Shrub predicts fire season terror!

Bryant Baker

…Chamise turns out to be a fascinating plant, one critical not only to the California landscape but to the safety of its human residents. When fire scientists want to know how flammable the state’s vegetation might be, they don’t rely on some newfangled gadget. They rely on chamise. “It’s a really pretty and kind of understated shrub,” says Bryant Baker, conservation director of the Los Padres ForestWatch … “And I think because it’s so common, it’s often taken for granted.” …

…Because the plant is so abundant, it’s a sort of standardized species—they can sample it all over the state. Fire weather researchers like San Jose State University’s Craig Clements … use it to get an idea of how parched vegetation is overall.

And nothing scares a fire weather scientist quite like a year with dehydrated chamise. If it’s dry, then that’s a good indicator that everything is dry. “Right now, these are the lowest April 1 fuel moistures we’ve ever had,” Clements says. This is supposed to be the time of year when moisture levels are at their highest, thanks to recent autumn and winter rains. But California is withering in a drought.

Read it and weep, sisters and brothers. Much will potentially be destroyed in this year’s fire season. And, so far, I haven’t read of any new ingenious way of stopping wildfires.

California wildfire research center makes a scary discovery

On the second day of April, the skies were clear over the San Francisco Bay Area and the view from atop the sun-drenched Mount Umunhum in the South Bay spread across a sea of green shrubs and trees carpeting the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains.

It was a beautiful sight, but a team of researchers from San Jose State University’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center — the only wildfire research center in California — noticed something wasn’t quite right.

“I was shocked when we went up there because usually in April we have a lot of new growth and old growth, and we didn’t see any new growth on the shrubs,” said Craig Clements, a SJSU professor and director of the center. “We weren’t seeing any of the lighter colored, bright green new growth sprouting out of the growth. Usually we take clippings of new stems and there weren’t any. This has never happened.”

Clements shared an image (above) from the expedition on Twitter and wrote, “The lack of rain this season has severely impacted our chaparral live fuel moistures. Wow, never seen April fuels look so… dry. No new growth anywhere in this Chamise. April is climatologically the highest live FMC of the season. Very Scary!”

FMC refers to “fuel-moisture content” — a measure of the ratio of moisture to combustible material in brush and trees that indicates how prone they are to burning. And the image up top is an area ready and waiting for wildfire.

Fire guru ponders Yellowstone 1988 – and now

understory regrowth 2013
Click to enlargeJ.Klinger
25 years of regrowth following the 1988 “Summer of Fire” Yellowstone wildfires

We don’t need added evidence to know that if this weird, dry balminess persists there’s going to be woodsmoke muting the mountains this summer, wreaking havoc. Some prognosticators believe the 2015 fire season could be epic.

Harbingers are everywhere in the West, from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, which is dealing with severe shortages of fresh water. With conditions here starting to resemble those of 1988, the year of the historic Yellowstone fires, I decided to make a call to a civil servant who was in the thick of it.

Research botanist Dr. Don Despain, known for his work as a fire ecologist who spent nearly three decades with Yellowstone and the U.S. Geological Survey, was always a calming voice, even during that summer 27 years ago when politicians demanded he be fired…

Despain has always been a straight shooter, never an alarmist. Back in 1988 the first Yellowstone fire, a small one, started at Storm Creek on June 14. Nobody worried much. Nine days later came the Shoshone Fire. And then the Fan and the Red. Based on moisture conditions in late June 1988, Despain believed the worst-case scenario was that no more than 40,000 acres might burn in the 2 million-acre park before rain and snow arrived in the fall.

But subsequent weeks of unrelenting heat coupled with high winds, dry-storm lightning strikes setting off new conflagrations and a major human-cased blaze that spread into the park blew up to claim 800,000 acres. Total firefighting costs were a record $120 million.

Despain became immortalized after he brought reporter Jim Carrier of The Denver Post to a forest study plot near Ice Lake. The site was established to allow researchers to gauge how fire, drought and disease affect arboreal ecology.

As a wildfire approached and swept across his research area, Despain playfully muttered, “Burn, baby, burn.” His quote was included in Carrier’s story, but a headline writer bannered the words as if Despain were a pyro, not caring if the entire park went up in flames. Wyoming politicians, including U.S. Sens. Malcolm Wallop and Alan K. Simpson, had a field day skewering park officials.

Despain was ordered to not talk to reporters for two weeks. As summer wore on and the blazes expanded, he spoke up again and reminded that everything, in the long run, would be all right.

Today, looking back, he notes that while his touting of fire’s vital role in rejuvenating landscapes wasn’t popular, time has vindicated him…

Despain scoffs at those who say major fires can be suppressed, either through human resources and huge amounts of money or through the ruse that fires can be prevented by thinning forests to reduce fuel loads.

Any vegetation, be it tree or grass, that becomes flammable from lack of moisture is going to burn if exposed to lightning or a match. He senses that the Smokey Bear mentality of trying to control nature is being resurrected. Just as it did in the past, the mind-set will cause more problems than it solves, and at breathtaking expense to taxpayers…

Despain supports the creation of zoned “fire plains” in the wildland-urban forest interface just like “flood plains” along rivers that prescribe where humans should build and where not.

Way too sensible for a lot of politicians. They’re not interested in history measured over the epoch life of a forest – if it conflicts with the requirements of campaign donors or subdivision developers.

Like most environmental issues in today’s United States this will take a combination of natural disasters and grassroots pressure to resolve. Understand that the predictable response to disasters is legislation like the so-called Patriot Act and grassroots pressure includes cattle-grazers and strip-miners who think of themselves as the “real” grassroots of America.

Don Despain just may be crying in the wilderness. Trying to change the behavior of people who think anywhere without an eight-lane highway is wilderness.