acre burned this year there are ten more, in the same condition, that didn't, providing next year's opportunity for a conflagration. The road forward to address California's wildland fire threat is long, and full of twists and turns. But as with all long journeys, each begins with the first step.
Greg Giusti is a UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus specializing in forests and wildlands ecology.
Preventing embers from getting inside may save homes
Photos and video of the Northern California communities that have been hit by wildfires this week show buildings reduced to ash. How could so many homes and businesses burn so quickly in Wine Country fires? Many houses that burned to the ground in the Northern California fires likely burned from the inside out, says Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forest advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Red hot embers carried on the wind can enter the attic via the venting. “In the case of the wind-driven fires on October 8, these fires created ember storms that blasted little coals into everything in their pathway,” Valachovic said. These embers also create small spot fires near the home that fuel new sources of embers.
Weather played a large role in these fires and generated a fire storm of embers that ignited grass, shrubs, trees and anything in its path. “While the landscape can be the fuse, the homes really can be the most burnable part of the landscape,” Valachovic said. “These embers likely lodged in the small spaces and openings of homes and buildings. A common location is for the embers to enter via attic venting or HVAC systems distributing little fires into the buildings.
“Embers also landed on receptive leaves, outside furniture, and other flammable materials outside the buildings that created fires adjacent to the buildings. Once enough buildings were engulfed in fire, the radiant heat of each building fire led to exposures on the neighboring buildings, creating a house-to-house burn environment.”
Residents can reduce the risk of embers setting their house on fire by removing dry plants around the structure.
“These fires remind us that everyone in California could help the fire situation by managing the vegetation, leaves in the gutters and decks, newspaper piles, brooms and other flammable sources near to their houses now before they get the evacuation call,” Valachovic said. “If you are likely to have to evacuate soon, temporarily covering or sealing up the vents with metal tape or plywood can help harden your home to an ember storm.”
Steve Quarles, UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus, who spent his career studying fire behavior on building materials and around homes, created an online Homeowner's Wildfire Mitigation Guide at http://ucanr.edu/sites/Wildfire. Quarles, who now does research for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, demonstrates how embers can ignite and quickly engulf a house in flames in a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvbNOPSYyss. After the 3-minute mark, video shows embers drifting up and flying through a screened vent into the house, where they could ignite combustible materials in the attic resulting in fire starting on the inside of the home.
“If you have time to prepare your home, use the wildfire last-minute check list at http://disastersafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IBHS-Wildfire-Last-Minute-Checklist.pdf,” Valachovic said.
Valachovic has co-authored publications in home survival in wildfire prone areas http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8393.pdf and how landscape plants near homes can create more vulnerability to wildfire http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8228.pdf.
Once these fires are extinguished, a more detailed analysis will be possible.
“Past wildfire events have shown that this is the common way homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI) burn, and this scenario was likely translated to the urban environment,” she said.
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.”