The raging fires sparked during August have raised the visibility of UC fire scientists, who provide critical information to state and national media.
Below are a sampling of stories and comments offered by UC Cooperative Extension experts:
Fires are getting worse
"They are certainly getting worse over time," said Susan Kocher, a forestry advisor at the University of California-Cooperative Extension Central Sierra. "We burned fewer acres in wildfires in 2019 than 2018, but overall, yes, the trend is progressing to burning more and more acres at high severity over time and affecting more people through evacuations and damages to homes and communities."
Yana Valachovic, a forest advisor and county director at University of California Cooperative Extension–Humboldt and Del Norte counties, said that 100 years of fire suppression is catching up to the state as well. Valachovic said before California was settled by white pioneers around the gold rush in the 1850s, Native Americans frequently used fire as a tool —for example, to clean out an infestation of bugs in acorns.
"Fire can be really important for stimulating biodiversity and creating more food sources," Valachovic said. "After years of suppressing those fires, now we get an ignition, whether human-caused or lightning-caused or power lines down, and you have an accumulation of materials that have accumulated over various time periods, but the quantity of fuel is substantially greater than it was historically."
Salon, Aug. 25
What's at stake
“Every part of California is receptive to wildfire,” said Yana Valachovic, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor on the North Coast. “Especially in a year like this, when we had a pretty dry winter and spring, so a lot of the state is in drought conditions.”
Sacramento Bee, Aug. 27, 2020
“At the statewide level, we do get into this mode where we start wondering where the biggest loss is going to be, what's the highest priority, and that is where the resources are going to go,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension.
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 24, 2020
Q: Beyond widely accepted reasons for wildfires growing in size, severity, and frequency, why hasn't California made more progress in slowing the trend?
Lenya Quinn-Davidson: Our fire management and our land management haven't kept pace with the scientific understanding we have of fire in California. There's this fear of active land management – prescribed burning, thinning – that sometimes gets in the way of us making good choices. If we're not protecting the resources we care about and we're not taking action, then we will continue to lose them to big fires.
Bill Stewart: Many of the fires around the greater Bay Area are in areas that didn't burn 30 years ago because they were cattle ranches. They had cattle on them, and that helped reduce fuels. Now those areas have turned into parks or 5- and 10-acre residential lots. So much development has been about what's aesthetically pleasing, so we've ended up with a landscape that, during hot and dry seasons, there's a lot more fuel and it becomes a much riskier situation.
Q: The era of megafires in California has been decades in the making. How can public agencies begin to counter that over the next few years?
Quinn-Davidson: We need to create a more robust and sustainable fire workforce. Right now, they're so beat down at the end of fire season – especially as fire season is getting longer in California – that there's basically no capacity the rest of the year to do any of the proactive stuff we need to be doing. So we need to create more jobs, and those jobs need to be dedicated to fire management and land management.
Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 24, 2020
Historical fire suppression
“We have put out fires for 100 years. Now we are paying the price,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. “It will take a while to make these forests healthy again. But it's absolutely possible.”
Stephens, the UC fire scientist, estimates that before the Gold Rush, roughly 4.5 million acres a year in California burned. By the 1950s and 1960s, that was down to about 250,000 acres a year. In recent years, it has approached 2 million acres a year.
San Jose Mercury News, Aug 23, 2020
Limited firefighting resources
"At the statewide level, we do get into this mode where we start wondering where the biggest loss is going to be, what's the highest priority, and that is where the resources are going to go,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 2020
Smoke impact on fresh produce
According to a 2018 preliminary UC Cooperative Extension Sonoma study, smoke from 2017 fires had little impact on local Sonoma County produce.
Based on preliminary findings, "...produce safety was not significantly affected by the fires and may be mitigated by washing produce."
The Californian, August 21, 2020