Ecology, Climate Change and Related News

Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Tag Archive: fire

  1. Ice, Fire, and a Rare Bird: Point Blue eNews

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    February 2018  Point Blue e-News Update
     Plump Adélie Penguin chick with parent at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Photo by Suzie Winquist Point Blue.
    Adélie Penguin chick with parent at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Photo: Suzie Winquist/Point Blue.
    Science Mystery: Plump Chicks and More Penguins
    Our Antarctic biologists were heartened to observe extra plump Adélie Penguin chicks in the 600,000 bird colony at Cape Crozier this year. Plump chicks mean that parent penguins are finding abundant food even though their colony is growing and sea ice is fluctuating due to climate change. A bigger colony usually means more competition out in the hunting waters. Adélies need consistent sea ice to find krill and small fish to eat. So, how are parents finding more food this year? Our scientists will be diving in to our 22 years of data and having lively discussion as to what might be causing this: less competition from overfishing of toothfish? More krill for some other reason? More sea ice in key areas? Fitter parents? Stay tuned for potential conclusions and learn more about our Antarctic program.
     Post fire forest. Brendan McGarry
    Post-fire forest. Photo: Brendan McGarry.
    Fire Resiliency
    In the wake of the North Bay fires, Point Blue, along with many other agencies and non-profits, joined the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to produce Living in a Fire-Adapted Landscape. The publication outlines short-term recovery actions and longer-term strategies for watershed resiliency in Sonoma County.The publication’s authors recommend further study of affected lands to inform future actions, implanting practices such as land conservation and fuel-load management, and permanently protecting a network of lands that support biological diversity in high risk areas.This document will be foundational for a new Natural Resources position in the County’s newly-formed Office of Recovery and Resiliency and also serves as a guide for those living in other fire-adapted ecosystems. Congratulations to Point Blue’s Gina Graziano, Jay Roberts, John Parodi, and Melissa Pitkin—all Sonoma County residents themselves— for their contributions to this guide.
     Hermit Thrush Swainson's Thrush Note buffy color in face of Swainson's Photo by Krista Fanucchi Point Blue
    Left: Hermit Thrush; Right: Swainson’s Thrush. Notice the buffy color in the face of the Swainson’s Thrush.
    Photo: Krista Fanucchi/Point Blue.
    Climate change and unusual bird sightings: changing phenology?

    During our regular bird-banding activities, we captured a Swainson’s Thrush at our Pine Gulch research site in the Bolinas Lagoon Open Space Preserve on December 21st. This is the latest date we have ever captured this species in our 51-year monitoring history! While its close cousin, the Hermit Thrush, is a common wintering species in Marin County, the Swainson’s Thrush is a long distance migrant whose winter range extends from Mexico into South America. Swainson’s Thrushes are common here in the spring and summer breeding season but are typically all off to their winter grounds by October. Although this one capture may not be indicative of a trend, this could be an early signal of shifting timing, the type that we predict would result from a changing climate. Stay in touch with our Marin County monitoring activities by following our Palomarin Blog.

    In other rare bird siting news thanks to our warming world:

    • On September 8, one of our Farallon volunteers, Adam Searcy, photographed a Kermadec Petrel briefly flying around the lighthouse in the fog. This wasn’t just a Farallon first, but the first recorded sighting for California and the continental United States (away from Hawaii). This species is normally found in the Central and Southern Pacific Ocean. Read more in our recent Los Farallones blog post.
    • On November 3, our partners from the Channel Islands National Park and the California Institute of Environmental Studies observed four Brown Booby nests, including one nest with chicks, verifying the first documented nesting of Brown Boobies on the Channel Islands and in the contiguous United States. Brown Boobies normally breed in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the Pacific and are not common in California. Ironically, Point Blue just finished assessing the Channel Islands monitoring program where we recommended using Brown Boobies as a potential climate change indicator species.
  2. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk

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    • Approximately one in three houses and one in ten hectares are now in the WUI. These WUI growth trends will exacerbate wildfire problems in the future.

    March 12 2018 read full ScienceDaily article here

    The so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where homes and wild vegetation meet, increased rapidly from 1990 to 2010, adding a collective area larger than the state of Washington across the contiguous United States. While the regrowth of vegetation into previously developed or agricultural land accounted for a portion of this increase, 97 percent of the growth in the WUI was attributable to homebuilding in areas that were once sparsely settled. This is the first study to establish the primary cause behind increases in the WUI in the United States.

    The increase in the WUI also affects the spread of invasive species, pollution, and the spread of disease between pets and wildlife, scientists say. Denser housing is also associated with more human ignition of wildfires.

    Combined with the increase in conditions favorable for wildfires to spread linked to climate change, the increase in the WUI — reflecting the growing number of homes susceptible to burning and their role in fire ignition — is expected to lead to more severe wildfire seasons. The researchers recommend a suite of land management practices to limit the negative effects of expanding WUI, such as vegetation management, use of appropriate building materials and zoning regulations informed by wildfire risk.

    Abstract: The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where houses and wildland vegetation meet or intermingle, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced. Here we report that the WUI in the United States grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of both number of new houses (from 30.8 to 43.4 million; 41% growth) and land area (from 581,000 to 770,000 km2; 33% growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States. The vast majority of new WUI areas were the result of new housing (97%), not related to an increase in wildland vegetation. Within the perimeter of recent wildfires (1990–2015), there were 286,000 houses in 2010, compared with 177,000 in 1990. Furthermore, WUI growth often results in more wildfire ignitions, putting more lives and houses at risk. Wildfire problems will not abate if recent housing growth trends continue.

  3. Wildfire management of CA’s chaparral ecosystem can devastate wild bird populations and fire-risk reduction is only temporary- new study

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    • Although bird species diversity and abundances rebounded after one-time use of prescribed fires, most birds never returned to masticated sites. Mastication reduced the number of bird species by about 50 percent and reduced total numbers of birds by about 60 percent.
    • “The best available science tells us that managing chaparral imperils wildlife and increases fire risk…Our study continues to build the case that we should live densely and away from chaparral.”

    February 14, 2018 University of Arizona read full ScienceDaily article here

    On the tail of California’s most destructive and expensive year of firefighting ever, it might seem obvious that vegetation removal would reduce the risk of such a year happening again. But scientists are showing that in chaparral, California’s iconic shrubland ecosystem, management can devastate wild bird populations and that fire-risk reduction is only temporary.

    …Chaparral is a fire-prone ecosystem in North America that is widespread throughout California. Although it makes up only 6 percent of California by area, it contains one-quarter of the species found in the California Floristic Province, a global biodiversity hotspot. To date, no other studies have compared the effects of different fire management types on California chaparral wildlife….

    …Although bird species diversity and abundances rebounded after one-time use of prescribed fires, most birds never returned to masticated sites. Mastication reduced the number of bird species by about 50 percent and reduced total numbers of birds by about 60 percent….

    …Much of California’s chaparral is burning too frequently to replace itself because of human-caused ignitions and longer wildfire seasons due to climate change. According to Scott Stephens, the principal investigator of the experiment at UC Berkeley, too-frequent fire can cause chaparral to be replaced by invasive grasses, which can increase fire risk.

    This leads to other problems. Grasses don’t hold soils in place, so deadly mudslides may follow wildfires, such as those in Santa Barbara, California….

    …”The best available science tells us that managing chaparral imperils wildlife and increases fire risk,” she said. “Our study continues to build the case that we should live densely and away from chaparral.”

    Erica A. Newman, Jennifer B. Potts, Morgan W. Tingley, Charles Vaughn, Scott L. Stephens. Chaparral bird community responses to prescribed fire and shrub removal in three management seasons. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.13099

  4. Living in a fire-adapted landscape: Priorities for watershed resiliency in Sonoma County’s natural and working lands

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    February 12 2018 Living in a Fire-Adapted Landscape

    In the wake of the North Bay fires, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed the Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District to convene a coalition of organizations and agencies to identify short-term actions for watershed recovery and long-term strategies for watershed resiliency. This Watershed Collaborative included the active engagement and participation of nearly 160 individuals representing over 65 local nonprofits [including Point Blue Conservation Science], RCDs and community groups, as well as state and federal agencies. Together, this group developed a set of short-term recovery and long-term strategies for watershed resiliency. The report, Living in a Fire-Adapted Landscape, was delivered to our Board in January, and will be a foundational document for the Natural Resources position in the County’s newly-formed Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

    THE REPORT: Living in a fire-adapted landscape: Priorities for resiliency in Sonoma County’s natural and working lands (pdf) Jan 2018

    Overall Priorities
    1. Support landowners and land managers in assessing and mitigating watershed impacts from the 2017 North Bay fires.
    2. Increase community awareness and preparedness for living in fire-prone landscapes.
    3. Evaluate the response of natural and working lands to the fires to inform recovery, vegetation management, and fire-preparedness efforts.
    4. Identify and implement practices – including land conservation, fuel-load
    management – that maximize the resiliency of natural and working lands to
    climate change and future disasters.
    5. Ensure long-term attention to community and ecosystem resiliency through policy, long-term funding, and established working groups.
    6. Permanently protect a network of lands that support biological diversity through changing climate conditions and prevent development in high risk areas.
  5. A focus on fire-resilient forest management and innovative funding mechanisms after CA fires

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    • As California communities look to rebuild after enduring devastating wildfires and mudslides, there is a growing call for more for more fire-resilient forest management such as forest thinning or changes in management practices, to create healthier and more resilient ecosystems, but funds are lacking.
    • One idea is a Forest Resilience Bond with private investors paying up front and then beneficiaries of the restoration- including water utilities, electric utilities, the recreational industry and the Forest Service – make payments back to the investors based on the project’s success and on cost-sharing.

    by Michelaina Johnson  Feb 8 2018 read full WaterDeeply article here

    ….As Southern California rebuilds [from the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire that started in early December and the subsequent deadly mudslides that hit a month later]…one area of particular interest to environmentalists, county officials and researchers is the wildland-urban interface – the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development….

    Structures in the wildland-urban interface…are especially vulnerable because they are located on the front line of oncoming flames from wildfires. Though these homes were often purchased for their easy accessibility to scenic areas, their ideal location can become a risk during wildfires and an economic burden following one.

    Some insurance companies, worried about the susceptibility of homes located in high-risk fire zones, may rethink the areas in which they offer coverage following a major blaze, while some homeowners may lose their fire insurance coverage altogether, said Bob Daddi, an Ojai State Farm Insurance agent….

    …Ventura County will have to consider reviewing and updating county plans to incorporate “what worked and what did not work as well as expected and what type of planning policies may need to be revised or created to make the county more resilient to forest fires and fire-related risks.”

    …the question of how to finance large-scale mitigation efforts that reduce fire risk has become a top concern. Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, proposes that Southern California counties, including Ventura and Santa Barbara, pass “fire-and-flood” control bonds that would raise revenues on a countywide level…to purchase two kinds of property: unbuilt sites located within areas that CalFire, the state agency responsible for fire protect ion, has mapped as fire hazard severity zones; and, on a willing-seller basis, residences that wildland fires have damaged or destroyed…. however, ….CalFire’s maps of high-risk areas are a decade old. With climate change, Miller is concerned that these maps don’t adequately assess potential conditions 50–75 years down the road and thus are useless for helping counties identify future high-risk fire zones.

    ..In addition …these funds could be used to buy or put a conservation easement on agricultural lands that created buffers against the Thomas Fire, contingent on the landowners’ willingness. This in turn would preserve the county’s agricultural aesthetic while also protecting the built environment from flames.

    …“Well-watered living trees do not burn easily,” said John Krist, chief executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. “Although many orchards were significantly charred along the edges, it was rare to see fire making its way deep into the groves.” … but farms do not guarantee a safeguard against a fire propelled by 50mph Santa Ana winds, Krist cautions..

    The severity of the Thomas Fire has been largely attributed to a Santa Ana wind episode that lasted two to three times longer than those historically recorded. A U.S. Forest Service report also predicts, thanks to climate-driven processes, a shift in the timing of Santa Ana winds from September/October to November/December and an increase in the area burned in wind-driven fires in coming years….

    …Uncertainty around the intensity and frequency of natural disasters in a warmer climate …has prompted calls for more fire-resilient forest management… using land-based interventions, such as forest thinning or changes in management practices, to create healthier and more resilient ecosystems. The specific interventions vary depending on the challenges confronting each forest….The U.S. Forest Service has a tight budget. It now spends the vast majority of the money it does have fighting yearly blazes, with little left over to prepare for warming temperatures. ...

    One possible solution to help close the funding gap is the Forest Resilience Bond. Through this approach, private investors would provide the upfront capital necessary to restore national forests and reduce the impact of wildfires…..

    Todd Gartner of the World Resources Institute explains that the Forest Resilience Bond could wield private investment. This could ensure the resources are available upfront to accomplish the restoration work that is specific to national forests throughout California in the face of tight annual budgets and challenges around federal budget cycles for multiyear projects.

    The beneficiaries of the restoration work would make payments back to the investors based on the project’s success and on cost-sharing. The beneficiaries could include water utilities, electric utilities, the recreational industry and the Forest Service itself….

  6. Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future

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    • In the wake of California wildfire’s mass destruction, ecologists see radical hope in regeneration.

     

    ….There is no silver lining to a fire like those that struck Sonoma and Napa counties in October, or the still-burning Thomas Fire in Southern California, which has burned 281,900 acres to become the largest California wildfire in modern recorded history. But for people like Willie and Erik Ohlsen, an ecological designer and director of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, the North Bay fires are a wake-up call, a chance to proactively address the way the plants and animals of Northern California, and most of the Golden State, have co-evolved with fire—and to rebuild these communities with fire in mind.

    Others go further, saying that poor planning and land management practices turned a natural feature of chaparral landscapes into a catastrophic force, leaving in its wake $3 billion in estimated damages. The city of Santa Rosa alone has already blown through $5 million from their general fund to fight the fires and the massive recovery effort has just begun…

    Fight Fire with Fire

    ….Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist with the Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR), an environmental conservation and education organization headquartered at Bouverie Preserve in the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen. “All of our plant communities depend on fire as part of their life-cycle,” says Berleman. “Many of them depend on fire that occurs more frequently than we’ve allowed it to burn.”

    Native Americans knew this, Berleman says, and used fire to manage landscapes for food and textile production. As David Carle writes in Introduction to Fire in California, indigenous California tribes set fire to the landscape to reduce the threat of wildfires to their villages, to stimulate the sprouting of the stick-straight dogbane stems needed for basketry and tools, to control insects, fungus, and pathogens, and to encourage the growth of seeds.

    …Last May, Berleman conducted a few initial small, prescribed burns to reduce the fuel load on grasslands on the preserve. An early, informal assessment showed that these areas burned less intensely than other parts, and helped moderate the fire’s progression….

    “Fire can’t be prevented, it can only be postponed,” says Berleman. She advocates for two solutions to future fire threats.

    • First, an “all hands on deck” cooperative approach to fuels treatments on private and public land: prescribed fire, broadcast burning, mechanical thinning, and grazing.
    • Second, improved public education on the integral role of fire in California ecosystems. Recently, the state provided her funding to establish a highly trained, interagency fire crew to implement technically approved prescribed fuels treatments and controlled burns on private land in Sonoma County starting in the fall of 2018…

    Grazing: Land Management’s Missing Link?

    grazing is the missing link in managing rangelands for fire safety. For centuries, the California landscape was populated by large grazing animals like deer and elk, but those populations have severely declined with widespread human settlement. “If you don’t graze, it creates tinder,” says Hoff.

    Did Poor Planning Increase the Fire’s Devastation?

    ….The question of land use and development in areas with high fire risk has also come up regularly. Gaye LeBaron, a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, wrote in the Washington Post about how Santa Rosa ignored nature’s warning by developing thousands of homes within the same footprint as the infamous Hanly Fire of 1964. The difference, wrote LeBaron, is that back then, “there were very few houses in the area that burned. As the city limits extended and the population increased by 135,000, the open land in that earlier fire corridor became a destination for developers.”

    …“Bigger homes, closer together is a recipe for more fuel on the landscape,” says Gregory L. Simon, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado and author of Flame and Fortune in the American West. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t be building homes in areas of high fire risk at all. It’s not a matter of building fire-safe construction or zoning in certain ways. Simply because of the loss of life involved and the risk to first responders….

  7. How California’s record wildfire season paved the way for catastrophic mudslides

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  8. How we know it was climate change in record breaking hurricanes and wildfires in the US

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    •  Did climate change play a role in record breaking hurricanes and wildfires in the US this year? Increasingly, scientists are able to answer that question — and increasingly, the answer is yes.
    • There is now ample evidence that global warming has influenced extremes in the United States and around the world through such factors as temperature, atmospheric moisture and sea level. This doesn’t mean that every event has a human fingerprint. But it does mean that we can expect more years like this one, when our old expectations no longer apply.

    STANFORD, Calif. —

    ….My lab recently published a new framework for examining connections between global warming and extreme events. Other scientists are doing similar research. How would we go about testing whether global warming has influenced the events that occurred this year?

    Consider Hurricane Harvey, which caused enormous destruction along the Gulf Coast; it will cost an estimated $180 billion to recover from the hurricane’s storm surge, high winds and record-setting precipitation and flooding. Did global warming contribute to this disaster? The word “contribute” is key. This doesn’t mean that without global warming, there wouldn’t have been a hurricane. Rather, the question is whether changes in the climate raised the odds of producing extreme conditions.

    Hurricanes are complicated business. While there is evidence that global warming should increase the frequency of very intense storms, their rarity and complexity make it difficult to detect climate change’s fingerprint.

    It is therefore critical to examine all of the contributing factors. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, these include the warm ocean that provided energy for the storm; the elevated sea level on top of which the storm surge occurred; the atmospheric pressure pattern that contributed to the storm’s stalling over the coast; and the atmospheric water vapor that provided moisture for the record-setting precipitation…..

    ….Our scientific framework can also be applied to other events. Like Harvey’s devastation, California’s ravaging wildfires arose from a confluence of factors. Strong, dry winds were the most immediate contributor. In addition, the protracted drought that killed millions of trees created substantial fuel. After the drought, an extremely wet winter was followed by severely hot, dry conditions in the summer and fall, which together produced near-record fuel for fires. Although each of these specific factors will need to be analyzed, we already know that global warming has increased fuel aridity in the West, meaning that fires are more likely to encounter large amounts of dry fuel.

    There is now ample evidence that global warming has influenced extremes in the United States and around the world through such factors as temperature, atmospheric moisture and sea level. This doesn’t mean that every event has a human fingerprint. But it does mean that we can expect more years like this one, when our old expectations no longer apply.

  9. California’s Thomas Fire torches record books, as ‘normal’ climate burns away

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    December 23rd 2017  read full Natl. Observer article here

  10. In California’s wildfires, a looming threat to climate goals

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    • CA’s environmental regulations apply only to human-caused emissions. Carbon and other pollution generated by wildfires is outside state law.
    • Forests are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond…. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes….
    • The U.S. Forest Service this week updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

    by Julie Cart December 14 2017 Read full CalMatters article here

    Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months,  another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

    …..The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Carbon and other pollution generated by wildfires is outside the grasp of state law.

    ….In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, the more recent complex of fires could well exceed that level.

    The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases, but also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

    The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data….

    ….Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.  And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the [Sierra Nevada] Conservancy….

    ….The role of wildfire as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

    ….The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service this week updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

    ….Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes….

    ….Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

    Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California….