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Op-Ed: Wildfire safety starts with communities, not cutting forests

Shaye Wolf, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Another harrowing fire season and devastating losses of lives and homes sound an urgent alarm that California’s wildfire policy — focused on logging forests in the backcountry — isn’t working. Tragedy after escalating tragedy demands that we change course.

The good news is that a road map exists for fire policy that truly protects communities. Step one: Make houses and communities more fire-safe. Step two: Stop building new developments in fire-prone areas. Step three: Take strong action to fight climate change.

For years, state and federal wildfire policies have promoted logging of our forests. Under overly broad terms like forest management,thinning and fuels reduction, these policies do the bidding of the timber industry and entrenched agencies that are invested in cutting down trees. Yet, as more money has poured into logging, we’ve witnessed the unprecedented loss of lives and homes.

The reality is that no amount of logging can stop fires. In fact, it can even make fires burn hotter and faster. The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise spread most rapidly through areas that had been heavily logged, and we’re seeing the same patterns in this year’s fires.

A study covering three decades and 1,500 fires, co-authored by one of my colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity, found that the most heavily logged areas experience the most intense fire. That isn’t surprising given that cutting down trees creates more exposed, hotter, drier conditions and promotes the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses.

Moreover, many of California’s fires — including half of this year’s burned acreage — have occurred not in forests, but in chaparral, grasslands and oak savanna. For at-risk communities across much of the state, logging is completely irrelevant to the fire threat.
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Op-Ed: A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.

Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.

There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.

One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.

Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.
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Science Says: Climate change, people stoke California fires

Seth Borenstein, AP NEWS

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.

“ Fuel moisture drives the fire business,” said University of Alberta fire scientist Mike Flannigan. “Fuel moisture is being influenced by climate change.”

In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, said University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years.

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FILE – In this Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 file photo, flames from the River Fire crest a ridge in Salinas, Calif. In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, says University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.
Continue reading “Science Says: Climate change, people stoke California fires”

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They know how to prevent megafires. Why won’t anybody listen?

Elizabeth Weil, PROPUBLICA

This is a story about frustration, about watching the West burn when you fully understand why it’s burning — and understand why it did not need to be this bad.

What a week. Rough for all Californians. Exhausting for the firefighters on the front lines. Heart-shattering for those who lost homes and loved ones. But a special “Truman Show” kind of hell for the cadre of men and women who’ve not just watched California burn, fire ax in hand, for the past two or three or five decades, but who’ve also fully understood the fire policy that created the landscape that is now up in flames.

“What’s it like?” Tim Ingalsbee repeated back to me, wearily, when I asked him what it was like to watch California this past week. In 1980, Ingalsbee started working as a wildland firefighter. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in environmental sociology. And in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line, he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

So what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

Read more at https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen?utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=feature

Posted on Categories Forests, HabitatsTags ,

Bureau of Land Management to fund 11,000 miles of fuel breaks in 6 states

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bureau of Land Management has announced plans to fund 11,000 miles (17,703 kilometers) of strategic fuel breaks in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah in an effort to help control wildfires.

The fuel breaks are intended to prop up fire mitigation efforts and help protect firefighters, communities and natural resources, The Oregonian reported Saturday.

According to the BLM, wildfires are becoming bigger and more frequent across the Great Basin states. Between 2009 and 2018, more than 13.5 million acres of BLM land burned in the project area.

“Recovering from the devastating effects of wildfires can take decades in the rugged, high-desert climate of the Great Basin. These tools will help firefighters contain fires when they break out,” said acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond in a news release. “That’s why creating fuel breaks is incredibly important to the entire basin, the people who live in these communities, and our wildland firefighters.”

Fuel breaks are intended to break up fire fuels by creating breaks in vegetation that slow a blaze’s progress. By implementing them strategically, they help firefighters control the spread of fire, and can protect homes and resources.

Some scientists debate the effectiveness of fuel breaks, raising questions about whether these efforts are worth funding.

Read more at https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2020-02-15/blm-to-fund-11-000-miles-of-fuel-breaks-in-basin-states

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , , ,

A new UN report shows that we are not on track to avoid catastrophic climate change

Priya Shukla, FORBES

Yesterday, the United Nations released its Emissions Gap Report for 2019. It has been released each year since the Paris Accords were signed in 2015 and describes each country’s “emissions gap” by comparing the amount of greenhouses gasses actually being emitted to the volume of emissions necessary to avoid the impacts of climate change. This year, it revealed that global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase over the course of the past decade, despite the threat that climate change poses.

Because greenhouse gas emissions have steadily risen for so long, more severe cutbacks and changes will be needed in the future to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. The United States has emitted the most greenhouse gases since 1750 and is failing to meet the reduction targets established in the Paris Accords, which it is currently in the process of withdrawing from. However, several other countries, including Canada, Japan, Brazil, and Australia, are also not on track to meet the commitments their countries made.
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The planet is already seeing more intense wildfires, storms, and heatwaves. And, in order to avoid further impacts of climate change, the report suggests that countries must decrease their emissions by up to five times more than what they already have. Specifically, they would have to decrease by 7.6 percent annually until 2030 to prevent the planet from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. This sort of dramatic reduction has only been seen during the fall of the Soviet Union when emissions fell by 6 percent in the United States and Japan.

Next month, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place to address how countries can work together to meet these emissions targets and next year they will meet to pledge even more cutbacks, as part of the Paris Accords. But whether they follow through on those commitments remains to be seen.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/priyashukla/2019/11/27/a-new-un-report-shows-that-we-are-not-on-track-to-avoid-catastrophic-climate-change/#3812d2b82b9a

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , ,

Op-Ed: Climate change and California’s looming insurance crisis

Michael Smolens, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California is so concerned over the future cost and availability of insurance it’s calling in the United Nations for help.

Recent reports detail how homeowner insurance policies in regions prone to wildfire are being canceled or becoming significantly more expensive.

Developments planned for high-risk fire zones are not only being challenged politically and legally over whether they diminish the quality of life for people living nearby but also over public safety and climate change concerns.

Eventually, homeowners in certain coastal areas are certain to have a similar, if more slow-moving, experience as sea-level rise increases flooding and erosion, making their dwellings a riskier bet for insurers. Some residents on unstable bluffs have for years faced insurance issues, in addition to the challenge of pursuing public or private efforts to shore up the cliffs.

Tens of thousands of beachfront homes across California face the risk of chronic flooding or worse, according to projections. It may be 50 to 100 years before it gets that bad, but property values are likely to be affected along with insurance.

This will extend beyond homeowners to businesses and, to varying degrees, governments.

At the root of the insurance challenge is climate change, which many experts say is exacerbating wildfires and flooding and making storms more destructive. Insurance companies, like governments, are increasingly stressed trying to grapple with that.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9943760-181/smolens-climate-change-and-californias

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Why your house may burn while your neighbor’s survives the next wildfire

Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

The sky was turning orange and the embers were flying from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Carrell and Donna’s father sped away from their Paradise home.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’ ” Oney Carrell said.

A few days later, they learned otherwise. The Carrells’ home survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history with a couple of warped window frames, a partially charred down spout and a stubborn smoky smell inside.

Most of their neighborhood was destroyed. A guest house in their backyard, where Donna’s father lived, was reduced to ashes, along with a couple of sheds. Yet their beautifully restored 1940 Studebaker sat untouched in the garage.

The arc of destruction the Camp Fire carved through Paradise was seemingly random: Why were some houses saved and others incinerated? As millions of Californians brace for another wildfire season, a McClatchy analysis of fire and property records shows the answer might be found in something as simple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.

A landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions — requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards — appears to have protected the Carrells’ home and dozens of others like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a pivotal moment in the state’s deadly and expensive history of destructive natural disasters.

All told, about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged, according to McClatchy’s analysis of Cal Fire data and Butte County property records. By contrast, only 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 escaped damage. Those figures don’t include mobile homes, which burned in nearly equal measure regardless of age.

“These are great standards; they work,” said senior engineer Robert Raymer of the California Building Industry Association, who consulted with state officials on the building code.

Yet despite this lesson, California may end up falling short in its effort to protect homes from the next wildfire.

Read more at https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article227665284.html

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Post-fire health survey now open to North Bay residents

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

For more about the UC Davis study, click here

Researchers at UC Davis hope to enlist thousands of Northern California residents in an online survey designed to gather the personal experiences, household circumstances and health effects from devastating wildfires that burned over 245,000 acres in six counties and killed 44 people.

About 140 people signed up in advance to take the survey, which went live Thursday (February 1).

But the push to get the word out is just beginning, with particular focus in hard-hit Sonoma and Napa counties, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist and director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center.

“If you’re living there, you’re living it,” said Hertz-Picciotto, the research leader.
Residents of other affected counties, including Mendocino, which suffered significant losses, are urged to take part, as is anyone else affected by the fire and smoke that plagued the region for weeks beginning Oct. 8.

Researchers said the survey should take about 20 to 30 minutes to complete.

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Sonoma County wildlife show amazing recovery after wildfires

John Beck, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
“I had no idea what to expect,” Steven Hammerich says, as he scans through wildlife images on his computer at Pepperwood Preserve.At the end of September and early October, the scene looks much like any other fall in Sonoma County. You see a lone bobcat on the prowl the night of Sept. 28. A deer wanders by on Oct. 2. A coyote stands alert on Oct. 7.
And then, at 1:57 a.m. Oct. 8, as the Tubbs fire roared through Pepperwood on its way from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, the motion-activated field camera captures frame after frame filled with a sea of flames and red-hot tracers of flying embers. A Douglas fir ignites and the temperature shoots up to 133 degrees by 2:15 a.m.
By the end, more than 85 percent of Pepperwood’s 3,200 acres — home to 900 species of plants and animals — would burn, mostly at a low to moderate intensity. By the time Hammerich and the rest of the Pepperwood staff returned several weeks later, many field cameras had completely melted. But in other cameras the storage cards survived, allowing them to piece together a rare narrative of wildlife survival.
“It really is like detective work,” says Hammerich, Pepperwood’s resident camera tech, as he cues up footage from the same E5 camera that captured the previous images before and during the fire.
Two days after the fire, the first sign of wildlife appears: The blurry head of a buck at 3:22 in the afternoon. Two days after that, a jackrabbit bounds by at 12:44 a.m. On Oct. 15, a deer appears at daybreak. And like that, in photo after photo, a coyote, a squirrel, more deer and another jackrabbit return. Other cameras on the preserve capture mountain lions on Oct. 13 and 16, a black bear on Nov. 6 and Nov. 24 and a bobcat on Nov. 8.
Read more at: Sonoma County wildlife show amazing recovery after wildfires