After 2018 ‘Woolsey wildfire,’ Los Angeles’ mountain lions are taking more risks

Read the full story from Cell Press.

Los Angeles is known for its movie stars and beaches. It’s also known for being one of only two megacities in the world that supports a population of big cats. Despite being surrounded by a vast network of busy freeways and over ten million people, mountain lions have somehow managed to eke out a living in the wooded LA-area hills. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on October 20 have found that wildfires, and specifically the 2018 Woolsey fire, are putting the LA mountain lions’ future in more doubt.

This program is blazing a trail for women in wildland firefighting

Read the full story at The 19th.

As wildfires worsen and the state faces a firefighter shortage, a California pilot program aims to recruit women to fight fires. But the field remains full of obstacles.

California fire and floods turn a river to ‘sludge,’ killing thousands of fish

Read the full story in the New York Times.

The McKinney fire began on July 29 and has exploded to more than 60,000 acres, killing four people and becoming California’s largest fire so far this year. According to local tribal leaders, the fire has also led to the mass fish kill in the Klamath River, which runs for more than 250 miles from southern Oregon, through Northern California and out to the Pacific Ocean.

Where there’s smoke

Read the full story at Maisonneuve.

Across the world’s primary grape-growing regions, from Europe to Australia and California, winemakers and growers are facing the same challenges: severe drought and heat in the summer and early warm temperatures in the winter followed by punishing frosts that are killing their vines or leaving them vulnerable to disease. Then there’s the most biblical of threats: wildfires. As our planet faces increasingly severe weather conditions driven by a global climate crisis, a cherished, centuries-old industry is suffering.

Quickly reporting back water testing results after a wildfire

Read the full story in the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health Newsletter.

Communicating environmental health information quickly after a disaster is critical and allows residents to take protective actions against harmful environmental exposures. When residents began to return to the town of Paradise, California, after evacuations caused by the devastating 2018 Camp Fire, they were unsure whether it was safe to use the tap water. Community-wide sampling from local water utilities had found contamination in the public water supply, but NIEHS-funded researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the Public Health Institute were interested in sampling that would provide households with their own water results. A recent paper describes how the researchers developed and implemented this strategy by partnering with local organizations and community leaders.

Model developed to predict landslides along wildfire burn scars

Read the full story from Northwestern University.

A wildfire followed by an intense rainstorm is often a recipe for disaster. Without vegetation to cushion rainfall, water runoff can turn into a fast-moving, highly destructive landslide, called a “debris flow,” which often has the power to wipe out cars, homes and highways — sometimes resulting in casualties.

Northwestern University researchers have augmented a physics-based numerical model to investigate and predict areas susceptible to debris flows. This augmented model eventually could be used in an early warning system for people living in high-risk areas, enabling them to evacuate before it’s too late. Information from model simulations also could be used to design new infrastructure — such as diversion bars that deflect fast-moving water away from homes and roads — for high hazard zones.

The research was published today (July 27) in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

How to save an ancient, giant tree from a wildfire

Read the full story in the New York Times.

California’s giant sequoias have faced particularly fierce wildfires since 2015, the result of climate change and a lack of frequent fire over the prior century, according to the National Park Service. The imminent threat — which has now reached some of the state’s most exalted trees — has prompted scientists and firefighters to take exceptional steps to save them.

The government set a colossal wildfire. What are victims owed?

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Two prescribed burns got out of control, becoming New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire. But despite the backlash, experts say it’s necessary to thin forests in a region primed for destruction.

Alaska on fire: Thousands of lightning strikes and a warming climate put Alaska on pace for another historic fire season

A large tundra fire burned near St. Mary’s, Alaska, on June 13, 2022. BLM Alaska Fire Service/Incident Management Team/John Kern

by Rick Thoman, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Alaska is on pace for another historic wildfire year, with its fastest start to the fire season on record. By mid-June 2022, over 1 million acres had burned. By early July, that number was well over 2 million acres, more than twice the size of a typical Alaska fire season.

We asked Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, why Alaska is seeing so many large, intense fires this year and how the region’s fire season is changing.

Why is Alaska seeing so many fires this year?

There isn’t one simple answer.

Early in the season, southwest Alaska was one of the few areas in the state with below normal snowpack. Then we had a warm spring, and southwest Alaska dried out. An outbreak of thunderstorms there in late May and early June provided the spark.

Global warming has also increased the amount of fuels – the plants and trees that are available to burn. More fuel means more intense fires.

So, the weather factors – the warm spring, low snowpack and unusual thunderstorm activity – combined with multidecade warming that has allowed vegetation to grow in southwest Alaska, together fuel an active fire season.

Chart shows 2022 starting faster than any of the other large fire years on record and on pace with the 2015 fire season.
2022 is among Alaska’s busiest fire seasons in over 30 years of records. AICC

In Alaska’s interior, much of the area has been abnormally dry since late April. So, with the lightning storms, it’s no surprise that we’re now seeing many fires in the region. The interior had about 18,000 strikes over two days in early July.

Are lightning storms like this becoming more frequent?

That’s the million-dollar question.

It’s actually a two-part question: Are thunderstorms occurring more often now in places that used to rarely get them? I think the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Is the total number of strikes increasing? We don’t know, because the networks tracking lightning strikes today are far more sensitive than in the past.

Lightning strikes in Alaska July 2-4, 2022. AICC

Thunderstorms in Alaska are different from in most of the lower 48 in the sense that they tend to not be associated with weather fronts. They’re what meteorologists call air mass or pulse thunderstorms. They’re driven by two factors: the available moisture in the lower atmosphere and the temperature difference between the lower and middle atmospheres.

In a warming world, air can hold more moisture, so you can get intense storms. In interior Alaska, we’re getting thunderstorms more frequently. For example, the number of days with thunderstorms recorded at the Fairbanks Airport show a clear increase. Indigenous elders also agree that they’re seeing thunderstorms more often.

You mentioned hotter fires. How are wildfires changing?

Wildfire is part of the natural ecosystem in the Boreal north, but the fires we’re getting now are not the same as the fires that were burning 150 years ago.

More fuel, more lightning strikes, higher temperatures, lower humidity – they combine to fuel fires that burn hotter and burn deeper into the ground, so rather than just scorching the trees and burning the undergrowth, they’re consuming everything, and you’re left with this moonscape of ash.

Spruce trees that rely on fire to burst open their cones can’t reproduce when the fire turns those cones to ash. People who have been out in the field fighting fire for decades say they’re amazed at the amount of destruction they see now.

Firefighters in tall grass silhouetted by flames in the trees beyond.
Fire crews walk through tall vegetation as they conduct defensive burning against a large complex of fires near Lime Village, Alaska. The group of fires totaled more than 780,000 acres on July 5, 2022. Bryan Quimby/Alaska Incident Management Team

So while fire has been natural here for tens of thousands of years, the fire situation has changed. The frequency of million-acre fires in Alaska has doubled since before 1990.

What impact are these fires having on the population?

The most common impact on humans is smoke.

Most wildfires in Alaska aren’t burning through heavily populated areas, though that does happen. When you’re burning 2 million acres, you’re burning a lot of trees, and so you’re putting a lot of smoke into the air, and it travels long distances.

In early July, we saw explosive wildfire activity north of Lake Iliamna in southwest Alaska. The winds were blowing from the southeast then, and dense smoke was transported hundreds of miles. In Nome, 400 miles away, the air quality index at the hospital exceeded 600 parts per million for PM2.5, fine particulate matter that can trigger asthma and harm the lungs. Anything over 150 ppm is unhealthy, and over 400 ppm is considered hazardous.

Fires burning on June 10, 2022, seen from a satellite. NASA Earth Observatory
A close-up view shows where people were evacuated near one of the region’s largest tundra fires on record. NASA Earth Observatory

There are other risks. When fires threaten rural Alaska communities, as one did near St. Mary’s in June 2022, evacuating can mean flying people out.

Worsening fire seasons also put pressure on firefighting resources everywhere. Firefighting is expensive, and Alaska counts on fire crews, planes and equipment from the lower 48 states and other countries. In the past, when Alaska had a big fire season, crews would come up from the lower 48 because their fire season was typically much later. Now, wildfire season there is all year, and there are fewer movable resources available.

Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist, University of Alaska Fairbanks

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A case for retreat in the age of fire

After the 2018 wildfire in Paradise, Calif., many fire-damaged homes were razed. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

by Emily E. Schlickman, University of California, Davis; Brett Milligan, University of California, Davis, and Stephen M. Wheeler, University of California, Davis

Wildfires in the American West are getting larger, more frequent and more severe. Although efforts are underway to create fire-adapted communities, it’s important to realize that we cannot simply design our way out of wildfire – some communities will need to begin planning a retreat.

Paradise, California, is an example. For decades, this community has worked to reduce dry grasses, brush and forest overgrowth in the surrounding wildlands that could burn. It built firebreaks to prevent fires from spreading, and promoted defensible space around homes.

But in 2018, these efforts were not enough. The Camp Fire started from wind-damaged power lines, swept up the ravine and destroyed over 18,800 structures. Eighty-five people died.

Across the America West, thousands of communities like Paradise are at risk. Many, if not most, are in the wildland-urban interface, a zone between undeveloped land and urban areas where both wildfires and unchecked growth are common. From 1990 to 2010, new housing in the wildland-urban interface in the continental U.S. grew by 41%.

Whether in the form of large, master-planned communities or incremental, house-by-house construction, developers have been placing new homes in danger zones.

Map showing wildfire risk highest in the Western U.S. and southern Plains, particularly the mountains.
First Street Foundation created a national wildfire model that assesses fire risk at the local level to help communities understand and prepare. The map reflects the probability wildfire will occur in an area in 2022. First Street Foundation Wildfire Model

It has been nearly four years since the Camp Fire, but the population of Paradise is now less than 30% of what it once was. This makes Paradise one of the first documented cases of voluntary retreat in the face of wildfire risk. And while the notion of wildfire retreat is controversial, politically fraught and not yet endorsed by the general public, as experts in urban planning and environmental design, we believe the necessity for retreat will become increasingly unavoidable.

But retreat isn’t only about wholesale moving. Here are four forms of retreat being used to keep people out of harm’s way.

Limiting future development

On one end of the wildfire retreat spectrum are development-limiting policies that create stricter standards for new construction. These might be employed in moderate-risk areas or communities disinclined to change.

An example is San Diego’s steep hillside guidelines that restrict construction in areas with significant grade change, as wildfires burn faster uphill. In the guidelines, steep hillsides have a gradient of at least 25% and a vertical elevation of at least 50 feet. In most cases, new buildings cannot encroach into this zone and must be located at least 30 feet from the hillside.

While development-limiting policies like this prevent new construction in some of the most hazardous conditions, they often cannot eliminate fire risk.

Illustration of a home set back from a road on a steep hillside
Development-limiting policies can include stricter construction standards. The illustration shows the difference between a home on a steep hillside that is hard to defend from fire and one farther from the slope. Emily Schlickman

Halting new construction

Further along the spectrum are construction-halting measures, which prevent new construction to manage growth in high-risk parts of the wildland-urban interface.

These first two levels of action could both be implemented using basic urban planning tools, starting with county and city general plans and zoning, and subdivision ordinances. For example, Los Angeles County recently updated its general plan to limit new sprawl in wildfire hazard zones. Urban growth boundaries could also be adopted locally, as many suburban communities north of San Francisco have done, or could be mandated by states, as Oregon did in 1973.

Two illustrations, one of a new subdivision, the other of a few homes.
Halting construction and managing growth in high-risk parts of the wildland-urban interface is another retreat tool. Emily Schlickman

To assist the process, states and the federal government could designate fire-risk areas, similar to Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps. California already designates zones with three levels of fire risk: moderate, high and very high.

They could also develop fire-prone landscape zoning acts, similar to legislation that has helped limit new development along coasts, on wetlands and along earthquake faults.

Incentives for local governments to adopt these frameworks could be provided through planning and technical assistance grants or preference for infrastructure funding. At the same time, states or federal agencies could refuse funding for local authorities that enable development in severe-risk areas.

In some cases, state officials might turn to the courts to stop county-approved projects to prevent loss of life and property and reduce the costs that taxpayers might pay to maintain and protect at-risk properties

Threehigh-profile projects in California’s wildland-urban interface have been stopped in the courts because their environmental impact reports fail to adequately address the increased wildfire risk that the projects create. (Full disclosure: For a short time in 2018, one of us, Emily Schlickman, worked as a design consultant on one of these – an experience that inspired this article.)

Incentives to encourage people to relocate

In severe risk areas, the technique of “incentivized relocating” could be tested to help people move out of wildfire’s way through programs such as voluntary buyouts. Similar programs have been used after floods.

Local governments would work with FEMA to offer eligible homeowners the pre-disaster value of their home in exchange for not rebuilding. To date, this type of federally backed buyout program has yet to be implemented for wildfire areas, but some vulnerable communities have developed their own.

The city of Paradise created a buyout program funded with nonprofit grant money and donations. However, only 300 acres of patchworked parcels have been acquired, suggesting that stronger incentives and more funding may be required.

Removing government-backed fire insurance plans or instituting variable fire insurance rates based on risk could also encourage people to avoid high-risk areas.

Another potential tool is a “transferable development rights” framework. Under such a framework, developers wishing to build more intensively in lower-risk town centers could purchase development rights from landowners in rural areas where fire-prone land is to be preserved or returned to unbuilt status. The rural landowners are thus compensated for the lost use of their property. These frameworks have been used for growth management purposes in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Two illustrations, one showing lots of homes. The other only a few, with old home sites evident.
Incentivized relocating can be used in severe risk areas by subsidizing the movement of some people out of wildfire’s way. The illustrations show what before and after might look like. Emily Schlickman

Moving entire communities, wholesale

Vulnerable communities may want to relocate but don’t want to leave neighbors and friends. “Wholesale moving” involves managing the entire resettlement of a vulnerable community.

While this technique has yet to be implemented for wildfire-prone areas, there is a long history of its use after catastrophic floods. One place it is currently being used is Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which has lost 98% of its landmass since 1955 because of erosion and sea level rise. In 2016, the community received a federal grant to plan a retreat to higher ground, including the design of a new community center 40 miles north and upland of the island.

This technique, though, has drawbacks – from the complicated logistics and support needed to move an entire community to the time frame needed to develop a resettlement plan to potentially overloading existing communities with those displaced.

Two illustrations, the first with many houses in a community. The other with none.
In extreme risk areas, wholesale moving could be an approach – managing the resettlement of an entire vulnerable community to a safer area. Emily Schlickman

Even with ideal landscape management, wildfire risks to communities will continue to increase, and retreat from the wildland-urban interface will become increasingly necessary. The primary question is whether that retreat will be planned, safe and equitable, or delayed, forced and catastrophic.

Emily E. Schlickman, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design, University of California, Davis; Brett Milligan, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design, University of California, Davis, and Stephen M. Wheeler, Professor of Urban Design, Planning, and Sustainability, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.