Unfortunately, Santa Ana winds are as reliable a part of Southern California's autumn as colorful fall foliage is for New England. Santa Anas are strong, extremely dry offshore winds often associated with the warmest weather and fiercest fires in the southern part of the state; 2008 is no exception.
According to the Associated Press, powerful winds stoked three major wildfires this morning after destroying dozens of homes, forcing thousands to flee and killing two people.
An article in the New York Times said firefighters have mounted an all-out air and land assault as the flames and smoke chased residents from their homes, threatened neighborhoods, closed schools and parts of two major freeways, and led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Times reporter Randall Archibold sought insight about the fire from Scott Stephens, the co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley.
“We always think of fires moving as a wave, but fires move under the Santa Ana winds by leapfrog,” Stephens was quoted. “There are hundreds of waves, and as the embers hop in front, the fire could be starting a mile or two behind. That’s why it can jump an eight-lane highway.”
Meantime, the Merced Sun-Star picked up a UC ANR news release about a new interactive Web site designed by UC Berkeley fire researchers that allows Spanish-speaking homeowners to assess the risk of wildfire damage to their houses and communities. The service, found at http://firecenter.berkeley.edu, was already available in English.
UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension wildland fire specialist Max Moritz was quoted in the release about the online toolkit:
"What's new about these tools is that homeowners and community officials can get an individualized assessment of a specific building's fire risk based upon such factors as the material used in their roof construction or the density of vegetation near the structure. The toolkit then provides immediate feedback that helps identify areas where people would get the biggest payoff in mitigation."
Pacific fishers are at the center of a conundrum. Most people have never seen them, but judging from photos of researchers cuddling the furry creatures, they are adorable. The nocturnal and obsessively shy fisher is related to the mink, otter and marten. They once ranged from British Columbia down through California's Sierra Nevada, but only two native populations remain today -- one around the western California/Oregon border, and one in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, according to the Environmental Protection Information Center.
Fishers' preferred home in dead trees and their tendency to move around put them at odds with fire prevention goals, according to a story last week in the Sierra Star. The article was based on a community meeting held by a group of scientists who are working together to protect wildlife and promote forest health. The scientists have formed the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Plan (SNAMP).
The event, covered by reporter Jill Brackett, was intended to collect community input on management of the local forest and wildlife.
"It's your meeting," the story quoted Kim Rodrigues, the director of UC Agriculture and Natural Resource's North Coast and Mountain Region whose academic specialty is forestry. "The ultimate purpose is collaboration. You are embarking on this with us."
The story said SNAMP is in the early stages of their "adaptive management loop," and that no decisions were made at the meeting. A follow-up discussion was proposed for October.
Last July, when the summer's most ferocious wildfires near wine country were still smoldering, Wine Spectator magazine suggested the 2008 vintage could be tainted by the smoke.
An article in today's Santa Rosa Press-Democrat seems to confirm that the magazine's early prediction is coming to fruition, at least in Mendocino County.
“Winemakers are saying that they think stuff is smelling funny to them, and they want to know what’s going on,” the Press-Democrat article quoted Glenn McGourty, viticulture advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Mendocino County.
The article said McGourty held a workshop to teach winemakers options for preventing, for example, an unpleasant smoky quality from masking the subtle oak, buttery, vanilla flavor of their best chardonnay.
Michelle Bowen, director of laboratory operations at Vinquiry, said grapes are coming in with an aroma that is "kind of smoked salmony and fishy.”
"The good news is that there seems to be the technology to fix things if something is wrong,” McGourty is quoted in the story. Reporter Kevin McCallum wrote that McGourty was referring to filtration companies that specialize in removing the malodorous compounds.
“Winemakers are wizards at taking problems and turning them into drinkable products," McGourty concluded.
Agricultural Issues Center director Dan Sumner provided comment on the NPR story about a trend at Walmart stores to stock "locally grown" food. The story pointed out that the megastore's definition of locally grown -- grown within the state's boundaries -- is different from that of many locavores -- which generally define local as within 100 miles of home.
On the radio program, Sumner said the company's strategy could spell problems for California if it catches on nationwide.
"If people decide they're going to consume locally, that means they're probably not consuming our walnuts and apricots and almonds and everything else we grow around here," Sumner said.
The MSN Web site's real estate reporter Christopher Solomon wrote a story about home building tips in wildland fire zones. He spoke to UC Cooperative Extension wood durability advisor Stephen Quarles.
Quarles' comments centered mainly on roofing materials.
"One of the things that I frequently hear is that you need a metal roof. That is not true," Quarles was quoted.
Quarles' information and comments were also used to create a bulleted list about non-combustible roofing materials.
The firestorms of summer 2008 are still very much on the mind of the media. Recently, follow up stories have been published in California newspapers with analysis, recovery and prevention information.
The Los Angeles Times ran an article that centered on UC Cooperative Extension wood durability advisor Stephen Quarles' work on attic vents. Quarles points to flying embers as a reason even homes with cleared landscape and fire-resident siding, windows and roofs still succumb to wildfire.
Glowing fragments can blow through house vents and start a fire inside attics. Quarles is studying new high-tech vents that would stop embers from entering. The new vents are not yet on the market. Unfortunately, the story didn't mention Quarles' frequent suggestion to homeowners to make plywood vent covers that can be installed quickly when fire approaches.
The Chico Enterprise-Record took on the topic of post-fire erosion. Erosion, the article said, could mean flooding this winter for people who have already experienced a summer disaster. The Enterprise-Record story was based on a forest stewardship workshop in Magalia sponsored by the UC Berkeley Center for Forestry, UC Cooperative Extension and other agencies.
The Fresno Bee ran story on the variety of pressures on the state's ranchers, including wildfire. For the article, reporter Dennis Pollock spoke to UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor for Fresno and Madera counties Neil McDougald. He said rangeland scorched by wildfire will need at least three years to recover. A second consecutive year of low rainfall totals is also taking toll on grass used as cattle feed.
"It means reduced residual matter, and you don't have all the protection for the beginning of next year's crop," McDougald was quoted. "Every year that you use that resource more, it adds to your risk."