Fire Season Off to a Roaring Start

Wildfire response in California doubling last year’s pace — with fewer resources

For the second straight year, CalFire is running its engines with reduced staffing.

Get ready for what might be a nasty season for wildfires in California. Though few have made big news so far, CalFire says that its crews have already responded to more than 1,000 fires this spring — that’s double the pace from a year ago and well ahead of the five-year average.

And fires aren’t the only challenge. State firefighters are already trying to do more with less. CalFire is working with a smaller budget and reduced staffing on its engines.

“It’s tough,” says Clare Frank, CalFire’s assistant deputy director. “I won’t say we’re unimpacted. We’re doing our best to minimize the impact on the public.” Frank says that so far, budget cuts have not affected the agency’s basic attack strategy in the field. “We’re still going to pursue our goal of keeping 90% of the fires at 10 acres or less,” Frank told me after an inter-agency briefing on Wednesday.” “We want to keep small fires small, we want to hit them hard with initial attack, and that strategy remains the same.” Continue reading

An Earth Day “Natural:” San Francisco’s Tree Census

San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrates how to add a tree to the Urban Forest Map (photo: Gretchen Weber)

San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrates how to add a tree to the Urban Forest Map. Photo: Gretchen Weber

A new online tool launched this week aims to enlist citizens to help catalog San Francisco’s trees.  The Urban Forest Map relies on the public, or “citizen scientists,” to observe their yards and neighborhoods and to add information to an online database that tracks  tree location, species, size, and health, throughout San Francisco.

The project’s creator, Amber Bieg, said that 17 different organizations and agencies in the city manage and track trees, but until now, they had no organized way to share information. “This map provides the ability to aggregate data in a new way,” said Bieg. “And it’s an affordable way to do an inventory because it uses citizen participation.”

Bieg developed the program with funding from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE). Created in cooperation with Friends of the Urban Forest and the City and County of San Francisco, the Urban Forest Map is designed to serve as a publicly accessible, centralized database that will help urban foresters and city planners better manage trees in specific areas, track and combat tree pests and diseases, and plan future tree plantings.

Creators also hope that climatologists will use to the tool to better understand the effects of urban forests on climate, and that students will get involved and use the map to learn about the role trees play in the urban ecosystem. “If you can’t count it, you can’t manage it,” said CAL FIRE urban forester John Melvin. “If the state is going to adapt to climate change, we’re going to have to expand and better manage our urban forests, and that starts with knowing what we have.”

Urban trees can help cities adapt to climate change by providing shade cover and by both mitigating and purifying storm water runoff, Melvin said. Studies have shown that a robust tree canopy can reduce the “urban heat island” effect by several degrees.

To underscore how easy the tool is to use, on Wednesday morning San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrated how to use to the software for a small crowd gathered in a small park at the foot of the Transamerica Building. In addition to providing an inventory, Bieg said, the map is also an educational tool.  The Urban Tree Key is a related interactive tool that helps citizen scientists identify common Northern California urban trees. The map’s software also allows users to calculate the benefits, such as energy savings and air quality, that a specific tree or category of trees provide using data from the Center for Urban Forests Research, said Bieg.

To learn more about the Urban Forest Map, watch a video from 2007 that KQED’s Quest made about the project.

A Long, Dry Season

In California, the term “fire season” is tossed around with a certain amount of vagueness, mainly because unlike, say “deer season,” there are no hard and fast rules for when it begins and ends. But like, for instance, “Holiday Season,” it does seem to be getting longer and more tedious.

For budgeting purposes, CalFire reckons it to be May 15 to November 15. As a practical matter, we don’t really expect the first wildfire to break out on May 15–except this year it did. The Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains flamed up about a month before people really expect to start seeing smoke in the air. It was the start of what could be a record-breaking season.

Last year’s fire season was the worst in a decade; 1.5 million acres burned. This year we’re on track to surpass that.  Climatologists say: Get used to it. According to a 2005 report from the California Climate Change Center, using warming scenarios from the IPCC:

If average statewide temperatures rise to the medium warming range (5.5 to 8°F), the risk of large wildfires in California is expected to increase about 20 percent by mid-century and 50 percent by the end of the century. This is almost twice the wildfire increase expected if temperatures are kept within the lower warming range.
Along with temperature, wildfires are determined by a variety of factors, including precipitation. Because of this, future wildfire risk throughout the state will not be
uniform. For example, a hotter, drier climate could increase the flammability of vegetation in northern California and promote up to a 90 percent increase in large wildfires by the end of the century. A hotter, wetter climate would also lead to an increase in wildfires in northern California, but to a lesser extent—about a 40 percent increase by century’s end.

Phyllis Banducci, an El Dorado County forester for CalFire, says that normally they would start “ramping down” (laying off seasonal firefighters and so forth) in the north state around mid-October but this year CalFire has delayed winding things down until November 3rd.

Recently I took a walking tour through some Sierra burn sites with Crawford Tuttle, Chief Deputy Director at CalFire. You can hear excerpts from that and comments on the climate connection from UC Merced researcher Tony Westerling on The California Report, starting Friday morning.

You can watch a video of that walk by clicking on the viewer below. The first location is Sierra Springs. The second walk was on Icehouse Ridge, above Highway 50. Both locations are in El Dorado County.

We’ve also set up a spot where you can share your own fire photos and experiences.