Wildfires have had a devastating impact on California over the last four years, and with the state in severe drought, another dangerous fire season looms.
Fires are burning hotter and growing bigger than ever before. The Castle Fire that raged through Sequoia National Park last year, for example, is estimated to have destroyed at least 10 percent of the world’s giant sequoias – trees that for thousands of years withstood less intense forest fires. California is on pace for another deadly year: In the first six months the Golden State has had more than 3,100 wildfires – and ‘fire season’ usually doesn’t start until late summer.
Against that grim backdrop, the University of California on June 4 convened a research symposium focused on enhancing the state’s resiliency to wildfire, extreme drought, and climate change. Faculty members and research scientists from across the UC system, with expertise on subjects such as wildfire, climate change, drought, and forest ecology, met in various panel sessions and presentations on wildfire behavior, modeling and visualization, drought impacts, demonstration projects, and other related topics. The goal of the symposium was to inform the public about research-driven, innovative solutions to help address wildfires more quickly and ensure an equitable recovery to one of the biggest challenges facing California.
“As we all know, 2020 was a record-breaking year for wildfires in California. We had 9,639 in total, which burned 4.4 million acres and damaged properties to the tune of $16 billion,” said Theresa Maldonado, Vice President of Research and Innovation for the UC system and host of Friday’s event. “We know fires are going to happen every year, but when and where? Why? How large? What are the anticipated short-term and long-term impacts on our families, people, property, and communities; on our water quality and supply; on our air quality; on wildlife, our food supply, and our land? … Can we make predictions accurately, understand the complexity of these events, and develop science-informed strategies and solutions.”
Deploying high-definition cameras
UC San Diego Geosciences Professor Neal Driscoll, co-founder of ALERTWildfire, gave the symposium’s keynote address. Starting as an earthquake modeling tool, ALERTWildfire now has 842 high-definition cameras across the western United States, most of them in California, that monitor hazardous events. A consortium of the University of Nevada-Reno, UC San Diego, University of Oregon, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) runs ALERTWildfire, with more than 100 sponsors and partners that share critical, just-in-time information.
ALERTWildfire’s microwave communications network provides the ability to confirm 911 calls, improve situational awareness, and help sequence evacuations. In addition, the cameras capture lightning strikes associated with ignitions of fire and pass real-time information along to agencies to understand where the fire will go, given typography and weather conditions.
“I am proud to be a Californian because we respect the environment, we respect diversity, and we use science to make decisions. California is going to lead the United States, and the United States is going to lead the world on this problem,” said Driscoll. “We just have to be committed to turning the corner, listening to the music, and playing the right tune. And the tune is, start today. We don’t have time to think about this tomorrow and put it off to the next generation.”
A panel discussion on wildfire monitoring featured speakers from UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Merced, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The group discussed how they use large data sets to ensure water supply, reduce wildfire hazards, and improve forest health, and the best way to facilitate prescribed burns, among other topics.
UC Berkeley Forest Ecology Professor John Battles, along with his research partner, UCLA Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Professor Alex Hall, presented how climate change impacts California’s ecosystem. As part of the Climate and Wildfire Institute, Battles and Hall deliver climate and wildfire-related research to policy and decision-makers in the state as well as deploy an innovative technology transfer process that accelerates the adoption of advanced technologies to public use.
“California is a diverse state, and we have to address regional challenges and regional needs,” said Battles. “There is no one-size-fits-all for the state of California.”
Building for the Wildland Urban Interface
Glenda Humiston, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), spoke about ways Californians can help their communities become more resilient to wildfires and offered some practical tips. She discussed UC’s collaboration with the California State University system on the Joint Institute for Wood Products Innovation, creating resources like wood pellets to assist in thinning out the state’s forests. She also noted in her talk that most homes in rural communities are older and built long before the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) was established with building standards along fire zones.
“We need to be smarter about our land use planning and where homes are built. Do home hardening, get vegetation cut back, no wood shingles, get vents into your attic, and help organize homeowners control burn situation to reduce fuel load,” said Humiston.
The final panel was on drought impacts on wildfire behavior and featured speakers from UC Merced, UC Davis, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and UC ANR. The panel discussed mitigation strategies in the wildland interface informed by fire science; the impact of the drought on wildfires through fuels; the extinguishing of bark beetles, which kill California trees that previously survived wildfires; and the fueling of massive tree die-off from the ecosystem and disappearing snowpack.