Photo Credit: Gwynne Nell Corrigan
August 28, 2020

What a Season

Living with wildfires requires a more comprehensive, inclusive, and proactive approach.

The air in my apartment is sluggish and still; the electricity cut out hours ago and won’t return for many more. The windows and doors sealed, guarding our lungs from the toxic air outside, which swirls with particulates from the various wildfires raging across much of California’s Bay Area. I live in Santa Clara County, which not only has a high rate of Covid-19, but is now also sandwiched in between three large wildfires – the CZU August, SCU, and LNU Lightening Complexes

Wildfires are natural for much of California – this year has been particularly active. The 2020 California wildfire season started this month with a bolt (many lightning bolts, actually), as opposed to a bang. While the majority of wildfires (across the U.S.) are driven by human ignitions and activity, the fires currently burning in the Bay Area were generated by an unusual combination of dry lightning and extreme heat, as well as low rainfall amounts over the past year in California.

As of this story’s writing, the wildfire extent and containment are:

Name

Extent burned

Containment

Note-worthy

SCU Lightning Complex

372,971 acres

35%

Currently the 2nd largest wildfire in CA history

LNU Lightening Complex

371,249 acres

35%

Currently the 3rd largest wildfire in CA history

CZU August Lightning Complex

82,540 acres

26%

Burned through Big Basin Redwoods State Park

 

Just two weeks prior to the start of the Bay Area wildfires, my kids and I trekked ‘over the hill’ to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park. Established in 1902, Big Basin is designated as a California Historical Landmark. Given Covid-19, the park was surprisingly packed with multitudes of mask-wearing nature-lovers. We humans looked like specks strolling beneath the towering, scarlet behemoths. We spent the day walking among giants and marveling at the beauty we’re so fortunate to have in such close proximity. 
 
Big Basin's "Mother of the Forest". Photo by: Gwynne Nell Corrigan.
 
Big Basin's "Father of the Forest" is estimated to be 1,500 years old. Photo by: Gwynne Nell Corrigan.
 
We even discovered this odd patterning on one of the redwood tree trunks. 
 
Please email gwynne@consbio.org if you know what causes this odd patterning. Photo by: Gwynne Nell Corrigan.

Photo by Gwynne Nell Corrigan.
 
The CZU Lightning Complex fires sadly took one human life, many homes, and destroyed Big Basin’s historic buildings. Many of the park’s redwood trees survived due to heroic work by firefighters and a number of fire-resistant adaptations of the trees themselves:
  • Coastal redwoods store a significant level of the chemical, tannin, in their bark and heartwood, which acts as a natural flame retardant.
  • The bark of mature redwoods can grow to at least one foot thick and has a high-water content.
  • Being the tallest trees in the world, most wildfires don’t spread up to the canopy.
  • The needles of redwood trees are broader and flatter than most conifers, which allows them to catch fog and also act as a fog drip for many understory plants.
Given their many fire-resistant characteristics, coastal redwoods evolved to endure California’s historical fire regime. It remains to be seen whether or not the more recent occurrences of larger fire events will negatively impact these forests. What is clear is that more needs to be done to try to make human communities that occur within fire-prone landscapes more secure in the face of a changing fire regime driven by climate change. 
 
CBI has a long history of wildfire modelling and ecology, and we continue to contribute significantly to wildfire science. As the Sierra Nevada town of Paradise rebuilds after the devastating Camp Fire of 2018, the community has an opportunity to incorporate strategies to increase its resilience to fire and climate change, enhance the safety and well-being of its residents, and at the same time care for the surrounding natural areas that make it a beautiful place to live.
 
CBI had the chance to help Paradise seize this opportunity when The Nature Conservancy and Paradise Recreation and Park District asked us to help them explore community design principles that could provide all of these benefits. The CBI team created models of “Wildfire Risk Reduction Buffers” between the structures and the wildlands to reduce exposure of homes to wildfire risks. These buffers, which can be made up of parkland, orchards, and other low fire-risk land uses, can buffer homes from ignitions by wind-driven embers while also providing strategic refuges for escape from fire and open space for fire-fighters to stage their battles against future wildland fires.
 
 
The Santa Monica Mountains.

CBI is currently partnering with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and California State Parks to work with the Santa Monica Mountains Fire Safe Alliance, a formal collaboration of land management agencies, county fire departments, city and county governments, conservation organizations, and community and homeowner groups, to improve wildfire outcomes and increase ecosystem resilience. The partnership will work on the problem from multiple angles, including: the natural and built environments, the wildlands-urban interface, and by supplementing local programs already in place with the use of wind, ember, and fire risk modeling to prioritize locations for risk reduction. To learn more about this project, click here
 
The 2020 Bay Area wildfires will eventually be fully contained, thanks to the many brave firefighters working tirelessly to keep people safe. Going forward, we need more proactive wildfire-risk mitigation measures. CBI will continue to contribute to wildfire science and collaborate with partners in support of fire-smart planning throughout California and beyond. Living with wildfires requires  a more comprehensive, inclusive, and proactive approach. 
 
Banana slug (the mascot of author's alma mater, UC Santa Cruz) at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Photo by Gwynne Nell Corrigan.
About the author:
Gwynne Corrigan, M.S.
Director of Communications
Gwynne is the Director of Communications with CBI, and is also involved with a variety of projects doing outreach, communications, research and writing. Her educational background is in ecology and biology with a particular interest in endangered species.
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