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Building climate change into the work of UCANR

Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog

Snowmelt fills the South Yuba River near Emigrant Gap in March 2016. Climate change is expected to reduce the Sierra snowpack, resulting in major shifts in the timing and magnitude of flows in rivers fed by snowmelt.
 

UC Cooperative Extension researchers convey need for more climate change communication and curriculum tools

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from natural and working lands is one of California's key climate change strategies. In particular, the potential for farm and rangeland soils to serve as carbon sinks has been getting a lot of attention lately in the national media — and during California Healthy Soils week, which wrapped up Dec. 7.

These are areas where UC Cooperative Extension, with its local presence across the state, is well-positioned to drive change. But as a recent survey of UCCE advisors, specialists and faculty found, while there is a good deal of climate work happening, there are also some significant obstacles.

The survey results — reported in an article by UCCE academics Ted Grantham, Faith Kearns, Susie Kocher, Leslie Roche and Tapan Pathak in the latest issue of California Agriculture — showed that while nearly 90 percent of respondents believe it is important to incorporate climate science into extension programming, only 43 percent currently do so.

Results from the UC ANR climate science, outreach, and needs survey.
Results from the UC ANR climate science, outreach, and needs survey.

Respondents pointed to a number of issues. One was "limited familiarity with climate science fundamentals." It's one thing to cite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and is being driven largely by human activity; it is another to be able to respond quickly and convincingly to detailed questions from doubters. This list from Grist, for instance, details more than 100 common arguments raised by climate skeptics, many of which have non-trivially complex answers.

Another important issue cited by respondents was "fear of alienating clientele by talking about a contentious topic," a response that highlights the importance of personal relationships in UCCE's work, and the challenge of communicating an area of science that is highly politicized.

The authors conclude: "To further increase the capacity of UC ANR staff to support the needs of their clientele and the broader public, professional development around climate science fundamentals, communication, and adaptation strategies is critical." As an initial follow-up, the UCANR climate change program team (led by authors Grantham, Kocher and Pathak) is presenting a workshop and professional development meeting for extension professionals in February.

For more from California Agriculture, the research journal of UCANR, see the full issue with articles on mapping soil salinity in the San Joaquin Valley via satellite; choosing forage seed mixes for rangeland restorationgrowing oilseeds in winter without irrigation; keeping dairy cows cool in the summer; breeding better carrots; and more.

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 11:04 AM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

Landowners Take the Lead on Prescribed Fire in Humboldt County

Reposted from the Fire Adapted Community Learning Network blog

For many years, we at the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) have fielded questions from landowners about using fire as a tool. Ranchers and forestland owners in Humboldt County have voiced interest in using fire to improve range resources, enhance wildlife habitat, reduce fuels, and beat back the trees and shrubs that are quickly engulfing their prairies and woodlands, but we have struggled to provide them with good options.

In recent history, CAL FIRE led the majority of burns on private lands in California. In the 1980s, their Vegetation Management Program (VMP) was responsible for 30,000–65,000 acres of controlled burning every year. In recent decades, however, those numbers have consistently fallen short of 10,000 acres a year — a drop in the bucket given the habitat and fuels issues that we face in California. CAL FIRE is currently revamping and reinvesting in the VMP, which is great news, but it's clear that other pathways are needed for landowners to reclaim fire as the important tool that it is. Last year, UCCE started looking into prescribed fire models from other parts of the country. We know that other regions have impressive burn programs that blow California out of the water, and in most of those places, they've been successful because landowners are doing the burning themselves — something that's almost unheard of in California.

Over the last year, we worked with private landowners in Humboldt County to plan and implement burns. In June, we burned a 19-acre grass unit on a ranch in eastern Humboldt County, treating a patch of invasive medusahead. This Halloween, we burned 140 acres of coastal rangeland invaded by shrubs and trees. For both of these burns, we hired a qualified burn boss to write the burn plan and direct the burn, but we staffed the burns entirely with volunteers, including volunteer fire department members, landowners, and other interested community members. This model of burning — where the landowners take the lead — is truly an exciting and novel development in California, and I believe it is the critical ingredient to burning at a meaningful scale.

Fire practitioner lighting a fire with the Pacific Ocean in the backgroun

“This model of burning — where the landowners take the lead — is truly an exciting and novel development in California, and I believe it is the critical ingredient to burning at a meaningful scale.” Credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

 

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 10:30 AM
  • Author: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

A Tale of Two Fires: How Wildfires Can Both Help and Harm Our Water Supply

Reposted from the California Water Blog

 

Now that summer is over and rain has returned to California, it appears that the dramatic 2017 fire season is finally behind us. The effects of fire season can linger, however, with the possibilities of erosion and polluted runoff from burned areas. Napa County has even issued suggestions for how to protect waterways in burned landscapes.

Not all news is bad when it comes to the interactions between fire and water, however. These two seemingly opposite elements can actually work in tandem under the right circumstances, to the benefit of people as well as the environment.

While the North Bay fires were filling the headlines in October, another fire 200 miles away was quietly entering its third month of burning in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. This other fire, known as the Empire Fire, was ignited by lightning. By allowing this fire to slowly burn, the park service allowed natural processes to remove fuels that could otherwise build up and lead to more dangerous fires in the future.

Smoke from the Empire Fire in Yosemite in early October 2017. (Photo: G. Boisrame)

The Empire fire burned through an area in Yosemite where fires have been allowed to burn for over 40 years, the longest period managed with such a strategy anywhere in California. Research in Yosemite and other areas shows that allowing these wilderness fires to burn can increase the amount of water stored in the soil or flowing downstream. In the winter, forest clearings opened up by fires often store deeper snow that melts later than in densely forested areas, meaning more water is released slowly in the spring and summer rather than all rushing out as floods in the winter.

In March 2016, an area with dense canopy cover has almost no snow (left) while only a few hundred feet away an area with burned trees still has snow (right). These photos are from the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite. (Photo: G. Boisrame)

Fires can also open up meadow areas that have been overgrown by forest. Although wet meadows cover only a small percentage of California's landscape, they provide important benefits to the water supply. Meadows reduce the size of floods by storing water during high runoff periods. They also help to store water for the dry summer months by holding that water like sponges and slowly releasing it.

The biggest news about fire and water, unfortunately, is usually about how burned landscapes contribute to erosion, which then pollutes streams and clogs reservoirs. When fires burn homes, pollution risks can be especially high due to the presence of hazardous chemicals. Fires can also lead to larger floods since there is less vegetation to slow water's path from rainfall to stream runoff.

These negative effects, however, usually happen because a large portion of a watershed has been completely stripped of vegetation, and plants have not been able to re-grow in time to stabilize the soil. These kinds of fires are usually caused by a combination of dense fuels and extreme weather. When fires burn under less extreme conditions (lower fuel loads, high humidity, low temperatures, and/or low wind speeds), they can clear out dead fuels and remove a small number of trees while leaving most large trees intact. After the fire, the remaining trees (as well as new growth of understory plants) often enjoy wetter soils and less competition. This increases the ability of plants to survive drought conditions.

Wildfire has always been a part of California – especially northern California and the Sierra Nevada – for as long as it has had lush vegetation and dry summers. Native Californian plants have adapted to this process. Some species, like redwoods, even depend on fire for regeneration. Native Californian people historically used fire as a tool to promote the growth of desired plants.

In the early 1900s, however, those in charge came to what seemed to be a very logical decision: to protect our homes and forests from fire, we should put out all fires as quickly as possible. Although this policy was initially very successful, a century later we have flammable forests with heavy fuel loads, as well as densely packed trees that send large amounts of water into the air through their leaves rather than allowing it to flow downstream or remain underground to be used during droughts.

Large public land managers such as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have lately been shifting away from the strategy of suppressing every single fire. Instead, lightning-ignited fires that are burning under acceptable conditions (not too windy, not too close to infrastructure, etc.) are allowed to burn and perform their natural functions of clearing fuels and thinning forests to sustainable tree densities. Prescribed fires and mechanical thinning are also used in situations where greater control is required to reduce risk.

Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California
(Photo: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

In this way, letting some fires burn today can prevent catastrophic fires from burning through dense fuel in the future. Preventing such catastrophic fires removes their threat to the water supply – as well as the potentially devastating human losses, as we saw from the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and other fires this year. Increased streamflow, snowpack, and drought resistance in burned watersheds all add to this increased water security. The water benefits of more natural forests are receiving increased attention lately, with some companies even working to set up markets for downstream water users to pay for upstream forest care.

We cannot prevent all wildfires in California. However, by understanding their role in our natural systems and incorporating them into our land management, we can benefit from them.

Gabrielle Boisramé has a PhD in environmental engineering from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied the effects of wildfire on water balance in the Sierra Nevada with Prof. Sally Thompson. She continued this work as a post-doctoral scholar with Prof. Scott Stephens, also at U.C. Berkeley.

Further reading

Boisramé, Gabrielle, S. Thompson, B. Collins, and S. Stephens.  “Managed wildfire effects on forest resilience and water in the Sierra Nevada.”

Lundquist, J. D., S. E. Dickerson-Lange, J. A. Lutz, and N. C. Cristea. Lower forest density enhances snow retention in regions with warmer winters: A global framework developed from plot-scale observations and modeling.

Neary, D., K. C. Ryan, and L. F. DeBano. Wildland fire in ecosystems: Effects of fire on soil and water.

van Wagtendonk, J. W. The history and evolution of wildland fire use.

Posted on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 1:25 PM
  • Author: Gabrielle BoisramĂ©

The smart harvest of Christmas trees leads to a healthier forest

Reposted from UCANR News

Most California forests have too many trees, so carefully selecting pines, cedars or firs in natural areas to enjoy for the Christmas season is good for the mountain landscape.

“It's a great idea to cut down young trees for fire safety and vegetation management,” said Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor in the Central Sierra. “The earlier you do it, the less work it is to manage the trees in the long run.”

After 100 years of fire suppression, most California forests - like this one in the Stanislaus National Forest - have too many trees. (Photo: USDA)
 

Kocher lives and works in Lake Tahoe. Every year, she gathers her family and friends to find forest-fresh Christmas trees in the Lake Tahoe Management Area. Of the 18 national forests in California, 11 allow Christmas tree cutting with the purchase of a $10 permit. (See the list below.) People who own mountain cabins or other forestland may invite family and friends to help thin trees on their personal property, which can then be used for the holiday season. However, never harvest trees on public or private property without permission.

“We have a lot of small trees on public and private forest lands because of fire suppression,” Kocher said. “They're all competing with one another and many will ultimately die. A smart harvest of Christmas trees can improve the forest by helping with thinning.”

A group of friends and family gather in the forest to harvest Christmas trees. (Photo: Yolanda Tuckerman)

People with permits to cut down Christmas trees in national forests must follow strict guidelines. Follow the same guidelines on private land to ensure a smart harvest. Before chopping down the tree, be sure it is within 10 feet of another living tree, the trunk is no more than 6 inches in diameter and the stump left behind is no higher than 6 inches off the ground. Some national forests limit the harvest to certain tree species.

Despite committing to these guidelines when obtaining a permit, Kocher said she has seen some Christmas tree harvesters make ill-advised choices.

“Some people are too lazy to find a good tree and will cut the top off a large tree,” Kocher said. “You can be driving around and see what looks like a poor old Dr. Suess tree, which is what grows from the ugly remnant left behind in the forest.”

Such irresponsible Christmas tree cutting has led some forests to discontinue Christmas tree harvesting for personal use.

A child with a Christmas tree selected from the forest. (Photo: USDA)
 

There has been ongoing debate about whether a fake tree or real tree is more environmentally friendly, but for Kocher, there is no question.

“Fresh real trees are a renewable resource, fake trees are not,” she said. “It's an agricultural product. You can contribute to a local farmers' income or you can help thin the forest. Picking and bringing home a fresh tree, decorating it and smelling it defines the season for me. Without it, I don't think it would feel like Christmas.”

U.S. National Forests in California that allow Christmas tree cutting with a permit are:

Read more:

Purchasing real Christmas trees from tree lots in town or at choose-and-cut tree farms is a way to support farms and economies in rural areas and contribute to environmental sustainability.

 

Posted on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 12:13 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnertte

Burning Question: Can California Prevent the Next Wildfire?

Reposted from California Magazine

 

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are now in the post mortem phase of the North Bay fire storms, asking what could've been done to avoid the tragedy and what can be done in the future to prevent similar conflagrations. Discussions largely have focused on tighter zoning and fire ordinances. Those are appropriate areas to focus on, say many wildfire experts, but municipalities and counties inevitably face pressures that make effective wildfire risk reduction difficult.

“As things stand, cities and municipal or regional agencies — like the East Bay Regional Park District or the East Bay Municipal Utility District — are responsible for dealing with fuel buildup and other potential fire safety issues,” says Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of landscape architecture and environmental planning. “Cites particularly are supposed to do annual inspections, notify people if there's a problem, and then take enforcement actions, including hiring contractors to do clean-up work and billing the homeowner. But people get resentful when local authorities try to vigorously enforce safety regulations. They bring their own pressures to bear, and then necessary things simply aren't done.”

Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at Cal, also believes city officials are often unable or unwilling to enforce strict fire ordinance options. The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, Stephens says. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk, such as the scorched Fountaingrove complex in Santa Rosa, and fire safety measures are either minimized or ignored altogether.

As Santa Rosa newspaper columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron has written, the Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa could've been predicted; in 1964, another wildfire followed almost the exact same path. But that earlier fire burned mostly forest and agricultural land. Fountaingrove's pricey developments weren't put in until the 1990s, rammed through by local officials anxious for the tax revenues, and in apparent violation of an ordinance that proscribed development on ridge tops overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley.

Along with mushrooming development, ongoing climate change is resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons, affecting wildfire behavior in unexpected and catastrophic ways. That was evident in the Santa Rosa fires with the destruction of Coffey Park, a large tract of middle-class homes in western Santa Rosa far from any forested areas.

“Coffey Park was a huge surprise for me,” says Stephens. “I've never seen anything like it, and I had never expected to see anything like it. But you had this terrible confluence of events. Incredibly powerful, dry winds swept down eastward-facing canyons, and threw burning embers west clear across the Highway 101 corridor into Coffey Park, where they ignited dry leaves and other fuels. Now that we know these kinds of scenarios can play out, we need to prepare for them.”

How? McBride believes that it would be wise to divest cities of some of their regulatory authority and place it with the state. State agencies, he observes, are largely immune to both the blandishments and intimidation of local development bigwigs and are motivated by larger issues than municipal and county tax bases. He points to the California Coastal Commission as a promising template. Prior to the Coastal Commission's formation in 1972, development pressures along the state's incomparably beautiful coastline were increasing dramatically. It seemed certain that California's future would include a solid wall of strip malls and gimcrack bungalow developments from Crescent City to San Diego.

“Before the Coastal Commission was authorized, each coastal city planned for its own best interests in terms of zoning, and those interests weren't necessarily aligned with coastal preservation or access,” says McBride. “Once the commission started overseeing things, though, we got much better zoning and oversight of the coast. Most of the coast is now preserved. We avoided the ‘Miamification' of California that otherwise would've been inevitable. A similar agency for wildfire regulations and enforcement – essentially a California Fire Commission – might make similar progress in community fire protection in terms of zoning and enforcing clean-up and defensible space requirements.”

Stephens agrees with McBride that state authority is likely to be more effective than local agencies in establishing and enforcing effective fire regulations, and suggests that the University of California could also play a role.

“We have to educate as well as enforce, and in fact, education and cooperation at the community level may be the best way to accomplish fire safety goals,” Stephens says. “One of the tragic things about the Santa Rosa fires is that most of the fatalities were older people: 60 and older. People in neighborhoods in fire-vulnerable areas should meet regularly to identify older neighbors who may need help in evacuating, identify escape routes for different scenarios, and discuss risk reduction measures they could take.”

As far as Cal goes, continues Stephens, “UC Cooperative Extension [under the university's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources] maintains [agricultural and conservation] programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators. We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn't be very expensive.”

Both Stephens and McBride think certain types of ornamental trees should be minimized — even eliminated — from the urban landscape. Grasslands and native oak savannas burn readily, says McBride, but at a low intensity; grass fires can usually be countered relatively easily by firefighters. But some exotic trees, particularly eucalyptus and Monterey pine, are impregnated with oils and resins that burn explosively, often producing flame lengths of 200 feet or more and creating “spot” fires miles from primary blazes, making effective firefighting impossible.

“We really need to look at changing the landscape [in suburban and urban areas],” McBride says, “and that includes banning eucalyptus and other problematic trees as much as possible.”

McBride says some communities are approaching fire risk in a progressive and effective way, and they should be emulated.

“Landscaping at Sea Ranch [on the Sonoma Coast] largely consists of native grassland and prairie, and that provides a lot of security for the homes,” says McBride. “They also plow firebreaks throughout the development every year. They do have stands of native bishop pine, which burns with high intensity, but they prune and thin them to break up the fuel ladders, and that minimizes fire risk.”

The homes at Sea Ranch are modeled on the old barns of the ranchers who originally settled the Sonoma Coast, another factor that reduces fire risk, observes McBride. 

“They don't have eves or roof overhangs, which is a very wise design feature in wildfire-prone areas,” says McBride. “Overhangs trap burning cinders driven by the wind, and encourage fires either on roofs and walls or in attics.”

Indeed, says McBride, modern architects and urban planners can learn about a lot about minimizing fire risk by studying some of the historic structures from California's past.

“Windows are a big entry point for heat,” says McBride. “In fact, heat from wildfires can transfer directly through windows and ignite walls opposite the windows without the glass breaking. When you go through the old Gold Rush towns in the Sierra, you see these stone buildings with big iron shutters that could be closed over the windows. That was a fire prevention strategy, and it was very effective. We don't need to make shutters from heavy iron sheets, of course, but we could certainly design shutters from modern materials for the large plate glass windows that are so popular in modern homes.  The [Forty-Niners] really understood the risks of wildfires, and they designed their buildings with fires in mind. We need to do the same thing.”

Posted on Monday, November 6, 2017 at 11:22 AM
  • Author: Glen Martin

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