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

After Dry ‘Rainy Season,’ California Faces High Wildfire Risks

Exceptionally dry conditions this winter have heightened the risk of summer wildfires

By Alyson Kenward

Dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.

In California, May typically marks the beginning of a warm and dry summer season. This year, however, things are different. Not only has it been warm and dry for the past couple weeks; it’s been warm and dry for months. So dry, in fact, that officials are warning the risk of wildfires across much of the state is going to be much worse than usual, for several months to come.

According to their most recent outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts that large parts of southern and central California, along with forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, are likely to see more wildfires than normal, particularly later this summer.

“A big chunk of the state is looking at above-average wildfire risk,” said Rob Krohn, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forestry Service’s Predictive Services Branch in Riverside. According to Krohn, the exceptionally dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.
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Life After Wildfire: Studying How Plants Bounce Back

After a fire at a California state park, volunteers used satellite imagery to study the recovery

Henry Coe Park in Santa Clara County is big: 87,000 acres of former ranch land, dotted with oak trees, meadows that burst with wildflowers each spring, and vast stretches of chaparral. Given that Coe is nestled near Silicon Valley, it makes sense that the retirees who volunteer here bring a certain technical bent to their appreciation of the place.

Case in point: the Lick Fire of September 2007 (Craig Miller reported on it for The California Report). Named the Lick Fire after it was first spotted from the nearby Lick Observatory, the wildfire burned 47,760 acres in the Mt. Hamilton Range by the time it was contained, eight days later.

Since then, citizen scientists who volunteer for the park have been paying close attention to see how the burned land bounces back. In particular: Bob Patrie, a former project manager in Silicon Valley, and Winslow Briggs, Director Emeritus at Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Plant Biology. Together, they’ve pored over satellite imagery to document the impact of the fire on various plant communities in Coe Park.

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Wildfire Trends: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

New research includes first-ever global death toll from landscape fires: more than 300,000

Flames and smoke from the 2011 Slave Lake fire in Alberta. Evacuations are likely to increase, partly from smoke.

Research continues to suggest that this century will be a brutal one for wildfires.

The reasons seem pretty straightforward: “The warmer it gets, the more fires we have,” fire scientist Mike Flannigan told reporters at a major science conference in Vancouver this weekend. Flannigan is a professor at the University of Alberta and also works for Canada’s natural resources agency.

Flannigan says fires already claim an area roughly the size size of India each year (If you’re wondering how that’s even possible, he says the acreage includes grasslands, which can actually burn more than once a year). And he says the toll will rise, driven by three main factors: Continue reading

Stark Images from Fire Country

Smoke from space and a wind farm framed by wildfire

California’s fire season is off to a mercifully late start this year — but could make up for it in ferocity.

Two images came across today that underscore the deep impression that fire can make on the landscape. First, this image from space of smoke from the ongoing Texas wildfires.

A smudge on the Blue Marble: Smoke plumes rise from Texas wildfires.

The photo perspective is looking west, with the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico visible to the left. It’s one of a series of photos tweeted by NASA Astronaut Ron Garan today. Continue reading

Beetlemania Creeping Into California

As if drought and wildfires weren’t enough, California’s coniferous forests face another climate-related threat

(Photo: Reed Galin/Lone Tree Productions)

In the last decade, tiny forest-dwelling beetles have wiped out pine trees on millions of acres in the Canadian and American West, including Southern California. The rest of the state has been largely spared, but forest ecologists say that’s likely to change.

Reporter Ilsa Setziol recently spent some time tracking these bugs with an entomologist from the US Forest Service. They found beetles at work in Jeffrey pines and coulter pines in the San Bernardino National Forest, east of Los Angeles. Continue reading

From Russia: More Heat, Less Wheat

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By David Lobell

The heat wave in Russia has captured international media attention, breaking temperature records left and right (see figure below). It has also captured the attention of commodity traders. In a typical year Russia produces about as much wheat as the United States, and is among the top exporters of wheat flour in the world. But this year, wheat has been decimated in the areas around Moscow, with yield expected to be 30 percent or so below normal. This week Russia announced they are banning all exports of wheat from August 15 through the end of the year. Since late June, wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen by 50 percent, to more than $7 a bushel. Continue reading

Another Climate Change Impact: Smog

Los Angeles cloaked in smog shortly after sunrise. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Air pollution, already a problem for much of central and southern California, will get worse as temperatures warm, according to a new report from scientists at UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

By mid-century, trouble spots like the Central Valley and Los Angeles could experience between six and 30 more days per year when ozone concentrations exceed federal clean-air standards, depending on how much temperatures rise, and assuming that pollutant emissions in the state remain at current levels, the scientists project. Continue reading

Fire Data: Dry Winters Mean More Charred Acres

Tim Walton

Photo: Tim Walton

Last year around this time, I asked some state fire officials what to expect in terms of the fire season and got a definite “It depends.” On the one hand, scant precipitation over the winter had left behind a dry landscape. On the other hand, spring rains had given a boost to rebounding vegetation, providing more fuel for later in the season. I was reminded of the old joke about politicians searching for a “one-handed economist” and found myself wishing for a one-handed forester.

Whether a good spring dousing is more likely to inhibit wildfires or feed them is a common source of confusion, which San Jose Mercury News writer Paul Rogers has sought to extinguish. By dipping into four decades of fire data, Rogers and his researchers at the Merc conclude that dry winters generally make for more intense fire seasons in California.

Rogers writes that “the worst fire seasons come after dry winters, not wetter ones like the one we’ve just had.” That would seem to bear out a conversation I had in 2007 with Crawford Tuttle, Chief Deputy Director at CalFire, fire protection arm of the state’s department of forestry. Walking through the burn zone of a Sierra wildfire that broke out in May of that year, Tuttle said that early-season fire was “a great demonstration of how (the) fire regime–fire severity is expanding in California.” Tuttle told me that when moisture levels in the air, vegetation and soil are lower, earlier in the season, it’s likely that the fire season will be intense.

The preceding winter had been dry by historical standards, with just over half the normal amount of precipitation and indeed, wildfires went on to char almost a million acres in the state that year.

NASA’s Carbon Trackers Yield New Maps

Almost lost amid the Copenhagen media clutter was last week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. So this week we’re playing a little catch-up. Climate Watch contributor Molly Samuel has the last of three posts on some things that caught our attention at AGU.

The UN’s Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD, was a big topic the past two weeks at the climate conference in Copenhagen. Wealthy countries, including the United States, have put billions of dollars on the table to help developing countries use sustainable forestry practices.

Back here on the California climate beat, there’s forestry-related news, too. Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View (see map, below) have been working with the California Energy Commission and the Air Resources Board to measure California’s greenhouse gas emissions for the state’s mandated greenhouse gas inventory under AB-32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006).

Carbon mapping by satellite. Image: NASA

Carbon-mapping California by satellite. Image: NASA

At the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, NASA’s Christopher Potter shared information he’s gathered using MODIS, an imaging instrument that’s hitching a ride on NASA’s Terra satellite. Potter’s data shows that California’s ecosystems–forests, grasslands, croplands, wetlands, etc.–emit about the same amount of carbon that they absorb each year. And in wet years, they absorb considerably more. In an email Potter says, “the natural ecosystem sources can decrease or increase the net emissions of CO2 in the state by about 15%, depending on whether it is a normal precipitation year or a below-normal precipitation year, respectively.”

MODIS isn’t NASA’s only tool aimed at California as it circles the earth. AIRS, or Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, collects data from the troposphere (the layer of the atmosphere closest to the earth). NASA designed it to improve weather forecasting—the troposphere is where our weather happens–but it’s turned out to be an effective instrument for measuring carbons as they bubble up from the earth and circulate in the atmosphere.

Having collected seven years of data on carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane, scientists (and now you) can actually see where the carbons are coming from and where they go. NASA has posted animations showing the methane emitted by wildfires in California, and maps of carbon dioxide concentrations around the world.