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Experts and Information on Wildfires

October 27, 2003

These UC Davis faculty members have expertise regarding wildfire chemistry, monitoring, suppression and recovery. Also listed are University of California wildfire-prevention resources for property owners.

WILDFIRES AND AIR POLLUTION -- Michael Kleeman, UC Davis assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, studies urban and regional air-quality problems in the Los Angeles area and in the Central Valley. He has studied emissions from biomass-fueled generating plants, which produce emissions similar to those from forest fires. He is especially interested in the size and composition of atmospheric particles and in gas-to-particle conversion processes. These issues are important because research has found that airborne particles with diameters less than 2.5 microns cause adverse health effects, and the size and composition of particles found in the atmosphere determines much of the haze in large cities. Contact: Michael Kleeman, Civil and Environmental Engineering, (530) 752-8386, mjkleeman@ucdavis.edu.

THINNING WILDLANDS -- Bruce Hartsough, professor and chair of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis, has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and private industry on projects to manage wildlands for both fire management and better lumber production. When people encroach on forested land, there is a need to thin vegetation near houses, especially smaller trees and shrubs and vegetation close to the ground. Reducing the amount of fuel reduces the heat, intensity and rate of spread of fires, he said. Hartsough is currently working with the U.S. Forestry Service and UC Cooperative Extension on a project to reduce fuel load by thinning trees around homes. Contact: Bruce Hartsough, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, (530) 752-0103, brhartsough@ucdavis.edu.

FIRE AND FOREST ECOLOGY -- Malcolm North, a UC Davis associate professor of forest ecology, specializes in the study of ecoystem response to wildfire and thinning, particularly in the extensive mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada. Following a burn or thinning, he analyzes changes in ecosystem function, structure and composition, particularly changes in vegetation and forest structure, microclimates, soil moisture, nutrient cycling and biodiversity. North's primary employer is the U.S. Forest Service, where he is a research scientist in plant ecology. Contact: Malcolm North, Department of Environmental Horticulture, (530) 754-7398, mnorth@ucdavis.edu.

RESCUING HORSES FROM FIRE -- Advance preparation may make the difference between life and death for horses caught in the path of a fire. John Madigan, a UC Davis authority on equine and emergency veterinary medicine, urges horse owners to first clear brush at least 30 feet from barns and corrals. Trucks and trailers should be kept nearby and operational in case animals need to be evacuated, and an alternate exit by foot planned in case roads are blocked by fire. Stalls and doors should be closed after evacuation to prevent fire-panicked horses from running back inside. Any horse burned or exposed to heavy smoke should be examined by a veterinarian, and owners should not apply any topical treatments to burns. Photographs and written descriptions of all horses should be kept in a bank safe-deposit box to help identify animals that become lost or separated during a fire. Contact: John Madigan, office (530) 752-6513, or the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (530) 752-0290, jemadigan@ucdavis.edu.

RECOVERING FROM A FIRE -- When the smoke has cleared and the ashes settled, owners of family wildlands are faced with the daunting task of cleaning up and restoring their property. Gary Nakamura, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry specialist, provides practical suggestions in the booklet "Recovering From Wildfire: A Guide for California's Forest Landowners." In the booklet, written with staff researcher Susie Kocher and Cooperative Extension forestry specialist Richard Harris, Nakamura discusses how to protect soils against erosion, where to go for financial help and what the tax implications are from fire losses. He also offers advice on how to harvest fire-killed trees following a fire and how to regenerate and nurture a new forest. Nakamura can also talk about prescribed burning, biomass harvesting and other methods of treating forest fuels to reduce fire hazard. The booklet is available from the University of California's ANR Publications in Oakland for $5 plus postage. Contact: Gary Nakamura, Shasta County Cooperative Extension in Redding, (530) 224-4902, gmnakamura@ucdavis.edu.

NANOPARTICLES, COMBUSTION AND AIR POLLUTION -- Ian Kennedy, a UC Davis professor of mechanical engineering, studies how very small particles of metal and carbon (soot) -- measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter -- are formed within flames. These nanoparticles come from burning wood, oil and coal, from processes such as welding, and from diesel engines. In wildfires, minerals in soil can become processed into nanoparticles as well as comparatively large ash particles. Nanoparticles contribute to air pollution and may be hazardous to human health. Contact: Ian Kennedy, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, (530) 752-2796, imkennedy@ucdavis.edu.

FIRE TO HEAL WILDLANDS -- The large-scale suppression of wildfires during the past century has led to a massive buildup of fuel in the nation's wildlands in the form of shrubs, small trees and natural debris. Fires now tend to burn hot and high into the trees, rather than just along the forest floor. They not only burn branches and scar trunks but also kill most of the trees. Michael Barbour, an ecologist with the UC Davis Tahoe Research Group, recommends that purposely set fires known as prescribed burns should be used as a management tool in the forests surrounding California's renowned Lake Tahoe. Set on calm days when the moisture content is high enough to slow the spread of flames, such fires will burn smaller trees, brush and forest litter and prevent catastrophic fires. Prescribed burns, coupled with thinning to remove some otherwise burnable biomass, should help foster the survival of the most mature trees and eventually restore the forests to old-growth status. Contact: Michael Barbour, (530) 752-2956, mgbarbour@ucdavis.edu. (He will be away from campus on field research until Nov. 10.)

PREDICTING FIRES FROM MODELS -- The frequency of major forest fires can be predicted using relatively simple mathematical models and based on the frequency of much smaller fires, according to Donald Turcotte, a professor of geology at UC Davis. Earthquakes, floods, landslides and fires all depend on "self-organized criticality" -- an accumulation of small changes that causes an abrupt change in state of a system. For example, patches of new growth in a forest gradually form larger and larger areas of fuel that can cause a major wildfire. In a 1998 paper published in Science, Turcotte (then at Cornell University) and colleagues showed that this model compared well with data from actual forest fires. One implication of the model is that large fires are more likely to occur when fuel is allowed to build up because small fires are suppressed. Contact: Donald Turcotte, Geology, (530) 752-6808, turcotte@geology.ucdavis.edu.

Media can find a list of wildfire experts at University of California locations other than UC Davis online at http://news.ucanr.org/newsstorymain.cfm?story=81

These are wildfire publications and videos from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Communication Services. For more information, see http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu or call (530) 757-8930.

  • A Property Owner's Guide to Reducing Wildfire Threat -- Pamphlet. Management of vegetation adjacent to homes is discussed, as well as recommendations on defensible space for different areas (also available in Spanish -- "Proteja su propiedad de los incendios de maleza").
  • How Can We Live With Wildland Fire? -- Publication. Discusses the role fire plays in the natural cycle and what choices those who live in the West can make to cope with wildland fire.
  • Wildland Fire: How Can We Live With It? -- Video. Information about wildland fire in California and the choices communities can make to cope with wildland fire problems. Designed to stimulate public discussion and community action planning.
  • Recovering From Wildfire: A Guide for California's Forest Landowners -- Publication. Discusses issues that family forest landowners should consider following a wildfire in their forest. It includes information on how to protect property from erosion damage, where to go for help and financial assistance, tax implications of fire losses, how to manage salvage harvesting and how to help the forest recover.

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