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Fires and Storms – Part 1

1.Introduction

A man should look for what is
and not for what he thinks should be.

- Albert Einstein

Truth is very important to me. When I write about something, either I have enough experience in the target subject to be relatively sure what I'm writing is the truth, or I borrow thoughts from those that have this experience, and reference their writings.

This is the first of two papers on (1) why wildfires are getting worse, and (2) why hurricanes are getting worse (hint: both are worsened by climate change). Each paper will include recommendations as to what we can do to mitigate these disasters.

2.A Major Source for This Paper

I am not a forest or wildlands management expert. I am an advanced energy systems engineer. I had family connections to such professions: my brother was a Range Conservationist with the BLM, and my mother was a horticulturist, so I have some knowledge of these subjects, but I still need to lean on the wisdom of others in my wordsmithing. We are very lucky that a major text was recently released (and referenced below), that combines the wisdom of many leaders in the forest and wildlands management:

Fire Research Consensus Working Group, "A Statement of Common Ground Regarding the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western United States, Final Report", September 2018, https://wildfiretoday.com/documents/WildfireCommonGround.pdf

I will reference this document through italics text below.

2.1.Wildfire's Role

Wildfires, even severe wildfires, are an indispensable tool used for forest and wildland management, but all agree that wildfires that damage infrastructure and kill people are not acceptable, per the statement below from the referenced source:

Respondents strongly agreed on the need for fuel treatments and fire suppression to protect human infrastructure within and adjacent to the wildland urban interface (WUI). There is a strong consensus that preventing undesired human-set fires in the WUI is essential to reducing societal vulnerability. The strategies for managing fire may be different within and adjacent to the WUI than in areas far from the WUI. However, what fire managers do beyond the WUI has implications for fire behavior approaching the WUI, forest resilience, smoke production and its human impacts, water quality, and many other ecosystem services people value.

The fires that forest and wildland managers use to manage future wildfires are those that do not threaten human infrastructure. These may be controlled burns (intentionally set fires that are limited to a small areas and only used when conditions are best for fire control) or large (potentially severe) fires that do not threaten human life or infrastructure. These fires reduce dangerous shrubland in wildlands and undergrowth in forests. The goals are: "Heterogeneity of fire effects, including the patterns of patches created by fires of all severities, is important to forest resilience to future fires…"

2.2.Climate Change

Forest professionals recognize that conditions are changing. The practices of these professionals come from many decades of experience. Although they respect these practices, they also understand that they must change them:

Key points of common ground among the respondents to the questionnaire included:

  • Climate variability is a key driver of historical and current fire regimes, with distinctive historical patterns of climatic drivers of fire activity evident in different landscapes.
  • The western US has recently been affected by a rapidly warming climate, characterized by reduced snowpack, earlier springs, longer fire seasons, hotter droughts, and more frequent periods of extreme fire weather.
  • Recent trends in many western forest regions of more large fires and more area burned are linked to recent climatic trends of hotter droughts and longer, more severe fire seasons.
  • Projected climate changes toward substantially hotter and drier conditions in the western US are expected to become increasingly significant drivers of amplified forest fire activity and severity; associated climatic interactions with vegetation and fuel conditions will also increase in significance.
  • Climate changes, along with other anthropogenic drivers of global change, affect many vital climate-driven forest processes that will interact with changes in fire activity.

2.3.Legislative Remedies

Note the text below this paragraph in this subsection was also included in an earlier paper ("Unintended Consequences", in October of this year) by the author of this one.

The California Legislature passed SB-901 Wildfires, on 8/31/2018, and the Governor signed it on 9/28/2018.[1] This bill has many clauses with many detailed requirements. Most of these relate to improving forest and wildland resiliency as it relates to wildfire prevention and carbon dioxide sequestration. The paragraphs below describe those provisions:

  1. Existing law creates the Office of Planning and Research in the Governor’s office. This bill would establish within the Office of Planning and Research the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery. The bill would require the commission to hold at least 4 public meetings throughout the state for purposes of accepting public and expert testimony on, and for evaluating and making recommendations on, specified matters relating to the costs of damage associated with catastrophic wildfires, as provided. The bill would require the commission, on or before July 1, 2019, and in consultation with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Insurance Commissioner, to prepare a report containing its assessment of the issues surrounding catastrophic wildfire costs and the reduction of damage, and making recommendations for changes to law that would ensure equitable distribution of costs among affected parties.
  2. Existing law requires electrical corporations (IOUs) to annually prepare and submit a wildfire mitigation plan to the PUC for review. This bill will require each plan to include additional elements, and would require an independent evaluator to review and assess the electrical corporation’s compliance with its plan. The bill would require the PUC to assess penalties on an electrical corporation that fails to substantially comply with its plan.
  3. Existing law requires each local publicly owned electric utility and electrical cooperative to construct, maintain, and operate its electrical lines and equipment in a manner that will minimize the risk of catastrophic wildfire posed by those electrical lines and equipment. This bill would require those utilities to prepare wildfire mitigation measures if the utilities’ overhead electrical lines and equipment are located in an area that has a significant risk of wildfire resulting from those electrical lines and equipment.
  4. This bill would require the PUC and CalFire to enter into a memorandum of understanding to cooperatively develop consistent approaches and share data related to fire prevention, safety, vegetation management, and energy distribution systems and to share results from various fire prevention activities, including relevant inspections and fire ignition data.
  5. The existing restructuring of the electrical services industry provides for the issuance of rate reduction bonds by the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank for the recovery of transition costs, as defined, by electrical corporations. Existing law authorizes the PUC to issue financing orders, to support the issuance of recovery bonds ... to finance the unamortized balance of the regulatory asset awarded Pacific Gas and Electric Company in PUC Decision 03-12-035. Author's note: These recovery bonds were issued after the PG&E Chapter 11 bankruptcy caused by the deregulation "meltdown" and subsequent liabilities incurred by the California IOUs. This bill would, under specific circumstances, authorize the PUC, upon application by an electrical corporation, to issue financing orders to support the issuance of recovery bonds to finance costs, in excess of insurance proceeds, incurred, or that are expected to be incurred, by an electrical corporation, excluding fines and penalties, related to wildfires, as provided.
  6. The California Renewables Portfolio Standard Program requires the PUC to implement annual procurement targets for the procurement of eligible renewable energy resources, as defined, for all retail sellers, which includes electrical corporations, to achieve the targets and goals of the program. Pursuant to existing law, the PUC has adopted resolutions establishing fuel or feedstock procurement requirements for generation from bioenergy projects intended to reduce wildfire risks that are applicable to the state’s 3 largest electrical corporations. This bill would expand the fuels and feedstocks that are eligible to meet these wildfire risk reduction fuel and feedstock requirements.

Note in number 5, that "under specific circumstances" the PUC can issue financing orders, with the implication that this would be done as it was previously (2004) for the PG&E bankruptcy, thus short-circuiting (pun intended) another bankruptcy caused by a $multi-billion wildfire liability. I believe that the "specific circumstances" are, that PG&E (and one assumes the two other big California IOUs) acts in a legal and reasonable manner to minimize the risk of these monster wildfires.

3.Forest Fires are Not Getting Worse

Natural vegetation follows many patterns where I live. Most recent wildfire disasters are not in forests, they are in shrubland (a.k.a. scrubland). The dominant vegetation in all shrublands are low-lying shrubs. These dry out in long rainless periods (which climate change makes longer, dryer and hotter). The above-ground portions of these shrubs frequently die completely, although many varieties (geophytes) have large roots that store water and nutrients. These can withstand all but the worst droughts, wildfires over grazing, etc., and plants sprout afterward.[2]

In Northern Baja and California we call the above vegetation patterns "chaparral", and the above-ground portion of many of these shrubs are high in natural oils and thus very flammable when dry. This summer and early autumn were unusually dry in Northern California.

The natural fire return interval for chaparral is 30 to 150 years or more. Fires more than once every 20 years, or during the cool season by prescribed fire, can eliminate chaparral by first reducing its biodiversity. Being dense, impenetrable, and prone to infrequent, large, high-intensity wildfires is the natural condition of chaparral. It's not the fault of past fire suppression, poor land management, "unnatural" amounts of vegetation, or environmental laws as some claim. The age and density of chaparral has little to do with the occurrence of such large fires. Large fires in California shrublands are driven primarily by weather, such the winds described in the next paragraph.[3]

California frequently has high-pressure cells that park off of the Pacific Coast, often for several weeks. The storms coming off the Pacific are blocked by these high pressure areas and slide northward. The Pacific Northwest gets storm after storm, and we get nada. Frequently after these storms make landfall they slide to the south over Nevada and Utah (and points east), and frequently these low pressure areas are relatively close to the blocking-high off of the Pacific Coast. This creates the California version of the "perfect storm".

As any good weatherman can tell you, in the northern hemisphere the wind rotates predominantly clockwise around high-pressure areas and counter-clockwise around low-pressure areas. Thus the winds in the setup described at the end of the previous paragraph reinforce each other, and primarily come out of the north. These are also (very) dry winds and frequently are near-hurricane force in the foothill chaparral areas (like around where Paradise, CA used to be).

With any source of ignition, be it a poorly designed energized power-circuit, an unextinguished cigarette butt or a spark from a lawnmower, the chaparral quickly explodes. The fire-front moves at many feet per second. Dry burning chaparral throws up many huge embers, which travel with the high winds to start new fires when they finally land several miles away.

3.1.The Forests

In Northern and Central California, the chaparral dominates the landscape up to about 3,000 feet, unless modified by man. Valley floors (especially California's huge Central Valley) are prime agricultural regions and are frequently planted with various crops. Near large metropolitan areas, the crops are replaced with subdivisions. Neither have any chaparral, however, in nearby mountainous areas chaparral intermingles with sparse residents, and a few small to medium-sized towns.

Above 3,000 feet in you enter the "Low Sierras". Forestry management professionals call this the "Yellow Pine Forest" as Yellow pine (a.k.a. Jeffrey pine) is the dominant tree species. Incense cedars have only slightly lower in numbers in these areas. Douglas firs, Sugar pine and Giant sequoia are sparser. These are all very large trees, and also fire resistant if the forest is managed correctly.

People that live in the forest take fire prevention very seriously. I have had a house in the Stanislaus National Forest for about 20 years, but I really don't consider myself a resident, as I spend most of my time in Livermore. Like all National Forests, the Stanislaus is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, with support from Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), and the local community. This team does a very good job. Also as you go up the western slope into the Sierras, the forest receives much more rain than foothill and valley areas. Both Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have a large number of fire stations scattered throughout Stanislaus National Forest.

Forest management includes individual property owners maintaining clear space around their houses (no brush allowed), frequent removal of undergrowth (called fire-ladder growth because a fire climbs them to get into the crowns of trees) and removal of dead trees.

3.2.Pine Beetle Deforestation

A major source of weakening and killing trees in the Low Sierras is the Jeffrey pine beetle. This beetle experiences boom or bust population changes that kills a large percentage of weakened Jeffrey pines following a severe or prolonged drought. These droughts are frequent in most of California. The effects of this beetle are increased and expanded by the reduced number of subfreezing (and beetle-killing) days caused by climate change. The image below is of a typical pine beetle infestation.[4]

The range of the Jeffrey pine beetle can be seen in the figure below. Note that there are other bark beetles that infest other species of pines, spruce and fir, but in the Low Sierra these tree species are too widely dispersed for these beetles to be a significant threat. Cedars are apparently immune to bark beetles.

Proper forest management includes prompt removal of deceased and dead trees. Also thinning the forest helps reduce pine beetle infestation and promotes better tree health. Based on the number of logging trucks that travel the roads near my home in the forest, I would say that the Stanislaus National Forest managers are aggressively implementing the above actions.

3.3.Mitigation of Chaparral Fires

Chaparral fires are tougher than forest fires. My forest home is in Arnold, CA. The significant towns below Arnold and the Low Sierras are Murphys (2,200 feet elevation and a population of about 2,200) and Angels Camp (1,400 feet elevation and a population of about 3,800). These are both in Sierra Foothills in south-central Calaveras County. There have had no major chaparral fires that originated in this area since I bought my forest home (although one major fire spread in from the north). There are large stands of chaparral, but these are separated by large belts of grassland and other less flammable vegetation. It should be noted that these grasslands are dry (our golden hills) by early summer and are also subject to fire, but these fires are much easier to contain and extinguish than chaparral fires. Both Angels Camp and Murphys have reasonably-sized volunteer fire departments.

The grassland around Angels Camp is mostly used for grazing, and Murphys is at the center of a medium-sized group of about 20 wineries (part of the Sierra Foothills Viticultural Area). Vineyards are not totally immune to wildfires, but they probably provide a reasonable fire-break verses chaparral, and are probably a bit better than grasslands for most of the fire season. Thus both of these small towns have reasonable slow-burn zones around them to mitigate any chaparral fires.

The most effective strategy for reducing catastrophic losses from wildfires is to minimize the management effort spent on the bulk of the chaparral landscape and focus on strategic locations. The worst fires predictably follow landscape features, and these patterns can be used to select buffer zones at the urban-wildland interface for more intensive fuel management.[5]

I would guess that there is no single solution to prevent property damage and casualties from chaparral fires, but rather combined approach of:

  • Continuing to beef-up California's firefighting infrastructure
  • Limiting the amount of chaparral that is allowed to continue to grow near small and medium-sized towns
  • Make sure the electrical infrastructure in sensitive areas are reasonably immune from becoming ignition sources
  • Educate residents and civic leaders in these areas regarding their vulnerability and reasonable steps they can take to mitigate this vulnerability
  • Continue to support the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire in their fire mitigation efforts
  • Assure roads to escape potential catastrophic wildland fire areas and traffic management procedures can support rapid evacuation of these areas
 

[2] Wikipedia article on "Shrubland", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrubland

[3] California Chaparral Institute, Fire and Nature, The Basics on Fire in the Chaparral, http://www.californiachaparral.com/fire/firenature.html

[4] Sheri L. Smith1, Robert R. Borys 2 and Patrick J. Shea, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Forest Insect & Disease Leaflet 11, "Jeffrey Pine Beetle", Revised June 2009, http://www.fire.ca.gov/treetaskforce/downloads/resources/Jeffrey_Pine_Beetle.pdf

[5] Jon E. Keeley, C. J. Fotheringham, Marco Morais, Science, " Reexamining Fire Suppression

Impacts on Brushland Fire Regimes", June 11, 1999, http://www.californiachaparral.com/images/99_Reexamining_Fire_Sup_Impacts.pdf

John Benson's picture

Thank John for the Post!

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