Bringing science to bear on the North Bay fires

Bringing science to bear on the North Bay fires:
A morning with Pepperwood’s TBC3

By Tom Greco, Communications Manager

If we had a neutron tube, what would we do with it?

That was one of many questions that came up last Thursday morning, when a group of scientists gathered at Pepperwood for the first time since the Tubbs Fire swept through and torched most of its 3,200 acres. From the meeting space at Pepperwood’s historic Bechtel House, which somewhat miraculously survived the fire along with the Dwight Center, views of blackened hillsides stretched into the distance, accented by small pockets of gray ash where previously fallen trees had been vaporized in the flames. The landscape may be stark, but enthusiasm for the research opportunities it presents abounded.

Many of the scientists in attendance are part of Pepperwood’s Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3), a joint effort with UC Berkeley that has brought together a team of researchers from a variety of academic and professional disciplines, all focused on studying California ecosystems. Since its inception five years ago, TBC3 has gained international recognition for serving Bay Area natural resource agencies with a slew of science-based tools to aid in conservation planning and climate adaptation.

Last week, the team was focused on assessing the fire impacts at Pepperwood, and coordinating new research projects around the recovery of a landscape after fire.

They hope to develop insights that can guide the way Californians manage natural resources—from large open spaces to rural residences—with an emphasis on making them more resilient in what is projected to be an even more fire-prone future.

Pepperwood staff, members of TBC3, and guest researchers stop for a photo at Three Tree Hill while surveying the fire damage to the preserve as part of the Nov. 2nd workshop

As Pepperwood President & CEO Dr. Lisa Micheli shared in a previous update, one of the primary concerns in the immediate wake of the fire is erosion control and its impact on water quality. That is one of the things the TBC3 team is helping to tackle.

As the headwaters of three watersheds—Mark West Creek, Franz Creek, and Brooks Creek—Pepperwood is the first landfall for large amounts of rain that eventually makes its way down into the Russian River, and then out of the faucets of over 600,000 people in Sonoma County. The fire burned away much of the vegetation that lined the hillsides—vegetation that played a critical role in holding dirt and sediment in place. In its absence, more sediment can travel down the watershed during the rainy season, causing potential issues with stream flow and water quality. While I was still wondering what a “neutron tube” was, the group moved into a lively discussion of how computer modeling and remote sensing can be used to identify the areas of the preserve in most need of erosion control and related treatments.

Prior to the fire, many of these scientists were using Pepperwood’s 3,200 acre preserve as a model to study the interactions between vegetation, climate, wildlife, water supply, and other factors as they play out across California. Pepperwood is an ideal place of study, as its Sentinel Site consists of an ever-growing network of sensors—many installed and maintained by members of the TBC3 team—that are generating a gold mine of data.

And if there is one thing that gets scientists most excited, it is good data.

Many parts of the preserve appear to have burned at a lower intensity, which bodes well for the health of the landscape and can even provide ecological benefits.

Now, Pepperwood presents a unique opportunity for research, with a full five years of data collected prior to the October 2017 fires. This baseline data, on everything from soil moisture to grassland composition, will allow researchers to meaningfully assess how the fire impacted the landscape and how it is recovering. If you don’t have a clear picture of conditions before the fire, you can’t scientifically compare what happens after it, and there are comparatively few places collecting continuous environmental data. In fact, Pepperwood has one of—if not the—most comprehensive climate-ecosystem data sets in Northern California, and the fire only accentuates how important data like this is to furthering our understanding of the natural world and helping us prepare for the future.

The morning’s discussion centered around Pepperwood’s pre-fire data set. With power still out at the Bechtel House, researchers flipped through various maps of the Pepperwood terrain in the context of surrounding watersheds using a projector powered by a portable generator. They looked at what data currently exists, what sensors and monitoring plots are currently deployed at Pepperwood and where they are located, what equipment will most likely need to be repaired or bought anew in the wake of the fire, and what additional equipment should be prioritized for purchase to help fill any gaps in data.

Each with their own unique area of expertise, the scientists took turns sharing their thoughts on erosion control and other watershed health considerations, with an eye towards how what is studied here at Pepperwood can inform land management throughout the region. They also discussed the factors that drive fire, and what caused it to move through the landscape the way it did. The science of fire behavior is complex, and at present poorly understood. The topography of the land, which species of vegetation are present, how dry the landscape is, weather conditions, and many other factors are at play.

“The ultimate goal would be to create a model that can help identify areas throughout the region that are at high risk for fire,” said one scientist.

The TBC3 team surveys an oak woodland where a 22-acre prescribed burn had been planned this fall. Pepperwood’s science team will be looking at how preparation done for the prescribed burn—including removing Douglas firs and debris—may have impacted the effects of the Tubbs Fire in this 22-acre area.

That’s the beauty of TBC3—each member is an expert in their particular field of study, yet they all share a passion for using science to increase our collective understanding of California’s varied ecosystems. And more than that, they strive to make their research relevant in the face of the mounting environmental challenges that lie ahead.

The North Bay wildfires have shown us how little we know about key ecological processes, and how much work is needed to reduce the risk of such catastrophes at a time when they may only be increasing in frequency. Given the marvelous complexity of the natural world, unraveling its inner workings is a tall order. Any significant advances will certainly be the result of careful collaboration and a shared passion around making this beautiful place we call home more resilient.

After spending a morning with the TBC3 team and experiencing their knowledge and dedication first-hand, I’m convinced they are up to the challenge.

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