Since the outbreak of the Camp Fire two weeks ago, Keith Bein has crisscrossed smoke-choked Northern California gathering air samples for study. This is no frivolous pursuit: What he and colleagues at two UC Davis institutes uncover may well help mitigate damage from disasters.
Bein, a Chico State alum, is an expert on air pollution, including its effects on health and climate change. Since the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa last October, he’s analyzed the chemical composition of emissions from large wildfires. Sunday (Nov. 18), he drove to Paradise in his flatbed truck, transporting the two electric vehicles he uses in the field.
“This is so brand new; this is unprecedented,” he said. “This is the first time we’re seeing urban/suburban wildfires—they’re large-scale, very intensely burning, crowning wildfires that are jumping into neighborhoods, just taking them out.”
Over the past 40 years, fires in California forests have grown more frequent and severe—escalating in the past several years to the devastating levels of the Tubbs, Carr and Camp fires. In the same time, development has changed the landscape of many forested mountains. Blazes there release distinct traces, many of which scientists haven’t fully identified.
That complicates assessing a wildfire’s exact impact; thus, the impetus for Bein’s work.
“Now we have a new kind of pollution that we haven’t studied before,” he explained.
Bein conducts research for the Air Quality Research Center as well as the Center for Health and the Environment. While he tests emissions, others test residues. A team already has determined that scorched earth from pristine forest contains “vastly different” constituents than urban-interface areas, and even different rooms in a house yield difference traces when burnt—though, again, the exact chemicals remain uncatalogued.
These preliminary findings match the experience of Jackson Webster, a civil engineering professor at Chico State with expertise in water quality and environmental chemistry. Since 2011, he’s studied the effects of wildfires on watersheds; in fact, that was the subject of his doctoral thesis.
Webster explained that wildfires burning any trees produce smoke, ash and charcoal in which elements condense—metals such as aluminum, minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. “You can basically go down the Periodic Table,” he said, “and you’re going to find increases in a lot of these things because the mass of the combusted material is gone … but the remaining stuff is still there.”
In what’s called the wildland-urban interface (or WUI), Webster added, “which is where we saw the loss of the structures and infrastructure in the [town] of Paradise, what’s in that ash is anyone’s guess.”
Because it’s lightweight, ash carries easily and far in wind. It also flows during rain. Erosion of hillsides represents less of a concern in the North State than in Southern California, Webster said, but risks for creeks, rivers and lakes remain.
“If we get a long period of rain with a fair amount of water, we can expect that there will be a lot of mobilization of the ash, charcoal and sediment down into the waterways,” he continued. “But if the rain is more gradual, or we have a very dry winter, that won’t transport as much sediment.
“The worst-case scenario [for watershed contamination], we get a large rain event very soon. Sure, we all want the water … but if the crews don’t have time to do much clean-up, we could see a lot of mobilization from the burn zone.”
Changes to the forest will be more gradual but no less significant. The Humboldt Fire in 2008 scarred Lower Paradise, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley; some areas took several years to start masking the char. The Camp Fire—California’s most destructive ever—represents another order of magnitude.
Zack Steel knows the local terrain and what effects to anticipate. He’s a Chico native, completing his doctorate in ecology at UC Davis, looking at how wildfire changes wildlife habitat. Nature is resilient, he said, but also adapts in response to changes.
“Going into these wild areas that have burned, a year or two after, you’re going to see things coming back,” Steel explained. “You’re going to see wildflowers, shrubs, oak trees sprouting, birds coming in. It’s not going to be moonscape right after this—and that will change over time. Eventually that will return to more or less what we saw before … if everything is recovering successfully.”
That’s a big caveat. Climate change has played a major role not just in extending and intensifying fire season but also in growth conditions. More days are hotter. Fewer days are colder and wetter.
Fellow ecologist Jesse Miller sees climactic influences on species he studies. Miller, who teaches at Stanford and researches at Davis, tracks the effect of wildfire on plant diversity. He pays particular attention to oft-overlooked lichens: algae-fungus fusions.
“Lichens are really sensitive organisms; they’re really dependent on ambient conditions around them, more so than a lot of organisms around them, more so than plants,” he said. “When the lichens start disappearing off the landscape, it signals that the environment is changing in ways that are biologically important but in ways that we may not notice.”
The loss of tree cover—leaves or conifer needles—“creates a warmer and drier microclimate on the landscape,” Miller added, “which perhaps is interacting with climate change, which is also making the landscape a little hotter and drier.”
The size of the fire, approximately 150,000 acres as of the CN&R’s deadline, ultimately will shape how the forest regrows. Flora with lighter, airborne seeds have a better chance of appearing deeper into the burn zone than, say, larger trees, which after large-scale blazes may only ring the perimeter. Couple that with non-native, invasive species from residential gardens, Miller said, the Ridge “may get a different plant community after the fire.”