It’s been a horrific couple of years for fire in California.
In the last two years, the state has experienced four of the 20 largest and eight of the most destructive wildfires in recorded history. In 2018 alone, nearly 1.9 million acres were destroyed and at least 88 people were killed in the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise. So, with the 2019 fire season starting, many of us are wondering if this will be another terrible year.
Recent news on the subject claims a “bleak outlook,” but just how “bleak” is hard to discern. Exactly how bad will it be, and where the big fires will occur? It’s a big state — what’s the outlook for the Peninsula and South Bay?
To get answers to some of these questions, I sat down with Dr. Peter Cowan, POST’s Director of Conservation Science. Dr. Cowan’s dissertation at U.C. Berkeley focused on the evolution of plants in fire-prone plant communities such as chaparral. His research interests lie in understanding how climate and humans shape nature, particularly in regard to wildfire. I knew he would have insight into this year’s wildfire forecast.
Here’s what he had to say:
Dr. Cowan: The outlook is for an “above normal” year for California wildfire, with the potential increasing the deeper we get into the dry season.
The most widely accepted wildfire forecast comes from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise. Their outlook for 2019 predicts “above normal” fire potential for parts of the state through October. The release of this outlook earlier this month is what spurred some of the media coverage folks may have seen. Of course, much like a weather forecast, it’s challenging to predict with much specificity when or where a fire is likely to occur and even harder to predict the few fires that cause the majority of the damage every year.
As Jerry Brown said, Californians should prepare for a “new normal” for wildfire. So far this year, the state has seen fewer fires, especially larger ones, than we have at this point in the last two years. This is probably due to our very wet winter; however, the largest and most dangerous fires tend to occur later in the year. Climate change continues to make the state hotter and drier, and the wildfire seasons more intense, so seeing an outlook for an “above normal” wildfire year was really no surprise.
Dr. Cowan: Our area has had the same general amount of rain as the rest of the state, so the “above normal” outlook for the state certainly applies to us here on the Peninsula and the South Bay, too.
Historically (pre-Gold Rush) this area (Peninsula and South Bay) would burn with some degree of regularity. The native plant communities here are adapted to fire; it’s always been a natural part of this landscape – so, yes, there’s always the potential for a wildfire this time of year. More recently, our area has seen fewer wildfires than other regions of the state, but I don’t know of an analysis of why that might be.
More broadly, the concern identified in this year’s outlook is centered around grasses in many parts of the state. Since we had such a wet winter, our grasses grew tremendously and are more continuous than they would be in a drier year. Where those grasses haven’t been grazed or mowed, our annual seasonal drought converted them into very dry potential fuels.
Dr. Cowan: The conservation community and land management agencies on the Peninsula and in the South Bay are highly motivated to better prepare our region for the when, and not the if, of a wildfire event.
The last few years have been a real wake-up call for how severe the fire risk has become and what’s at stake. This goes without saying at the state level, but there’s also a lot of movement regionally to better prepare our landscapes. And so, you’ll see private landowners, like POST, working to create shaded fuel breaks or complete forest restoration work on our properties. Groups of concerned citizens and landowners are also participating in local fire safe councils to make high-risk communities more fire safe.
In part of our region, including at POST’s San Vicente Redwoods property, the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council has worked diligently to help landowners plan, secure funding, and create fuel breaks to protect the community. And government agencies, like our partners at San Mateo County Parks and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District are actively working to manage their lands, to reduce the fire risk to the community that’s in or around those lands.
Dr. Cowan: It’s an area of forest where flammable, short vegetation and low hanging branches have been thinned or removed reducing the likelihood of fire climbing and spreading among the tops of trees. This keeps the fire at ground-level, where it’s more easily controlled.
A typical forest, particularly if it hasn’t experienced a recent fire or active management, will have a continuum of plant material from the ground up toward the canopy of the trees. When a wildfire occurs within these forest conditions, it can easily spread upward, climbing up the plants, aka “ladder fuels,” and into the canopy of the forest. From there, the fire can spread directly from tree-top to tree-top, making it really dangerous and difficult to fight.
To make a shaded fuel break, you move the smaller plant fuel onto the ground. This helps keep the fire as low as possible as opposed to up in the tree-tops. So, while it often reduces the overall fuel available to a fire, the more important aspect is that it changes the structure and orientation of those fuels to be down on the ground – this protects evacuation routes and give firefighters additional options when containing wildfires.
Dr. Cowan: I would suggest checking the CAL FIRE incidences map, especially around October and November.
It’s good to know where the fires are before traveling, so you can plan accordingly. Air quality monitoring later in the season will also be important, as folks in the area likely learned last season during the Camp Fire.
You should also check if you live in a high-risk area for wildfire. All of the state’s high-risk areas have fire safe councils – community groups responsible for fire safety. If you live in a high-risk area, it would be a good idea to connect with your local council. The statewide organization also has some great information on how to prepare your home for future wildfire events.
Last thing to mention is that the San Mateo and Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation Districts are also great agencies to connect with if you’re a private landowner looking to make your property more resilient to fire.
In talking with Dr. Cowan, I was reminded of how important fire is to the health of the landscape and felt more at ease heading into the heart of the fire season. I realized too that the conversation about wildfire is something that will likely be more prevalent in our lives in the future so I appreciate his insight and hope you find it useful too.
Here’s hoping for a safe season.
Dr. Peter Cowan is an ecologist fascinated by how species interactions, climate and humans shape nature. A Stanford and Berkeley graduate, he has concentrated on conservation throughout California for the past three years. After completing his dissertation on the evolution of chaparral and other fire-prone plant communities, he worked on science policy in Sacramento and Washington DC before returning to the Peninsula. He joined POST as Director of Conservation Science in early 2018.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 80,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more