Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires

The deadly Wine Country blazes ignited and grew in forests and shrublands.

 

Before the California wine country fires roared through vineyards and neighborhoods, they first blazed in the forests and shrublands in the rugged coastal foothills. “They started well into the wildland areas and then burned into heavily populated areas; places people would never have expected wildfires to come through,” says Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, the state fire agency.

So far, the fires in Northern California have 42 people and destroyed several thousand homes. Strong winds and low humidity have helped make these fires among the most damaging in state history. The deadliest was the Tubbs Fire in and around Santa Rosa; 22 people died. Embers from that fire were carried in the wind and showered houses, spreading the fire rapidly in residential areas, according to Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director of Cal Fire.

A fire burns along a ridge during the California wildfires this month in Rough and Ready, California.

But the condition of forests and shrublands also contributed to how severe the fires were when they approached urban areas, says Brandon Collins, a research scientist at UC Berkeley. The fires gained intensity as they ran through mixed hardwood forests and slopes covered with chaparral, manzanita and other shrubs. Chaparral “is designed to burn pretty hot,” says an associate professor of fire ecology at Humboldt State. And both forests and shrublands were overgrown, choked with underbrush and small trees that provided a continuous source of fuel as the fires moved across the hilly terrain.

“Wind alone will make even a grass fire spread quickly, but it would not have the head of steam that this one had to penetrate so deeply into the urban areas,” Collins adds. “You can’t just say it’s the wind because you have to have the fuels, too.”

That fuels buildup is largely the result of firefighters snuffing out almost every wildfire in the area for many years. While a few big burns in the 1960s and 1980s covered some of the same footprint as this month’s fires, “we’ve been pretty successful taking fire out of there,” Collins says. “To every extent possible they’ve suppressed fire there for decades.”

Northern California typically has four to six months of dry weather in a row, which creates the potential for fires. But with some exceptions, the region has been able to keep fire in check by aggressively suppressing blazes. These recent fires, and the 2015 Valley Fire, show that strategy may no longer fit the challenge. The Valley Fire more than 2,000 homes and other structures in Lake County. “If you start piecing these things together, you realize these aren’t just one-offs,” Collins says. “The spread is so quick that no crew can make an impact; they’re growing faster than we can do anything to control them.”

Across the West, climate change is lengthening wildfire seasons and contributing to hotter and drier conditions that make landscapes more prone to high-intensity blazes. In a groundbreaking published last October, scientists estimated that nearly half of the acreage burned in Western forests over the last three decades could be attributed to human-caused climate change.

Experts say that it’s already clear that to protect communities in the future, fighting fires will not be enough. Communities near forests and shrublands need to cut down some trees and remove the underbrush or use controlled burns. “Where you have dense communities adjacent to wildlands, these kinds of events are going to happen,” Kane says, unless landowners, local governments and others actively work to reduce fuels and build with fire resistant materials.

Cal Fire staffers are now trying to determine how these recent fires were ignited and what made them so destructive. “We have investigators out there,” Tolmachoff says. “Then we’ll work from there to decide what we could have done to prevent, stop or slow them.”

One strategy might be reducing the overgrowth in forests not just close to homes, but far away from populated areas as well. The Wine Country blazes traveled from distant wild landscapes and jumped across supposed barriers like roads and strips of bare land. Northern California is not unique in needing this remedy, says Collins: “I think this could very well apply to heavily forested areas of Sierras and Rocky Mountains; we’re seeing large fire growth everywhere in the Western United States.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 5 acres, views, utilities to lot line includes paid water tap, great for passive solar design, covenants and NO HOA. Listed by Beckie at Keller...
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society (NAFWS) is seeking qualified applicants to fill a vacant Executive Director position in Denver, CO. The position serves...
  • The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success using the power of the...
  • 383 Acres with trails, private road, trees, stream and fabulous views. Earth Sheltered, passive solar home provides 2785 sf of comfort and a "top of...
  • certified, 51 acres, small cottage, outbuildings, equipment and tools. Contact: [email protected]
  • 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River, NM. MLS #101605. Contact [email protected]
  • of mountains, 22+ acres. Close to Arroyo Seco and the Taos Ski Valley, NM. MLS #102585, [email protected]
  • 2br-2ba, acreage. Birders, writers. 1000.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • The Wilderness Society is currently recruiting for a Communications Manager for our Northwest Region. This position can be located in Seattle or Oakland. For more...
  • 1912 Orchard House completely rebuilt 2002. 4000 sq ft home and private guest cottage on .53 acres. Reclaimed maple and Doug Fir. Two garages. CathyMooney.com,...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) seeks a new Executive Director to guide this dynamic national advocacy, watchdog, and service organization. The successful candidate requires...
  • The California Program Manager will work closely with California-based program staff and other NFF staff to provide project management and program development support. The incumbent...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Sierra Club is looking for a community organizer who can help us protect grizzly bears and other wildlife species in the Northern Rockies region. This...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....