California is burning. The state is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history and has seen 1,000 more wildfires this year than last. In 2013 the largest wildfire ever in the Sierra Nevada, the Rim Fire, took two months to fully contain and seared more than 250,000 acres. Scientists warn that Californians should prepare for a future of more Rim Fires, fueled by climate change, drought, and forest mismanagement. California Burning is a multimedia examination of how Californians are coping with the increased threat, technologies being developed to fight and predict fire, and how we can make forests less prone to megafires in the future.
Northern Californians Prepare For Megafires
The 2013 Rim Fire was the largest wildfire ever in the Sierra Nevada, scorching 257,000 acres. It grabbed headlines and attention like almost no other. The fire burned into one of California’s most beloved national parks, Yosemite. A year later, the scars still show, not just on the land but on the people who watched it burn.
“It was burning so dramatically here it became obvious that no human was going to stop this fire,” says Jerry Baker of Groveland. “In my mind, at that instant, it was obviously hopeless.”
Baker watched the Rim Fire burn from Tuolumne Trails, a camp he owns for people with special medical needs. He saw the fire jump the Tuolumne River and rage up the canyon toward the camp. He says flames were so high they created a “wall of red” right in front of him.
“What I just didn’t realize was the velocity that fire can create,” says Baker.
He looks at a large swath of scorched land near his property and points to a hill in the distance. “I was watching this hill burn and the flames were over here, and a tree over there would burst into flames just spontaneously,” says Baker.
Baker thought he was prepared. He has defensible space and the buildings on his land have sprinkler systems. But what he witnessed gave him pause.
“The fact that the fire's over there and you’ve cleared all the ground 100 feet away from it doesn’t mean too much when you have trees exploding 100 yards away from each other from the sheer heat and the rain of embers,” he says.
Ultimately retardant dumped from a plane helped save his camp.
A Perfect Storm
A perfect storm of conditions made the Rim Fire severe, at one point burning 90,000 acres in two days.
“Ninety-eight degrees in the afternoon, the humidity was five or six percent, and most importantly the winds were blowing 45 mph and gusting up to 65 and 70 mph,” says Malcolm North, a research scientist with the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. “Even with the best fire fighting forces in the world, there’s no way in hell you can contain a fire under those types of conditions.”
North walks through an area burned by the Rim Fire. He says decades of fire suppression created a forest choked with trees and brush. Timber “plantations” planted like rows of corn after a previous fire, also helped fuel the flames.
“The problem is those plantations are really prone to getting incinerated if not vaporized in a wildfire and we had a lot of that in this Rim Fire,” says North.
In 1911, the U.S. Forest Service surveyed a 15,000 acre area in the Stanislaus National Forest, which later burned in the Rim Fire. The survey found about 25 trees per acre. Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at the University of California Berkeley, and his researchers went back to the same area just before the Rim Fire.
“We found in the same places, we saw tree densities of 220 to 230 trees per acre, so at least a tenfold increase,” says Stephens. “Today, you go out there and I have to say, it is wall-to-wall trees.”
Bear Creek Fire Guard Station, Plumas National Forest
Wall-to-wall trees are a familiar picture for many property owners in the Sierra Nevada.
“I think the Rim Fire really opened everybody’s eyes to how dangerous things are and how much debris and material that’s on the ground,” says Chris Khan, who runs the Old Oak Ranch Conference Center in Sonora.
For the last several months, Khan has worked to remove the estimated 40 to 80 tons of brush and small trees he says make the 160 acre campus a danger zone. The property sits at the top of a canyon and has limited access for fire trucks.
“We’re basically an accident waiting to happen right now. If a fire were to start down below, it would just come up, rush through,” he says.
Fire Safe Councils
Khan is working with his local Fire Safe Council. Fire Safe Councils provide federal funds to communities to help make them fire safe. Glenn Gottschal with the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council says not all homeowners are as aware of the increased threat as they should be.
“I think they have to learn to live with fire,” says Gottschal. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ we’re going to have a fire in this area, it’s just when, and whether or not we can be ready for it.”
Since the Rim Fire, Jerry Baker has built an observation deck at his camp in Groveland. It overlooks the canyon where trees once stood. It’s there as a reminder of the damage megafires can cause.
“It is a broad environmental disaster when something like this happens, and that’s not just a disaster for us that want to look at the trees, it’s a disaster for everybody that lives in the state and the country,” says Baker.
Historically, small fires from lightning strikes sculpted the forests, removing smaller trees and brush that could act as fuel. But scientists say until fire is consistently returned to the forest, even a small spark in the wrong place has the potential to become another Rim Fire.
These aerial photos show areas hit by the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio with Assistance from Lighthawk.
Wildfires Drive Up Insurance Costs For Homeowners
By Cody Drabble
Donna Hoffman and her husband have lived in El Cajon for 18 years. In that time, the most they paid for homeowners insurance was about $2,300 per year.
Last year’s renewal notice came as a surprise. Facing the need to cover the growing risk after recent wildfires in the inland San Diego community, their insurer sent notice that their homeowners insurance premium would jump $4,000. The Hoffmans negotiated for a higher deductible to maintain the lower premium. Even with that, the policy renewal notice for this year went up to $7,200.
“I can’t justify that kind of increase,” Hoffman said. “I’m doing anything I can possibly do at this point. I’m ready to move. I’m really upset by the $5,000 increase just for the insurance. That’s scary, next year it could be $10,000.”
Just like the Hoffmans, many California homeowners living in high fire risk communities are feeling burned by insurance companies. Premiums cost more. Deductibles are higher. Carriers are sending out non-renewal notices to swaths of Sierra foothill towns. The cost of living near California forests is leaving some homeowners feeling trapped.
Timeline: Governing The Wilderness
In California, it’s only a matter of time before the next fire. Click on the image below to see an interactive timeline that traces the earliest efforts by California and the U.S. to write the rules for conserving natural beauty and preventing catastrophic destruction.
Some photos courtesy of "The Big Burn," premiering on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on PBS in 2015
Southern California Homeowners Left To Defend
Wildfires behave differently in southern California than in northern forests. Strong Santa Ana winds and the unique ecology of the southland make fire inevitable and dangerous. Firefighters often can’t prevent fire from reaching neighborhoods and homes without defensible space must often be left to burn. Ecologists say it’s a problem with no easy solution.
“One thing you can say about southern California is there is no ‘no-fire’ alternative,” says Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at UC Berkeley. “It’s impossible. Twenty million people living down there, just accidents and downed power lines and everything else? You’ve just got fire period,” says Stephens.
Too Much Fire
The 1961 Bel Air Fire was one of the largest in Los Angeles County history. Since then, destruction from wildfires has only escalated and the threat persists almost year round.
Jon Keeley, a research ecologist United States Geological Survey, looks over Interstate 405 near Bel Air in a narrow canyon called Sepulveda Pass. The area has burned at least three times since the 1961 fire. Historically, this Chaparral environment would see fires every 30 to 100 years.
“One of the problems when you burn too frequently is you perturb the system by eliminating much of the native plant competition that would keep invasive species out,” says Keeley.
Invasive plants can be far more flammable than natives. And with more people living on the hillsides and in the canyons of southern California, fire occurs far too often.
Terry McGough of Pasadena watched his historic Craftsman home burn down in the wind-driven 1993 Altadena fire.
"It caught the fence on fire. The fence blew over against our house, caught the siding on fire and it went right up into the eave and that was it. There was nothing we could do,” says McGough.
“For the last 60 years we’ve averaged 500 homes a year lost from wildfires,” says Jon Keeley. “In the last decade, it’s doubled. Since the year 2000, we’ve averaged about 1,000 homes a year lost from wildfires."
Strong Santa Ana winds can create unstoppable fires in southern California. Keeley’s research has shown that even fuel breaks, where vegetation is removed, don’t slow a fire.
“Unless they are accessed by firefighters, fuel breaks generally aren’t very useful. They really don’t tend to be a passive barrier to fire spread, particularly if you have wind,” says Keeley.
Those winds pushed the Altadena fire through McGough’s neighborhood and others like a blowtorch, eventually destroying 151 homes. McGough stayed during the fire, saved his neighbors’ homes and dodged baseball size embers blown at him at 70 miles an hour.
“There was a house across the street that was so intensely burning that it was actually melting the roofing on a house that was 40 feet away,” says McGough. “I had to hide behind a Sycamore tree to keep from just being scalded."
Building Safer Homes
McGough has rebuilt his home where the old one burned, but he’s built it much differently. It has stucco siding and fire-safe vents to prevent embers from blowing into his attic.
“And I also have a very heavy comp roof that doesn’t sustain a flame,” he says. He’s also worked with the Pasadena Glen Fire Safe Council to remove non-native plants and highly flammable oleander bushes.
Mala Arthur, president of the Pasadena Glen Fire Safe Council, says protecting neighborhoods against wildfires requires more than just clearing brush. Just one road leads into the neighborhood, and it’s very narrow for fire trucks. Arthur says the council organized emergency communications to instantly notify the neighborhood when fire breaks out. “It sends out texts, emails, phone calls, whatever else people can get all at the same time,” says Arthur.
The messages can be targeted to different parts of the neighborhood to avoid a traffic jam on the road leading out of the community. Tim Eldridge, vice president of the Pasadena Glen Fire Safe Council, says the system has been in place four years, but it hasn’t been needed yet. Eldridge also lost his home to the Altadena fire.
“You have to accept the fact that the fire department may never show up in your neighborhood,” says Eldridge. “That’s what the Fire Safe Council is really for is to tell people you can’t put this on someone else. You have to take personal responsibility for it.”
Some homeowners in southern California have taken fire preparation to new levels. Rob Staehle and Lori Paul live next to the Angeles National Forest in Altadena. Their 1950’s home is built of cinder block with a metal roof.
“Here at the head of the driveway, visible to fire trucks and anyone else coming, is this barrier foam, and it comes in these one gallon containers,” says Staehle.
The fire-retardant foam sits in a box with “Attention Firefighters” written on the side. It sits next to a large diameter garden hose. The foam is used to fireproof windows and wooden doors. Staehle walks toward the door and picks up what looks like a metal jet pack.
“I have this fire backpack that’s used in forest firefighting,” he says. “So I can be 20 or 30 feet from something that’s burning and put four or five gallons of water on it pretty quickly.”
The couple also keeps glass water bottles at every door of their house at all times. Most of their neighborhood evacuated during the 2009 Station Fire. They stayed. So did the firefighters. Lori Paul says their preparation, along with the 3,500 gallon pond in their yard, and their neighbor’s helipad made them feel secure.
“I would use the word stupid and irresponsible if you don’t prepare in advance,” says Paul. “If you live in a place like this, in this kind of rugged terrain with narrow roads leading to your home, you’re foolish if you don’t think in advance about what are we going to do.”
Their small older neighborhood has only one exit. But they say even some newer, larger developments have grown without fire safety in mind. A state law recently enacted requires new communities in high fire hazard areas to plan better. Experts say, with climate change and population growth, homeowners in southern California should understand that defensible space may not be enough to save their homes.
Fires Fuel New Technologies
Scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno are developing high tech methods to fight, manage and prevent wildfires.
One of their new tools is a virtual wildfire simulator called Vfire. It requires me to don a pair of LCD glasses, a special kind of 3D glasses. I’m in a room with screens all around me, even above and below me. With the glasses on I can see Kyle Canyon outside Las Vegas. It’s a box canyon with one entrance and exit. And I’m a virtual firefighter.
“You’ll notice that that fire is spreading over the hill at us,” says Matt Sgambati, a high performance computing digitalization systems analyst. “The smoke is coming at us, pretty soon we won’t be able to see what’s going on."
Justin Broglio, communications officer at DRI, is in this virtual world with me and we’re in trouble.
“What you’re seeing right now is Matt has put us literally on the ground, in the middle of a night fire with the wind blowing a certain direction," says Broglio. "You can see the fire in front of you."
Sgambati then changes our environment and I can see what looks like a cabin in the woods in the distance.
“We can go in front of a building and catch it on fire,” says Sgambati.
I’m able to walk over to the building and stand inside it. I then see the building slowly melt away. In real life, I’d be dead.
Vfire has tools that allow you to manipulate your environment in real-time. It can train firefighters to react to a wildfire’s changing behavior. You can change the scene from night to day, change the type of trees and how they burn, you can even make your own fuel breaks to see how fires react to them. Smoke can be above you and flames can sneak up behind you. It can also help commanders trying to manage a fire.
“If they decide to go in one direction and you know it’s the wrong direction, you can either start more fires there, change the wind, add more fuel, it’s really up to the user what they want to do,” says Sgambati.
Sgambati envisions a day when Vfire could be incorporated into a satellite mapping program like Google Earth. It would have the ability to show vast geographic regions to allow a user to see just how far a fire could spread.
“Right now we’re in Kyle Canyon. If we kept traveling west we would hit California mountainous areas,” says Sgambati. “Say we have 20 fires happening at the same time, how do we coordinate all this? Where’s the best place to start? Where do we dig the fire breaks?” asks Sgambati. “That’s what I would love to get to.”
Scientists say Vfire has the potential to simulate the kind of extreme fire events that are predicted with climate change.
Researchers here have shown this virtual world to fire agencies in California and Nevada. They haven’t yet set up training scenarios for firefighters, but it’s the next big step.
Below are more pictures of the Desert Research Institute's virtual wildfire simulator Vfire. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Right now determining the potential for fire is relatively easy, but not as accurate as it could be. In Los Angeles, foresters hike the hills and canyons measuring the amount of moisture in plants to determine if conditions are ripe for wildfire.
“These plants are what carry the fire, it’s our main fuel out here for the wildfires,” says forestry technician Ryan Morris. He’s in La Tuna Canyon near Sun Valley. “The more moisture it [the plants] has the harder it is for it to ignite and burn.”
Deputy Forester Tamara Hanna says the tools they use to measure fuel moisture are “kind of old school.” They take cuttings with pruning shears.
“This is Chemise,” says Hanna. “The reason we use Chemise as our baseline plant is because in Los Angeles County, all of the fuel locations we sample from, Chemise is the dominant plant.”
They place the cuttings in a plastic bottle, go back to the station and pop the bottle in an oven, heating it to measure the percentage of moisture in the plant. Sixteen hours later, they have results. The process is time consuming and labor intensive.
“Right now we’re limited to areas we can access vehicularly or on foot,” says Hanna. “We spend a whole week driving through Los Angeles County to sample from the 20 something different sites that we sample from. We’re collecting anywhere from two to five different samples at each location.”
They also only sample certain spots, on the sunny sides of mountains where the potential for fire is logically higher.
But now beyond just boots on the ground, they’re turning to technology and testing the possible use of data collected by satellites to help determine fire danger. They’ve teamed up with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“From the satellite we have the capability of looking over the entire landscape, and we can do this sort of measurement almost daily,” says Son Nghiem, the senior JPL research scientist on the project.
The satellites can measure not just live-fuel moisture, but the top two to three inches of soil moisture as well, to develop a more accurate picture.
“The forest floor is carpeted with this layer of dead leaves and branches and if that kind of thing gets very dry, it can pose a very dangerous situation for wildfire,” says Nghiem.
Armed with such information, fire agencies get a better idea of where the risk of fire is greatest, and can dispatch firefighters where they’re needed most. Scientists hope to use the satellite data more in the future. They also hope to merge the satellite data with online maps so homeowners can easily access critical fire information.
Hiking Through The Illilouette
A Three-Day Backpacking Journey
Kate Wilkin with UC Berkeley unfolds a map before we start our backpacking journey into Yosemite. She’s an expert in the flora and fauna of the forest where we’re headed. And she’s researching how fire affects that landscape.
“I’m really excited to be able to share the Illilouette with you,” says Wilkin. “I think it’s a really special place in California’s natural and human history.”
Lightning fires have been allowed to burn unabated in the Illilouette Creek Basin in the southeastern part of the park for nearly 40 years. Over that time, the vast 40,000 acre forest has had more than 150 fires. This is actually a reflection of California’s wildfire history, before modern times, when six million acres of forest would burn each year.
This map depicts the approximate route for the Illilouette hike.
This is my very first experience in Yosemite. And Wilkin’s next remarks are a little disconcerting.
“I’m curious if anyone has any medical training?” asks Wilkin.
My first thought? Bears.
“The two safety concerns are eating your own fecal coliform and then exposure,” she says.
Ok, not bears. I’m pretty sure I can avoid the first concern, and I brought a jacket.
We’re going to hike eight miles into an area where Wilkin is doing her research. We start in Mono Meadow.
If someone could draw a picture of an ideal meadow, it would look just like this. It’s what you might imagine in fairy tales. Wildflowers of purple, yellow, and white dot the landscape. Trees, dead and blanched from the sun, lie on the edge of the meadow. Wilkin explains that when fire burns through a forest and trees die, wetland plants often take their place. She says trees are like giant straws. Fewer trees mean more water is available.
Grasses, knee-high, lush and green, brush my knees as I walk through the meadow. I immediately forget that California is in a drought. I’ve never seen grasses this high in a forest.
“This area has a lot of water and then when you have such an open forest the sun is hitting the forest floor and they can really grow. It’s a perfect condition for them,” says Wilkin.
We walk beyond the meadow, through a shady forest and then arrive at an open area that takes my breath away. Lodgepole pine trees - black from fire and leafless - stick up from the ground like toothpicks.
“Here, you can feel how thin the bark is and how that probably isn’t a good insulator from heat. It’s real papery thin,” says Wilkin.
A thriving field of buckbrush and blue lupine are underneath the trees. We walk a few miles further and set up camp near the Illilouette Creek.
The next morning Wilkin explains what we’re up against.
“So we have about five miles this morning, mostly uphill with our pack on and then we’re going to probably camp up on a ridge,” says Wilkin.
“Uphill?” I ask.
“All uphill,” says Wilkin. “It’s real mild though.”
Everything seems mild to Wilkin. She easily carries 50 pounds on her back and would hike 20 miles a day fueled only by her love for the forest. As we hike, I begin to realize that nothing in this forest is uniform. The scenery and the types of trees change with each mile. We come across huge pine trees with big black scars that race up their trunks. I stop in front of one and soon discover that fire scars excite Wilkin.
“This big tree here, it still got its crown so it’s probably not going to die, right?” I ask.
“It looks healthy. It looks fantastic,” says Wilkin.
“Yeah, that’s a happy tree. Fire starts to thin the trees competition and so right now this tree has more sun and more water than it had before the fire.”
By the late afternoon of Day 2, we finally arrive at a stone ridge where we’ll camp for the night. Wilkin takes me off-trail to show me where she’s doing her research.
We’re eight miles from civilization, deep in the Illilouette Basin. Wilkin is standing underneath a huge Jeffrey Pine.
“I’m looking at it and I can see this great orange bark,” says Wilkin. “It’s so thick you could almost grab a hold of it.”
The thick bark makes it resilient in a fire. We’re surrounded by a forest of these trees, some about six feet around. It feels like I’m in a park. But I can also see patches of dense smaller trees. Wilkin is a self-professed sucker for a colorful flower, and points to the forest floor.
“So I’m looking down here and I’m seeing Brewer’s Lupine, I’m seeing Squirrel Tail Elemis, and I’m seeing Rabbit brush,” says Wilkin. “I wouldn’t expect to see these things in an area that had a closed canopy.”
Wilkin says lightning fires here have struck at different times and hit areas where earlier fires have burned.
“In 1994, you had the Horizon Fire. A few years later you had the Hoover fire. The Hoover Fire was moving through the basin and hit that old fire scar, and some of it reburned, but most of it didn’t. It mostly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Wilkin.
The Illilouette is a mosaic, sculpted by lightning fires. But it takes miles to get to and is surrounded by granite, making a fire unlikely to put people at risk. Letting lightning fires burn isn’t something that can be done everywhere. But experts say to prevent the kinds of fires we don’t want, we need some help from what nature provides.
“In my mind when I think about the natural forest here in the Illilouette the number one thing I think about is reduced fire risk,” says Wilkin. “We’re less likely to have a big catastrophic fire, so both the environment and people are much safer.
Hiking the eight miles back to the trailhead, I wonder if I’ll ever see this forest again. I’m exhausted and not sure I could return. But I’m grateful that I took this journey and was able to see what the Sierra once looked like before fires were suppressed.
Data by Kate Wilkin, Adapted from S.L. Stephens, R.E. Martin, N.E. Clinton, Preshistoric fire area and emissions from California's forests, woodlands, shrublands and grasslands.
Graphics by: Melody Stone.
This video shows how fires have interacted with the Illilouette Basin throughout history. Video courtesy of Kate Wilkin and Shane Fairchild.
Slideshow of the trip through the Illilouette Basin. Photos / Curtis Jerome Haynes.
Past Forest Mismanagement Helps Spawn Megafires
In 1944, the US Forest Service began one of the longest running advertising campaigns in American history, with the deep iconic voice of Smokey Bear teaching us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” But times have changed.
“The Smokey the Bear concept that only you can prevent wildfire is just not true,” says Malcolm North, researcher for the US Forest Service.
He says that belief translated into decades of fire suppression policies that made wildfires worse. “These forests eventually burn even if you keep all the human ignitions out of them,” he says. “If you put out all the fire then you delay that inevitable fire from happening until you have no ability to control it.”
North walks through Aspen Valley in Yosemite National Park in an area where the Park Service has either intentionally set controlled fires, known as prescribed fires, or has let wildfires burn. He says it’s one of the best restored forests in California. But strong winds, high temperatures, and a nearby forest dense with trees left the area scorched in last year’s Rim Fire. North’s research here came to what he calls a depressing conclusion.
“When fire burns under extreme weather conditions, even your best efforts at making a resilient forest are in vain, it still gets vaporized like this around us,” he says.
Pace of Treating Forest Not Enough
North says making forests resistant to megafires is not going to be easy. He says the pace for treating the forest either through thinning or prescribed burning is abysmal. Part of the problem is that after 25 years, an area of the forest that’s been treated must be treated again.
"You look at how much is treated currently and how often you need to get in there to maintain it at current pace and scale, two-thirds of the forest you’ll never even get to,” he says.
He and other researchers say less than 20 percent of the Sierra Nevada’s forested landscape is receiving the treatment it needs.
North along with UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens reached that conclusion in a 2012 study of Forest Service lands. Stephens says it doesn’t bode well for the future.
“That’s what I call a train-wreck,” says Stephens. “If you’re thinking about the forest going forward in a vulnerable condition, and lo and behold they’re going into a condition that’s even warmer and with even more variability and drought, this basically sets it up for even more potential for burning.”
Air Regulations Prevent Prescribed Burning
Just off one of the main roads on the west side of Yosemite National Park, is a stand of forest dense with trees. “As you look out you just see this incredible understory of just thousands of little trees that are growing up under the canopy of some of these larger trees,” says Kelly Martin, fire and aviation chief for Yosemite National Park.
Branches of small fir trees are intertwined. You can barely see the forest floor. A deer would have trouble traveling through this area.
“This is what we call ladder fuels. It [the fire] starts from the bottom. These little trees provide a ladder to the next tree, to the next tree, and then that’s what can create a crown fire and kill the larger overstory trees,” says Martin.
Yosemite has one of the longest records of prescribed burning in California. Martin says the window for prescribed burning is very narrow because of air quality regulations.
“The conflict is smoke and how smoke affects human health and where we want to burn is around communities,” says Martin. “Those communities often have smoke-sensitive people with asthma.”
Air quality regulations often conflict with forest restoration, even though one major wildfire can create far worse air quality than periodic prescribed fires. Eleven million metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted from the Rim Fire, an amount equal to the emissions of 2.3 million vehicles a year.
Barriers To Mechanical Treatments
Some areas of the forest are so dense with trees that prescribed burning isn’t even an option.
“It would be great some day to actually see fire do the beneficial work that it did for eons in these mountains, but these are not natural conditions,” says Jim Branham, executive officer with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
Logging or mechanically thinning the forest come with their own complications. Machinery can’t traverse steep inclines and roadless areas. Smaller trees aren’t valuable enough to turn into lumber, and there aren’t enough biomass facilities close enough to make transporting the material economically feasible. The few lumber mills that do exist are currently running at capacity. Branham says megafires fires like the Rim Fire have actually made that problem worse.
“We’re chasing this problem right now,” says Branham. “The amount of black logs that are going to fill up the mills this year...which means we won’t be doing as much work in the green forest where we need to catch up with the thinning. It seems like we’re in a vicious cycle right now.”
Compounding the problem are homes and subdivisions built within or right next to forests. As a result, fire agencies will always need to suppress fires.
“We know under extreme conditions like this year wildland fire is burning in ways that are much more intense than in years past,” says Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, which is responsible for protecting 31 million acres of private land. “We need to ensure that communities are doing more than just what’s required by law because that’s really what it’s going to take,” he says.
Pimlott says that means building safer homes, creating fuel breaks and being more aggressive in establishing defensible space.
The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences has long term study sites at the confluence of the Tuolumne and Clavey rivers, near where the Rim Fire of 2013 started. As part of these long term study sites, they captured a gigapixel image of the confluence in June 2013. Center staff went back soon after the fire, in mid-September. This area of the fire burned at a lower severity than many areas, but the evidence of fire was clear. They captured a second gigapixel image of the area from the same location at that time. SEE GIGAPIXEL IMAGE HERE.
In Yosemite’s Aspen Valley, Malcolm North with the U.S. Forest Service walks down a road and points to a huge patch of dying trees that were severely burned by the Rim Fire. On the other side of the road, trees are fire-scarred but very much alive with green canopies. Prescribed burning slowed the Rim Fire’s destruction here once the weather calmed.
“All these fires are basically the result of decisions that we’ve made,” says North. “They’re not acts of God. All these things are our responsibility. We’ve made decisions that have created these kinds of fuel conditions and this kind of fire effect on the forest."
Experts are optimistic that forests in California can be restored. They say more money is needed to increase the pace and scale of thinning and prescribed burning. They say natural wildfires should be allowed to burn in areas where there aren’t homes. Californians would also have to learn to live with fire and the smoke that comes with it. Otherwise we can expect a future where megafires like the Rim Fire become the norm.
On Sept. 29, Capital Public Radio launched our series California Burning. It's a project that our environment reporter, Amy Quinton, has been working on for more than six months. We’ll talk with Amy about some of the interesting things she has learned over the course of reporting the series and listen to some of the tape that did not make it into her stories. Amy will give us an overview of the major issues facing California’s forests and look back at the 2013 Rim Fire.
As part of our California Burning series looking at wildfires across our state, we’ll look across the Pacific to Australia for key lessons in fire prevention and management. In 2003 and 2009, Australia endured some of the biggest and deadliest wildfires in its history. University of Melbourne Professor Kevin Tolhurst will give the Australian perspective and tell us how that country is managing wildfires. And we’ll talk with UC Berkeley Professor of Fire Science Scott Stephens about his research and what California and federal policymakers can learn about how to protect our forests from the next Rim Fire.
On Insight we’re looking at the impact of forest management on California’s watersheds. In the studio, we’ll have Kim Carr with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy who can talk about two important papers published by the SNC this year. First, there’s the Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis, which showed that Californians can save a lot of money by paying for forest fuel load treatments now instead of waiting for the next megafire. Second, there’s the State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests report that examines the ecological impacts on our forests and suggests where the most progress can be made in forest management. Also, we’ll be joined by Phil Saksa, a graduate researcher and Southern California Edison Fellow with the UC Merced Mountain Hydrology Research Group, part of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
As firefighters continue the mop up of the King Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties, we’ll talk with federal air quality officials about how wildfires are affecting the air we breathe. We’ll also talk about how prescribed burning can be an effective tool to mitigate and prevent larger wildfires, and the public relations difficulties that go into planning and executing a prescribed fire.
Insight talks with homeowners who face the threat of wildfires every summer. Jerry Baker is a Groveland resident and business owner. Neville Conle is the president of the Greater Alpine Fire Safe Council in eastern San Diego County, right next to Cleveland National Forest. Both guests live with the constant threat of wildfire in their community. We’ll ask them what they do to stay prepared and keep their homes safe.
Reporter/Producer: Amy Quinton
Special Projects Producer: Cody Drabble
Digital News Producer: Marnette Federis
Graphics: Melody Stone
Project Adviser: Chris Bowman