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Climate Change Dishes Out Dangerous Heat, Even in the Bay Area

Last year, as a Labor Day heat wave descended, Claudia Hernandez was trying to pry open the windows of a house in San Francisco, from 400 miles away. That weekend, San Francisco hit 106 degrees, an all-time record. After two straight days topping 100, Hernandez, who lives in Orange County, pleaded with her godmother, Colleen Loughman, to open her windows and let a breeze through. 'What we were seeing is really a huge health emergency.'Naveena Bobba, San Francisco Health Department Like most in the city, Loughman's home lacked air conditioning. "A fan, an old school fan, that's all she had," Hernandez said. "And her windows were like maybe one-eighth open." Talking with her 82-year-old godmother, Hernandez felt something was off. "You could hear that she was, I don't know, like, drained," she says. Colleen Loughman died the next day, in the house her parents had built. She was at risk because her aging body couldn't acclimatize to intense, fast-arriving heat. She was vulnerable in her home, without a way to cool down. And though she was loved, she was isolated. In June and September of 2017, two heat waves killed at least 14 people in the Bay Area, and sent hundreds more to the hospital. San Francisco was caught off guard, says the city's deputy director of public health, Naveena Bobba. "What we were seeing is really a huge health emergency," she says. The past five summers have been California's hottest on record. Even in cool, coastal parts of the state, heat, a sneaky and growing threat, is now one of the state's top climate-related public health risks. Why Older People Are At Risk Last September, Loughman wanted her windows closed because she had been having lung trouble, and she feared smog and smoke would make it hard to breathe. She had heard air quality alerts on the news, issued by regional regulators. Spiking heat worsens asthma and lung conditions and raises risks for older people in particular. Older people have to work harder to stay cool, says Dr. David Eisenman, who directs the Center for Public Health and Disasters at UCLA. "When your body normally gets hot, it cools down by transferring heat inside its core out to the skin." Heat affects everyone differently. The National Weather Service offers this seven-day forecast to help you assess your risk. For most people, sweat cools the body well, but not for older ones. "They have a less effective ability to sweat," he says. Older bodies hold less water than younger ones, putting older people more at risk in a heat wave. And older people are less sensitive to becoming hot and thirsty. Over several hot days, all of that means physiological heat can build up without relief. And Colleen Loughman wasn't prepared for that in her foggy Parkside neighborhood. Isolated in Her Own Neighborhood St. Cecilia Church planted a Catholic community a century ago in a neighborhood set among sand dunes and eucalyptus trees: Parkside. Loughman grew up on 14th Avenue, and in Catholic schools: elementary at St. Cecilia's, high school at St. Rose Academy, a masters degree in music at Holy Names University, across the bay. But she never roamed too far from Parkside, where people were close knit, says her lifelong neighbor, Bob Schumann. "I used to go to the house for birthday parties, and they were always playing the piano or something like that," he says. Her parents died; then a few years ago, her sister. Some of the old guard moved out, replaced by young, new transplants. Parkside was changing. Hernandez noticed, and wondered whether her godmother needed more care and companionship. But a strong-willed Loughman wanted to stay put. "I'm okay," Hernandez says her godmother told her, "I'm okay by myself." [ad fullwidth] Heat Builds Up Daily calls kept close a relationship that began 30 years ago between Loughman and Hernandez, as an accident of fate. At the time, Hernandez was just 3 years old, arriving at a new foster home, belonging to Barbara McGovern in San Diego. Visiting McGovern was a longtime friend and former piano teacher of McGovern's, Loughman. "Colleen was so thrilled just to be around that child," McGovern remembers. "She stayed for about two weeks." Loughman remained a San Franciscan, born and bred; Hernandez grew up, got married, had kids and settled in Orange County. She and her kids Ezekiel, now 15, and Natalie, 12, visited San Francisco every summer. The daily call was usually newsy, an hour-long update: how's your day going, how's work, Ezekiel's baseball, Natalie's softball. But when they quarreled about open windows that Saturday, heat soured the conversation. Don't call me, Loughman said. I don't want to talk. Loughman was stubborn, and Hernandez got the point: "She didn't want to talk." But she called back the next day, Sunday afternoon, all the same. No answer. By 7:30, Hernandez was calling every 15 minutes. Then every 10 minutes. She finally reached a woman who ran Loughman's errands. Please go over there, she said. Around the same time, Hernandez asked her husband, Jose. to call the San Francisco Police Department. Jose told the dispatcher Loughman had not picked up her phone. "All right," Police Dispatcher 236 told him, promising a welfare check. "We'll get an officer out there as soon as possible." Last Sept. 3, Hernandez listened over the phone in agony as Loughman's helper found her. She was unconscious. The helper tried to rouse Loughman: Colleen, Colleen. That's when paramedics arrived to help. In a recorded emergency call, responders say that someone on scene is trying resuscitation. But Loughman was pronounced dead on scene, at 9:34 p.m. 'Actually, Everybody Is At Risk.' Dangerous overheating isn't something that happens only to elderly people. In the temperate Bay Area, heat is a surprise we don't quickly adjust to. "It takes almost two weeks for your body to acclimate to the heat," says SFDPH's Bobba. "And given that heat kind of comes really quickly and leaves fairly quickly in San Francisco, our bodies don't acclimate. People in the Bay Area are particularly vulnerable to heat illness even at lower temperatures, according to Rupa Basu, chief of the air and climate epidemiology section at the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. She points out that when heat spikes in the bay, the health effects are similar to what happens in hotter cities with hotter heat waves. San Francisco's 2017 Labor Day heat wave made headlines for two consecutive 100-degree daytime records. It was also warm at night – over 80 degrees near midnight both Friday and Saturday. During hours people would normally recover from daytime heat, it was hotter than days often are. Scientists say overnight heat doesn't only happen during spiking temperatures; a changing climate is pushing up nighttime temperatures overall. That sneaky kind of a heat wave is becoming more common in California, observes UCLA climatologist Daniel Swain. "The magnitude and frequency of heat waves that we're observing today would have been vanishingly unlikely in a climate without human influence," he says. Preventable Deaths As climate changes heat risk, public health officials say warning systems are changing too. But Bay Area conditions are complex: Counties here can experience wildly varying weather conditions at the same time; all decide slightly differently when to issue heat alerts. Santa Clara County, which recorded five heat-related deaths last year, explicitly relies on the weather service in its heat emergency planning. So does San Francisco. After last Labor Day, the city has become more aggressive, according to SFDPH's Bobba, initiating warnings when forecasts indicate daytime temperatures of 85 degrees or above. Other counties are developing emergency response plans for heat. Contra Costa considers 96 degrees to be an extremely hot day in the eastern part of the county. Excessive heat kills more Americans than any other disaster. But even in changing climate, heat-related deaths are preventable. Around the bay, public health officials and doctors, counties, cities and neighborhood groups are allied in rethinking how to find, warn and check on vulnerable people. Colleen Loughman's goddaughter is still haunted by her last words. "She just said, 'This heat is killing me. I can't talk right now. I don't want to talk.'" And that was it. Last fall, after the heat broke, Claudia Hernandez learned she was pregnant. Her new daughter's middle name is Coco, her nickname for Colleen. And she lets her own air conditioning bills get higher: Hernandez says she's now determined not to let anyone she loves suffer in heat again. Editor's Note: Amel Ahmed was a contributing reporter on this story. This reporting is supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Outlook Grim But Not Hopeless as Climate Summit Convenes in San Francisco

This week corporate and civic leaders from around the world will gather in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. The effort was spearheaded by Gov. Jerry Brown to move the fight against global warming beyond the national commitments made in Paris nearly three years ago. 'Thirty years ago we predicted it in the models — and now I'm feeling it. I'm experiencing it.'Inez Fung, UC Berkeley "Look, it's up to you and it's up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization," says Brown in a promotional video for the summit. It is likely to be Brown's last big climate event before he leaves office next year, and it comes at a time when many scientists agree that time is running out for a major counteroffensive against global warming, which Brown has repeatedly called an "existential threat." "We are not prepared," says Inez Fung, an atmospheric scientist at UC Berkeley, who can see the accelerated effects of a warming planet all around her, from raging wildfires in the western U.S. to death-dealing floods in India. "Thirty years ago we predicted it in the models," she says, "and now I'm feeling it. I'm experiencing it." 'None of the students in my classes have grown up in a normal climate. None of them.'Bill Collins, UC Berkeley Across the U.S., the average temperature has risen almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th Century. In California, the heat has been turned up unevenly, with portions of the state warming over the same period by anywhere from one, to nearly three degrees. (The South Coast of California has experienced the biggest rise.) And because the global oven was first fired up with the burning of fossil fuels more than 200 years ago, scientists say a certain amount of future warming is already "baked in." "We released enough carbon dioxide to continue warming the climate for several centuries to come," observes Bill Collins, who directs climate and ecological science at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. "If we were to stop emissions entirely of all greenhouse gases right this minute," he reckons, "we'd see roughly another half a degree centigrade ... by the end of the 21st Century." That's almost a full degree (Fahrenheit) already in the pipeline. So even if we shut down all emissions — which is not happening — we might still get to the 3.5 F threshold where scientists say the worst effects of climate change would kick in. (This is normally expressed by scientists as 2 degrees Celsius, which is the same as 3.5 F). But Wait, There's More! "We're seeing years now that basically blow the roof off of records that have been maintained by the National Climate Data Service back to the late 19th century," notes Collins — and then a remarkable thought occurs to him: "None of the students in my classes have grown up in a normal climate," he adds. "None of them." Think about that. On the flipside, if you're over, say 30 years old and can actually recall "normal," well, that's over. "I have to say that all the projections that were made 30 years ago are still valid," says Fung. "The only thing we had not anticipated ... is that the CO2 increases much faster than we ever thought that it would." Despite the pledges made in Paris by nearly every nation in the world (the U.S. is alone among signatories in backing out of the climate accord, under the Trump administration), emissions are still rising. And even those historic commitments — if they're all kept — won't be sufficient to turn things around. "No, we're already beyond that," says Fung. "The commitments, I think, are very good start, but they're just not adequate." Don't Give Up the Ship All this grim talk might lead one to ask what point there is in trying to reverse the climate train. But recently refined climate models suggest that aggressively cutting emissions could improve future life on Earth in significant ways — or at least blunt the impact of continued warming. It could, for example, reduce periods of extreme heat in Sacramento from two weeks a year to as little as two days. The Sierra snowpack might shrink by "just" 20 percent, rather than 75 percent. That's the optimistic scenario. This week's climate summit will pull together mayors, state and provincial governors, scientists and corporate leaders to keep momentum going with "subnational" actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They'll be joined by major players such as former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed the Paris accord on behalf of the U.S. with his tiny granddaughter perched on his lap. One of the themes attendees will discuss is, "key building blocks required to peak global emissions by 2020," a goal that seems wildly optimistic given current trajectories and with most of 2018 already behind us. Transportation is the single largest source of climate emissions in California. After leveling off briefly, emissions from cars and trucks have been rising again. (Craig Miller) "First thing we have to do as a global community is reverse course rather sharply," says Collins. "We think it is technically feasible." Technically feasible, perhaps — but not easy. California, for instance, has the nation's most aggressive efforts to cut greenhouse gases and overall, it's working: total emissions are down 13 percent since 2004. And still, climate emissions from cars and trucks have been on the rise in recent years. "Our cars are literally our time machines," says Collins. But unlike Doc Brown's Delorean in the 1983 film, Back to the Future, Collins says most cars are driving us backwards. "They're taking the atmosphere to a chemical state that it has not been in for millions of years." he says. "Currently, we have as much carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere as we did five million years ago." The world 5 millions years ago was not "our" world. There were early ancestors of humans and the first tree sloths, but mammoths had yet to appear. "Our steam engines, our factories, our cars, in the space of a little over 230 years since the start of industrialization, since the first steam engine," notes Collins. "In 230 years they've taken us back five million years." And Collins says we have about 25 years — roughly one generation — to reverse course. He and Fung both have their glimmers of optimism that technology and the boom in solar, wind and other forms of clean energy could quickly reduce climate emissions. Fung points to the young college students passing by us on campus as her best hope. "I think I am optimistic about the young people. I'm optimistic that they are taking — they're very proactive about the future." But Fung and Collins agree that time is what's running out.

Outlook Grim But Not Hopeless as Climate Summit Convenes in San Francisco

A Glimpse Into the Future of Northern California Plant Life

Imagine what a Northern California garden might look like 100 years from now as temperatures keep rising. Where lush grasses, riotously bright California poppies and quaking aspens once stood, picture — what? Cracked earth, tumbleweeds, cactus and giant cockroaches, maybe? A group of artists and scientists at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) have a different vision for the California landscape of the future, and they're starting to prepare for it now. Part science experiment and part art installation, "Future Garden for the Central Coast of California" aims to discover which plants are most likely to survive escalating temperatures and can help regenerate the regional ecosystem as climates shift. The three eco-domes at the UCSC Arboretum that are the main focus of the 'Future Garden' project. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) There are 16 different species of plants in each of the three restored, 1970s-era geodesic domes at the UCSC Arboretum and Botanic Garden. The plan is to accelerate the process of climate change inside the domes to find out which species are more resilient over time. The process is going to take a while; the recently-installed project is expected to last 50 to 75 years. "We're assisting the migration of species through time," says Santa Cruz-based environmental artist Newton Harrison, who co-created the project with his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison and other science and art partners at UCSC. The world-renowned artists, who in 2016 became the subject of a beautifully-illustrated tome published by Random House, and whose archives are housed at Stanford University, have been making environmental artworks on a global scale since 1969. The Harrisons' work mostly takes the form of installations, writings and large-format wall maps. And it has brought them both fame and notoriety over the years. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. A collage composed of two different photos taken in the early 1990s. Helen would have been about 64 and Newton about 59 at the time these photos were taken. (Photo: Peggy Jarrell Kaplan Courtesy of The Harrison Studio) One the one hand, they inspired a branch of the Dutch government to change its approach to urban planning as a result of their Green Heart of Holland project; on the other, they caused political uproar in England during an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery involving the electrocution of catfish. (The controversy was later transformed into a chamber opera.) You can read and listen to a KQED profile of the Harrisons and their epic career here. The inspiration for this latest project at the UCSC Arboretum came more than two years ago, when the Harrisons happened to stroll past the three, then-decrepit domes and saw an opportunity to renovate and convert them into testing grounds for local plants facing the effects of climate change. "Nature is pretty opportunistic," Harrison says. "And artists are pretty opportunistic, too." "Two of the domes had been completely shut off and empty and one of them was being used for a crafting group," says Martin Quigley, executive director of the UCSC Arboretum and the Harrisons' main collaborator on the project. "All of them were in very bad repair. So this has revitalized the whole area." There's new fabric on the domes, and a fresh, stable framework, plus new landscaping all around the area. UCSC Arboretum executive director Martin Quigley. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Each Future Garden dome houses an assortment of 16 native plants, chosen chiefly for their likely resilience in the face of sudden, drastic temperature and water fluctuations. Species on display include yarrow, fescue and coyote mint. Some of the plants are edible. Some have medicinal properties. Many have also been a staple of Native American life in the region for thousands of years. After a year of establishing the plants, the project team members plan to start playing with the conditions inside each dome. One dome will experience heat spikes in summer months and less than normal rain during the winter, similar to a continental desert. One dome will mimic coastal temperate conditions in the Pacific northwest, with ambient temperatures and summer rainfall. The third dome will experience both heat and water spikes amid warmer than average temperatures, mimicking subtropical conditions. Outside the domes, the same species have been planted in small walled gardens around each dome to provide a set of control experiments. Inside one of the eco-domes. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) "Climate change isn't about a slow steady temperature increase," says Quigley. "It's about spikes and randomness that increase. And because these domes are smallish, it's very easy to manipulate that in a strong way." Future Garden is part of a larger, ongoing investigation by the Harrisons into the survival of species in the face of climate change, entitled The Force Majeure. The Harrisons co-opted the legal term "force majeure" for this body of work, which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, not unlike the fast-encroaching water levels and rising temperatures we're experiencing on the planet today. Artist Newton Harrison today. The artist's wife and long-term creative partner Helen Mayer Harrison recently passed away. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Another Force Majeure project, at the University of California Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, is already starting to see results. For the four-year-old installation, artists collaborated with field station scientists to physically move groups of plant species to different altitude levels. The aim is to help seedlings — such as wild rose and red fir — become resilient to the warming effects of climate change. "We found something rather astonishing, after drought and all the other problems it could possibly have," says Harrison. "Of the 21 species we installed, about six — or 25 percent — live at all levels. That's success." A 'Future Garden' eco-dome. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Although he has reason to be mildly optimistic, Harrison continues to worry about what our hot, dry future might look like. And though it's a controversial idea, he believes finding a way to help a few, hardy species learn to become more adaptable to rising temperatures is ultimately more likely to succeed than trying to save many already-endangered species from dying out. "An awful lot of the experimentation that receives grants aims to save the most endangered species, which if the temperature gets hot enough, are not inherently savable," Harrison says. "We take exactly the opposite position. We look for the most resilient species."

Breathing Fire: California's Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Harmful Wildfire Smoke

Worsening wildfires linked to the weather, climate change and forest management policies are causing unprecedented smoke pollution across the West and beyond, creating public health risks and undermining decades of air quality gains. After 30 minutes of gardening, Donna Fisher's eyes are burning. One is swollen shut. Since retiring to the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range 20 years ago, the 74-year-old has cultivated a garden large enough to feed her and her husband well into the winter. For the past two years, smoke from wildfires has reduced the time she can spend tending to her vegetables before her asthma and bronchitis are triggered. "It's like somebody choking you, or putting a band around your chest and pulling it tight," she said. Wildfire seasons in the Western U.S. are 105 days longer than they were five decades ago, billowing smoke that contains tiny chemical particles that threaten public health. "It used to be a few days, maybe a week at worse. Now it's longer than it's ever been." Retired nurse Donna Fisher wears a hat and sunglasses to protect from the sun while she picks squash from her garden. Fisher says smoke that has settled in near her home in the Sierra Nevada foothills has affected her health. (Alex Hall/KQED) Smoke from wildfires is undermining decades of gains made in reducing air pollution from exhaust pipes and power plants. The number of days each year that wildfires foul the air is increasing in parts of the West, with worse expected as temperatures continue to rise. 'You might not automatically have a heart attack or get asthma, but health effects can last for a year or more.'Loretta Mickley, Harvard chemist Wildfires are projected to continue increasing in size and frequency, leading to more 'smoke waves' — days-long bouts of dangerous pollution. For asthmatics like Fisher, that means more days of lung-pinching pain and confinement indoors. For those who aren't retired, it can mean missed work. Someone exposed to smoke for a few weeks can feel health impacts long afterward, says Loretta Mickley, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University who studies the relationship between smoke particles and health. In the longer term, exposure to the pollution is associated with earlier deaths. "You might not automatically have a heart attack or get asthma," Mickley said. "But health effects can last for a year or more." Fisher's home is surrounded by forests that are naturally prone to burn, putting her at the front lines of smoke waves. Forty miles downhill, smoke from fires burning around California funnels into the Central Valley — a farming region where 6.5 million residents, many of them poor and working outdoors, endure some of the country's most polluted air. Since 2010, residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the two valleys that comprise the Central Valley, experienced at least 40 days each year when air quality was dangerous according to EPA standards. "We have the biggest challenge that any air district has in the nation," said Jon Klassen, a program manager at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Amid advances in reducing pollution from farms and the trucks that haul away their produce, longer and larger wildfires burning throughout California are ushering more smoke waves into this hard-hit region. Rising temperatures, a build-up of fuel on forest floors and the growth of neighborhoods in fire-prone areas are amplifying hazards. With these wildfires, comes more smoke. Residents of the Central Valley endure greater risks than others in the U.S. of developing asthma, suffering heart attacks and strokes, and experiencing related mental health problems. Health care costs follow. The smoke affects day-to-day activities, putting classes and sports practices on hold and keeping the sick and elderly indoors. Detailer Danny Espinoza wipes the windows of a client's car in Fresno. Espinoza, who works outside, says the smoke and sun bother him, but his job requires it and he's gotten used to it. (Alex Hall/KQED) Dan Jaffe, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, Bothell who studies air quality, analyzed data from air monitors. He found that since 1970, air quality on the most polluted days each year improved on average across much of the continental U.S. But it worsened across swaths of the West, including the northern half of California and other areas affected by smoke waves. "There really has been a statistically robust increase in wildfires in the Western U.S., and that's directly impacting air pollution," Jaffe said. Breathing Fire Regina Sorondo was born and raised in Fresno, a San Joaquin Valley city home to 500,000 people. Now, she's raising her daughter and son here. Like one in four children living in Fresno County, both have been diagnosed with asthma. "Last season to this season has been really bad," said Sorondo, a call center employee, of the smoke from record-breaking fire seasons. "It's really dangerous — it's really scary." The tiny particles in the smoke, released when fire burns through fuel, is what Sorondo worries about most. Small enough to sneak through defense systems in the eyes, nose and mouth, the particulate matter, called PM2.5, can pierce through the lungs and travel through the bloodstream to organs including the heart. "Particulate matter does affect how our central nervous system works," said Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist and lab director at the federal EPA who studies the topic. "It also has an effect on inflammation, which we now know is an important role in driving cardiovascular outcomes." Staying indoors for prolonged periods, which is one of the few ways of guarding against particulate matter, can affect mental health. The Oregon Health Authority is working to help people in the southern half of the state, where wildfire smoke from California has led to sustained exposure, find psychologists and therapists. The veil of pollution clouding much of the West this summer comes with fatal consequences. A study published in GeoHealth this summer concluded that early deaths related to wildfire smoke could double this century, even as deaths from breathing fossil fuel pollution decline amid a transition to cleaner energy. "You see more patients coming in with typical symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic cough," said Praveen Buddiga, an asthma doctor who has been treating patients in Fresno for 13 years. These particles don't just affect people living close to burning wildfires. In the weeks after the Carr Fire broke out nearly 350 miles north of Fresno, Buddiga said there was an uptick in patients visiting his clinic — particularly children. Smoke from Western wildfires in early August reached far as Louisiana and New York. "What's been dramatic is how the smoke is traveling eastward," said the EPA's Cascio. "It's not just a local phenomena, it's a national one." Reversing Decades of Air Quality Gains Since the 1990s, when monitors began tracking PM2.5 and the EPA began fining states for breaching its standards, air quality nationwide has been improving. The number of people exposed to particulate matter has halved, and related deaths have fallen by about a third, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. With wildfires increasing in size and intensity, those gains are being undermined. Climate Central researchers examined the number of days each year when PM2.5 levels exceeded federal standards. In both of the valleys that comprise California's Central Valley, the number of these days decreased overall since 2000, but the proportion of those days occurring during the wildfire season increased. 'Fire responds exponentially to warming. For every degree of warming there is in the Western U.S., the impact is a lot more.'Park Williams, Columbia Univ. Health risks depend on age, health conditions and wealth. Poorer residents may not be able to miss work, and may live in drafty homes that allow smoke to permeate indoors. Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist at Colorado State University, has been tracking asthma-related hospital admissions in Western counties. At the beginning of August, as the Mendocino Complex Fire burned in northern California, she said she found that the likelihood of being hospitalized with asthma-related issues more than doubled along counties on the Oregon-California border. "We breathe every minute of every day multiple times and it's not something that we can stop doing," said Magzamen. "That's why this is concerning — this impacts everyone, it's widespread and we're seeing real impacts." The Role of Humans Climate change, the whims of the weather and a century of firefighting practices have all been contributing to the destructiveness of the West's recent wildfire seasons. Even as scientists and California firefighters point to the role of warming temperatures in fueling blazes, the Trump administration has been downplaying or falsely denying the links. Rising temperatures in California caused in part by the heat-trapping effects of fossil fuel pollution are sucking moisture from Western landscapes and hastening the annual melting of snowpacks, drying fuel for wildfires. "Fire responds exponentially to warming," said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University. "For every degree of warming there is in the Western U.S., the impact is a lot more." Meanwhile, new residents continue to move into areas that are prone to burn, increasing risks to themselves, and accidentally or deliberately starting fires. A century of aggressive firefighting to protect residents and property has also contributed to the devastation, leaving fuel on forest floors that would once have burned naturally during low-level fires kindled by lightning strikes. Since a series of forest fires burned three million acres of Montana, Idaho and Washington in 1910, strategies for managing fires have generally favored extinguishing them as quickly as possible. "We shouldn't suppress all fires, they are part of our ecosystem and are necessary," said Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is investigating how controlled burns and wildfires affect public health. "The challenge is having that perspective but also caring about the health of populations." In recent years, the federal government has been working with local and state agencies to boost prescribed burns, where officials set and manage low-level fires that consume shrubs, small trees and leaf litter. The efforts have been be limited by funding shortfalls. And nearby residents and local agencies sometimes oppose prescribed burns, worried about smoke pollution and risks that the fires will get out of control. As the Trump administration eliminates climate protections and falsely denies climate change's role in wildfires, it has proposed reduced spending to agencies researching and managing wildfires. "When you're spending $2.5 billion fighting forest fires, there's not a lot left in the budget to do forest management," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a radio interview Sunday with KCRA 3 in Sacramento. (During the interview, he incorrectly said this year's wildfires have "nothing to do with climate change.") As federal government leaders reject basic science and move to shrink programs that could reduce risks, the air district that regulates air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley is becoming more flexible in allowing for prescribed burns — even when the air is already dirty. A satellite image of smoke from the Ranch Fire, August 11, 2018. Smoke from fires across Northern California tends to get drawn into the Central Valley. (Planet Labs) "We've had to go further than any region has before," said Klassen, of the San Joaquin Valley's air district. It has implemented hundreds of rules in an effort to reduce pollution, including allowing more prescribed burns in the region. Still, AJ Rassamni, who manages a car wash in Fresno, wants to see more comprehensive forest management. With fewer people leaving their homes amid recent smoke waves, fewer customers have been coming through his car wash. He provides masks to protect staff, but they can make breathing difficult. Worried about effects from climate change, Rassamni bought an electric car and had solar panels installed at home to reduce his climate pollution. Without aggressive steps from governments to systematically reduce pollution and boost prescribed burns, though, his efforts alone will do little to protect Central Valley residents. "Is it good for us?" he said. "No. But you have a life, and you're going to live with the weather you have." This story was produced and published in partnership with Climate Central, a non-advocacy group that researches and reports on the changing climate.

Breathing Fire: California's Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Harmful Wildfire Smoke

Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma for Survivors of Last October's Devastation

There are 18 wildfires now blazing across California, which means many of the state's residents are waking up to the smell of smoke and hazy skies. The Carr fire near Redding had scorched 141,825 acres by this morning, and killed six people. Three fires in Mendocino County are all less than an hour away from Santa Rosa — where some neighborhoods burned to the ground last year. 'You can just feel it. There's a sense of tension here in Santa Rosa.'Danielle Bryant, Santa Rosa resident Confronting constant reminders of what fire can do has become a terrifying reality for people who survived last year's flames and are still piecing their lives back together. Psychologists, therapists and other counselors are working to assure these survivors that surges of panic, grief and agitation are healthy and normal, even as they offer tips for quenching the terror. The view from Danielle Bryant's bedroom window, in her new temporary apartment in Santa Rosa, is pretty unsettling these days. "The orange-tinged sky is just enough for me, to set off my anxiety and feelings of fear," Bryant says. Running for Your Life Last year on Oct. 8, an explosion jolted Bryant awake in the middle of the night. Howling winds shook her Santa Rosa house. The air was hot. Bryant and her husband jumped in their car and fled with only the clothes on their backs. "I feared for our life," she says. "We were running for our life." When they returned the next day the street was desolate. The air wreaked of burnt chemicals. Homes were charred rubble. The October flames eventually destroyed thousands of houses and killed 44 people. "We were victims to one of the most terrible events in history," says Bryant. Still Haunted 10 Months Later For the past year, Bryant has struggled with many symptoms of trauma: sleeplessness, nightmares, irritability, and loss of appetite. Aftermath of last years fire in Santa Rosa. Courtesy of Danielle Bryant. "Agitation — so quick to agitation," says Bryant. "Hence the fight that I got in the other night with my husband." '"The trouble is, the brain keeps rising to the occasion, even when the threat isn't current.'Jennifer Freeman, LMFT It was a fight about nothing. She says she blew up after watching the news about all the fires on television. She hasn't turned on the TV since. She's hearing similar stories from friends and neighbors. "You can just feel it," says Bryant. "There's a sense of tension here in Santa Rosa." Bryant's current apartment is about a mile away from her old house. She's still working through everything that happened. "These last 10 months," she says, "have been one of the hardest times of my life, because what you have to do after an event like this is, you have to go on living." There's Nothing Wrong With You The emotions and physiological responses Bryant describes are common after a life-threatening event. Francis Fuchs is a psychologist and counselor in Santa Rosa who has been treating fire victims who are highly affected by all the current blazes in northern California. "They are having more difficulty with sleeping," Fuchs says. "They are having a heightened sense of anxiety and unease. They are having some flashbacks of their fire experience from last October. Also mood changes — more anxious or tearful." Many laypeople casually use the term PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder — to loosely describe a response to a terrifying experience. But psychologists say not all responses to trauma actually fit that diagnosis, which includes symptoms that must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work. Rather, the fear, anxiety, sleeplessness or shallow breathing many fire survivors are experiencing right now are healthy and transient, psychologists and therapists say — the body's evolutionary responses to the belief that danger is again near. "It's preverbal, it's precognitive," says Padma Gordon, a spiritual counselor and mindfulness educator in San Rafael. "So what happens when we're threatened: We grip; we contract; we stop breathing. And all this is registering in our brains and in our bodies, instantaneously. Because we're hardwired for survival." When the body later perceives that same threat through the same senses – the smell of smoke, the color of the orange sky, the sound of a phone "ding" for an emergency alert — the protective survival system kicks in, even when the danger isn't immediate this time. "The brain is designed to alert you to threats," says Jennifer Freeman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Berkeley. "The trouble is, the brain keeps rising to the occasion, even when the threat isn't current." Freeman has worked with survivors of trauma and in the aftermath of natural disasters — including earthquakes and tsunamis — for three decades, both in the U.S. and internationally. What You Can Do There are a variety of cognitive and physical techniques that can help us through periods of trauma, counselors say, and people vary in which ones they find most helpful, often depending on their own cultural traditions. Freeman says one of the first steps to calm the mind and body is to be kind to yourself and respect that your system is trying to help you survive. "We can say, 'Thank you body, thank you brain for trying to take care of me,'" Freeman says. "Which is very different than, 'Oh, what's wrong with me?' and 'I need to get rid of it.'" Gordon recommends reminding yourself out loud that the fearful event is not happening again. It may sound silly to talk to yourself, but the body, she says, recognizes and calms with the sound of your voice. "'I'm sitting here in a space that doesn't smell like smoke,'" Gordon says, as an example. "'And I'm not hearing sirens, and people aren't running, trying to escape. I'm not hearing the sound of flames.' It's basically getting present. Bring yourself back into the present." Even setting yourself a task — counting all the green objects you can see from where you sitting, for example — shows your brain there is no threat nearby, says Wowlvenn Seward-Katzmiller, a somatic psychotherapist in Sebastopol. Other tools for 'coming back to the present' can be as simple as tapping your feet, Gordon says. Or smelling something you enjoy — such as tangerine or balsam fir or cinnamon — or playing calming music. To consciously slow rapid breathing, try putting one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Slowing your breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, Freeman points out, which is the body's calming system. Seward-Katzmiller suggests doing long, slow exhales as if you are blowing out a candle through a long straw. And here's a fun one: have a long (20 seconds) belly-to-belly hug with a pet or loved one. People also can heal via their community — by helping others. Asking questions that elicit the story of how someone survived the traumatic event is an approach Freeman worked with in Samoa, after the 2009 tsunami. "We asked, 'What did you do during the wave, and after the wave. What did you turn to for strength?' So we don't elicit narratives of helplessness. They are stories of pain and hope, struggle and resilience." And if you're helping someone, it's important to ask what kinds of help they want — not to assume that each approach works with everyone, she adds. Under Samoan leadership, for example, she learned that people preferred to work in community and family groups, not individually, as is common in Western counseling. Plus, basic situations such as an inability to pay for a temporary home or the threat of deportation can change what a person most needs in order to heal. Grieving and Finding Hope During especially hard times recently, Danielle Bryant has found herself driving to the empty lot in Santa Rosa where she used to live. "It was like visiting like a gravesite," says Bryant. "So it was a place to just come and be and to cry." After spending a few moments gazing at the ruins, she backs out of her parking spot, pauses, then takes a deep breath. "Just seeing the smoke off to the east," says Bryant, looking at the sky, "I get this sense of dread." Danielle Bryant's Toyota Corolla that was destroyed on Oct. 8, 2017. Courtesy of Danielle Bryant. As we drive down her old street in the Coffey Park neighborhood we pass the skeleton of a burnt-out car, still parked in a pile of ash. Bryant pulls up to an empty lot overgrown with weeds, and gets out of the car. We carefully tread through some weeds and knee high bushes. "See this outline, this box? That was it. That was our home." Bryant crouches down and puts her head in her hands. Triggered memories can still feel overwhelming, but her neighborhood is also coming back to life. Next door, a crane drops a pile of plywood beams, and construction crews are framing new homes. All over the ground, green sprouts are pushing through the blackened decay. The foundation that was once Danielle Bryant's home in the Coffee "This green is hopeful to me," says Bryant. "This is just a sign that nature comes back — and is forgiving. And that we can, we can. We can come back." To help process her grief Bryant is taking a writing class. She's finding it therapeutic to put her painful memories into words and phrases. "Grief breathing into my bones of lead," reads Bryant. "It stuck there in the deep. Was it all a dream? After we were refugees." Even as wildfires rage within an hour of Santa Rosa, Bryant is excited at the prospect of rebuilding the house in the old neighborhood, and moving back — she hopes within about year. "It is going back to the place of trauma," Bryant admits. "But it's also going back to our home." Resources for Fire Survivors Disaster Distress Helpline 1(800)985-5990 Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative Free therapy sessions to fire survivors California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists fire survivors' page My Sonoma Strong, a self-help service Editor's Note: Marisol Medina-Cadena contributed to this report.

Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma for Survivors of Last October's Devastation

Smoke-Chasers Help Predict Wildfire Behavior

One thing that stands out in this already-staggering fire season is the repeated accounts of bizarre fire behavior that seem to defy conventional wisdom. Now, scientists are looking for new clues to that behavior. It turns out that the smoke plume from a wildfire tells its own complex story that contains some of those clues, and in California, there's a new breed of "smoke chaser" looking to decode them. Scientists are probing smoke plumes from the Carr Fire and other wildfires to better predict fire behavior. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images) When I arrive at the Carr Fire's incident command post in Anderson, just south of Redding, Craig Clements had just come out of a briefing with the incident meteorologist. Every big fire has one. "They're having issues with the smoke and they want to know how deep it is," explains Clements. "We're gonna map the smoke layer." Clements runs the Fire Weather Research Lab at San Jose State State University — and he's taken it on the road. The lab's mobile unit is a white, heavy-duty pickup, outfitted with a cluster of weather instruments and a LIDAR unit. LIDAR is kind of like radar, but instead of using radio waves, shoots a beam of light skyward, in this case to make a vertical map of the smoke column. SJSU's mobile fire weather unit is the only one of its kind operated by a U.S. university. (Craig Miller/KQED) "We can track the smoke," says Clements, "but we can also measure the wind circulation patterns in the smoke plume." Meteorology student Jackson Yip pulls the rig off of Highway 299 onto an open field, about 5 miles from the fire line, and gets to work inflating a small weather balloon — about four feet across. It carries a transmitter the size of an eyeglass case, called a radiosonde, that will send data back to the truck. He lets it go and it shoots into the air. "That's a good sight. Come on, keep goin', keep goin'!," urges Clements. It will keep going, sampling and transmitting data back once every second, until it reaches 40,000 feet or more above the earth. The fire lab crew will transmit their data to the meteorologist on duty at the command post, where it can help form a better picture of conditions aloft. Launch sites for weather balloons are "few and far between," according to Clements, so the team's ability to launch on site was a boon to the "i-met," the incident meteorologist who asked them to do so. "Wow–look at that," Clements exclaims, as the information starts to form a picture. The first thing they notice is a strong inversion: a layer of air about 9,000 feet up that's warmer than the air below. "The air's really, really warm above," he observes. That warm air acts as a lid on the lower atmosphere, which helps explain why the entire Sacramento Valley seems to be enshrouded in a yellow, smokey haze. But what the team is really looking for, are signs that the fire's behavior might be changing. A yellow pall of smoke haze hangs over Interstate 5 south of Redding, during the Carr Fire. (Craig Miller/KQED) "If you have a very convective day, let's say, in the atmosphere, where a lot of vertical motion is occurring," Clements explains, "that can impact the fire behavior." One thing they can spot is something called a "velocity couplet," where winds above the fire are moving in opposite directions, just meters apart. That indicates rotation, and the possible formation of fire "tornadoes," like the one that added to the devastation near Redding. They're not seeing that on this day — but as the information comes in, it reveals something else that's potentially dangerous. "The air is really, really dry aloft," notes Clements, "so if that really dry air mixes down to the surface, it could really impact fire behavior, because it'll dry out the fuels." For now, it's something to keep an eye on — no need to sound an alarm. "As air descends, it'll only warm more and get drier," explains grad student Matthew Brewer. "If the sun's able to warm the surface, and you start to get surface mixing, and we get convection, and get these big circulations going, and that could bring down some of the dry air; as air comes up, air has to come back down." Currently, San Jose State has the only mobile fire weather lab in the nation, and the immediate goal is research. But Clements hopes they can make the case for units like this to become a staple of wildfire management — especially when current fires seem to be breaking all the conventional rules of fire behavior. "There are general rules of thumb," Clements says, "but it doesn't always happen. And so the more observations we can get on a wildfire in terms of meteorology, fire behavior, and fuels conditions, the better for predicting the fire." But maybe the bottom line of why they're out here was best expressed by the undergrad student in the crew, 23-year-old Jackson Yip. "Well, the papers that will be coming out of these observations and the knowledge we gain from it will ultimately save property and save lives," he says. This fall, the lab is adding a Ka-band mobile Doppler radar unit to its arsenal. Clements says that will give them unprecedented range and power to demystify the forces inside a fire's smoke plume.

The Great Era of California Dam Building May Be Over. Here's What's Next

For a century, California has harnessed its water with concrete, building dams and reservoirs on an epic scale. Now, as the state prepares to hand out $2.7 billion for new water storage projects, it looks as though that era of dam-building might be ending. During the height of the California's 5-year drought, state voters approved new funding for water storage as part of Proposition 1. This week, the California Water Commission will allocate those funds to the eight projects that have qualified after a lengthy analysis. Some projects are classic dams, but several won't get the windfall they'd been hoping for. Instead, next-generation projects are in the running, like using the state's vast network of natural underground aquifers for water storage. That's sparked a fierce debate over how California can get more water. Era of Dam-Building After the Clutch Plague, California's first major dam rose on a river of federal money. At the time, Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River was the second tallest in the country. The dam-building era stretched into the 1970s, as California's major water projects were built. Canals and aqueducts stretched across the state. One promotional film dubbed it "one of the greatest engineering and construction achievements of the modern age," provding "water to protect the health of generations to come." Mario Santoyo points to the site proposed for Temperance Flat Dam, which would essentially create an extension of Millerton Lake near Fresno. (Jeffrey Hess) "That's all we're trying to do today," says Mario Santoyo, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority. "We're trying to build these things not for us in particular, but for our children." The group is championing a new dam project known as Temperance Flat. It would sit just upriver from the 300-foot-tall wall of concrete known as Friant Dam. That dam, built in the 1940s, helped turn the San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural powerhouse. Almost all of the country's almonds, pistachios and raisins come from just nearby. "This is, for all practical purposes, one of the best prime agricultural areas in the world," says Santoyo. Shasta Dam under construction in the 1940s. (Russel Lee, US Farm Security Administration) Santoyo says to keep crops growing, California needs the new dam, a project that supporters have had their eye on for decades. "It's a V-shaped canyon area which is almost perfect for placing a dam," he says. Faced with a price tag for that of about $3 billion, the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority applied for $1 billion in Prop 1 funding. But after the California Water Commission analyzed the project under a new scoring system, it determined that Temperance Flat wasn't eligible for the full amount. The funding request was dropped to $171 million. "It was a major blow for us 'cause we didn't see it coming," says Santoyo. And the reason? This water bond has a dramatically different approach to funding infrastructure. Broader Benefits "The bond was really clear: fund the projects that could provide the most public benefits," says Rachel Zwillinger, who works on water policy for the environmental advocacy group, Defenders of Wildlife. In the past, many water bonds supported the building of particular projects. But the way state lawmakers wrote Prop 1, funding can only go toward the public benefits that a project provides. That includes things like flood control, recreation, or improving habitat for endangered species. To Zwillinger, it's a sign that California is learning from its past. "We didn't really think about and perhaps understand the impact that these dams would have on the environment," she reflects. "We've seen native wildlife species crashing." California's major dams blocked salmon from reaching their historic spawning grounds. Today, several iconic salmon runs are endangered. Plus, the water in most rivers is already spoken for, so even if a new dam captures water, Zwillinger says most of it already belongs to someone else. "We're thinking about storage in new ways in California," she says. "And hopefully moving past the era of on-river dams to other forms of storage that are going to serve us much better as we see more climate change and longer droughts." Underground Reservoirs "The wastewater industry as a whole is learning that it's not wastewater," says Christoph Dobson, as he walks around Regional San's wastewater treatment plant in Sacramento. It's the end of the line for sewage from 1.4 million Sacramento residents — but not for long. "Right now, we're in the middle of the EchoWater project construction area," he says, pointing to a battalion of cranes and trucks. The plant is getting an almost-$2 billion upgrade. When it's done, the treated wastewater coming out of the plant will be much cleaner than it used to be. "It is not potable, so you can't drink it, but you can do a lot with it," he says. "So why not reuse this water?" Christoph Dobson looks over the construction upgrade for Sacramento's wastewater treatment plant. (Lauren Sommer/KQED) In a dry state like California, it's not hard to find someone who wants it. Just a few miles away are acres of grapes, alfalfa, and almond fields. Currently, farmers there get water by pumping it out of the ground. "The water under the ground is going down, there's less of it," Dobson says. "So, the idea is that we'll take our high-quality recycled water and provide that to the farmers." In theory, farmers would then use the recycled water instead of over-drafting the groundwater. The $280 million in Prop 1 funding would go toward building a pipeline and distribution network to deliver the recycled water. Raising the groundwater levels in the area could also be an ecological boon. If the water table is higher, it might improve the flow of the nearby Cosumnes River, which would benefit fish and wildlife. Dobson admits that the project doesn't seem to have a lot in common with a dam. "But really it's the same thing," he says. "It's just another reservoir. It's just that reservoir is underground and you can't see it. The scarcity of water has really made this project more possible." Three other projects expecting Prop 1 funding are based on groundwater storage or recycled water. The California Water Commission will make a final funding determination this week.

The Great Era of California Dam Building May Be Over. Here's What's Next

Why California's Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used

With climate change, wildfires threaten disaster and chaos in more California communities, more often. But experts say it's possible to avoid catastrophic harm to human and forest health by setting planned burns before human error, lightning or arson choose when fires start. "Putting prescribed fire back out on the landscape at a pace and scale to get real work done and to actually make a difference is a high priority," says Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott. "It really is, and it's going to take a lot of effort." 'Unprecedented Catastrophe' In a February report, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission concluded that the way California landowners have collectively managed forests is an "unprecedented catastrophe." In May, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to improve forest management, and with it, a dramatic change. Now Pimlott says that Cal Fire intends to triple the amount of prescribed fire on lands the state controls. "We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur," he says. "So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires." That's a small step toward addressing a major deficit. According to the commission's report, an area the size of Maryland — including state, private and federal land — needs maintenance or planned fire to become healthier. 'We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity...'Ken Pimlott, CalFire Chief One day of prescribed burning in the Tahoe National Forest offers a glimpse of the difficulties in completing these projects. Easier Said Than Done U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters hacked a line into the earth, around a patch of land on the Yuba River District near Pendola, overlooking Bullard's Bar for one day of work. A "hot shot" crew and crew members from two engine companies gathered for the day's work. "This day started a few years back," Jennifer Hinckley laughs dryly. Hinckley is a fire and fuels specialist for the Tahoe National Forest. And she does a lot of paperwork: before the first torch even can drip fire on the ground, federal law requires extensive environmental review. Even with approval, federal wildland managers waited months for the right weather and environmental conditions here. Hinckley says those criteria range from wind speed and temperature, to how much water is in the soil. It was a very wet spring; on-and-off rains created several months of delay here. Thick vegetation in the understory is a limiting factor, too. Hinckley says her crews often need to chop and flatten vegetation to make safe conditions for burning. Even when all of the stars align, Hinckley says she might not have warm bodies for the job. That happened last fall, when fires up and down the state kept fire crews hamstrung. "I didn't have crews to perform prescribed burns," she says, "because the wildfires take priority." Even when the permit is done and the weather is right and crews are available, the air might already be too polluted to add more smoke to the mix. Air regulators grant permission for burn days, and it's hard to get: regional atmospheric conditions mean that smoke from Sierra Nevada forests funnels toward the central valley, where air pollution is consistently bad. Balancing Forest and Human Health Whether from wildfire or planned burn, smoke feels like pollution to vulnerable lungs. "The consequences are the same in terms of patient response," says Fresno-based asthma and allergy specialist Praveen Budigga. "I mean, patients are going to have the same effects of the fire." State and regional air boards say they're working to balance forest and human health. "We have to protect public health; that's our mandate," says Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board. "But we also recognize that we need burning in the forest, and a lot of those trade-offs have to happen in real time because the decisions have to be made — do we want to potentially impact the air basin, or do we want to burn." 'We have to protect public health. That's our mandate.'Dar Mims, CARB Air regulators and fire officials say that to promote prescribed burns will require better public education about their relative hazards. Last year, a groundbreaking study concluded that wildfire smoke contains three times as much pollution as smoke from prescribed fires. CalFire's Ken Pimlott says that's reason to push for more burn days. "We want the ability to have some more flexibility to be able to burn on days [when] maybe it's not quite as close to an air quality attainment day as one would like but it's a perfect prescription window," he says. "Say we have the resources available and the temperatures and humidities and wind — all of those, vegetation, are all in alignment to make a perfect burn and so we want the ability have a little flexibility." Bringing Fire to a Healthier Landscape Evidence of the ecological benefits of fire are visible at the Bouverie Preserve, a wildland area in Sonoma County. Beginning in spring, a living carpet of purple lupine, white popcornflower, yellow fiddleneck unrolled across the preserve's fields and canyons. "It's lush and green with wildflowers. It's pretty beautiful," says fire ecologist Sasha Berleman. To her, this off-the-charts growth signals a healthy landscape, where wildflowers followed the fire in short order. But look closer at the trees, she says, pointing out how the heat of the Nuns fire blackened the ground and charred the oaks, their trunks scarred with flames up to six feet high. Berleman wonders whether the fire needed to be that severe. "With that wind event that we had, it's not that this fire is completely preventable but we could have probably had an impact on the behavior of the fire within the area that burned," she reflects. To see how, she points across the path, to a 17.5-acre plot where she lit a prescribed fire last May. Those trees remained green. Flames were only inches high. These lands will recover faster. "They might have not burned so hot or so extreme in the oak woodlands if we had been managing them on a regular basis," Berleman says. She also thinks more planned burns could have saved Bouverie's buildings. That hot and extreme fire torched all but one of them. Berleman went back to the preserve as the fire raged. She and two men were able to save that last building, David Bouverie's own, using a bucket, a shovel and a chain. "So now that building has a special place in my heart," she laughs. "We spent a good 24 hours together." Berleman now works as a consultant, promoting the use of ecologically applied fire for private clients and the East Bay Regional Park District, among others. Paradoxically this summer, she's deploying her "hot shot" training as a wildland firefighter, where the job is to stamp fires out. "I felt like we're sometimes putting out fires that were doing good work. Just because that's what the machine does," Berleman says. "That's what we do, put out fires." Her hope is to reconcile the conflicting aims of these jobs, and the relationship between fire and California's landscape, to get scientists and wildland managers heading in the same direction. In Harm's Way Craig Thomas, conservation director for the Sierra Forest Legacy, says in the last 25 years, that's become easier to do. But during those years, Thomas points out a different challenge has been growing: more people have moved into wildlands from cities. "There is a, you know, thinking that a landscape is like a photograph," he says ruefully. "You know, when you have these big beautiful trees and we want to freeze-frame them." Thomas argues that's a bad idea. Fire is a natural disturbance, he says, "a process that is every bit as much of the picture of where you land as the trees are." For him, the forests are a movie, not a picture. Trees have a starring role, but so does fire. And it doesn't have to be the bad guy in a summer blockbuster.

Something Else Adding Fuel to California's Fire Season: Warmer Nights

It will most likely be weeks before the County Fire west of Sacramento is completely extinguished. By Friday it had consumed nearly 140 square miles — an area larger than Las Vegas. Firefighters say it was a vicious cycle of weather conditions, terrain and vegetation that made it one of the fastest-growing fires in recent memory. But there was something else at work: a relatively new challenge confronting fire crews. Scientists have noted that nighttime temperatures — overnight lows, in particular — are rising at a faster rate than daytime highs. 'We know this has been going on and impacting firefighting operations.'Tim Brown, Western Regional Climate Ctr. "It is a significant difference," says Tim Brown, who directs the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. "Both temperatures are rising, but the minimum temperatures are rising even more." Brown says the difference in rates first started showing up in the data around 1980, and that overnight lows are now running about 2 degrees F above the 1981-2010 period that climate scientists use as a benchmark. "We can see both the trends in the daily high temperatures," he notes, "but an even stronger trend in the daily night time temperature." Graph shows the recent spike in Northern California's overnight low temperatures, compared to 1981-2010 period. (Western Regional Climate Center) And it's not good news for firefighters, who have complained in recent years that wildfires have not been "laying down" at night as they had in the past. Brown says the trend has been particularly apparent at this time of year, and in the part of the state where the season's first two major fires erupted. "This rise has been occurring all over the state," says Brown. "But where the current fires are — the County Fire, the Pawnee Fire — yes, over the last six years, we can see from these observations that the nighttime temperatures have been particularly warmer than usual during the spring months and into summer." It could've been a contributing factor when the County Fire started devouring landscape at the rate of 1,000 acres an hour, growing fourfold in size on its first night. The higher nighttime temperatures were just part of a witch's brew of heat, low humidity, erratic winds, and terrain that made for a difficult fire fight. "We know this has been going on and impacting firefighting operations," says Brown. California's fire season is off to an early start. By early July, Cal Fire had responded to about 260 more fires than by the same time last year. Brown says that since nights have warmed and humidity dropped, there isn't as much moisture for "cured" or dead vegetation to absorb from the air. And, he says, if fire crews can't make as much headway at night as they used to, it means there is also more smoke to contend with. "There's a substantial increase in the potential for public health impacts that we can link to this increase in nighttime temperature," says Brown.

Something Else Adding Fuel to California's Fire Season: Warmer Nights

Oakland Zoo Makes Room for Big Predators. But Is it Enough?

On a sunny, crisp day in April, LeRoy Little Bear and a dozen other tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sang and danced a traditional rite to honor fourteen American bison they brought from Montana to the Oakland Zoo. "Today is a very historic day because we've brought down buffalo that were almost extinct," announced Little Bear from an overlook above the grazing herd. These bison are rare, he said, because they haven't been bred with cattle, unlike most bison seen today. "You're getting full-blood buffalo from the way they used to be," Little Bear proclaimed with visible pride. Tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sing together to honor and welcome fourteen bison they brought from Montana to their new home at Oakland Zoo. (Sarah Craig) The bison are one of eight species at California Trail, the Zoo's new exhibit hosting animals native — or once native to California. It's scheduled to open to the public in July 12. Amy Gotliffe, the zoo's conservation director, says the exhibit is a way to, "show people from the Bay Area what beautiful biodiverse wildlife we live with now, lived with before and could live with again." The bison, she says, are an example of how the zoo is trying to support animals in the wild. They will breed the bison and send the offspring back to the tribe to repopulate the wild herd. The zoo is also supporting a range of conservation efforts for each of their new animals, which include mountain lions, wolves, jaguars, California condors, bald eagles, black bears — even the long-extirpated grizzly bear. For example, the four black bears at the zoo — a mother and her three cubs — were rescued from Pine Mountain Club in Kern County. "There was a possibility of them all being put down because they were considered a nuisance," said Gotliffe. The zoo is partnering with the Bear League in Tahoe that helps to deter black bears from wandering into human areas. Jaklyn Mistaken Chief, 12, and Dallis Mistaken Chief, 9, from the Blood Tribe, offer the "Fancy Shawl" dance during a ceremony to welcome fourteen bison brought from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. (Sarah Craig) The zoo also rescued four grizzly cubs from Alaska, and three mountain lion cubs, one from El Dorado County and two from Orange County. (The original California Grizzly is considered extinct, hunted out nearly a century ago.) "The mountain lions are another story," said Gotliffe, "They were all found abandoned [as cubs] on the side of the road." The zoo is working with the Mountain Lion Foundation and the Bay Area Puma Project and has created a task force called the Bay Area Cougar Action Team. There's also a plan to help California condors and bald eagles recover from lead bullet poisoning and then release them back into the wild. In order to support all these partnerships, the zoo contributes 50 cents of its admission price ($22 for adults) as well as a portion of future Zoo membership fees, to conservation funds. Managers expect to raise at least a quarter of a million dollars this fiscal year for conservation. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, recommends that zoos under its accreditation — like the Oakland Zoo — spend at least three percent of their revenue for conservation. Gotliffe says they aren't there yet, but they "have that goal in mind." She says with the opening of California Trail, which cost $80 million dollars and more than doubled the size of the zoo, they "will definitely be there." Fourteen bison graze on native grasslands in their new exhibit at Oakland Zoo, in what was once part of Knowland Park. (Sarah Craig) Ironically, to achieve these conservation goals, the zoo expanded into 57 acres of Knowland Park, cutting into habitat for the threatened Alameda striped racer — also known as the Alameda whipsnake — and the California red-legged frog. This angered park advocates who formed an organization called Friends of Knowland Park. In 2011, they waged a losing legal battle against the zoo and the City of Oakland, arguing that the city didn't fully mitigate for impacts to the Alameda striped racer, native grasslands and sensitive plant species, like the Oakland star tulip and bristly leptosiphon. Under the existing requirements, the zoo must set aside 13 acres for native grasslands and 53 acres for the striped racer. "We don't know if the snake is going to go into an animal enclosure and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing," said Shawn Smallwood, an independent biologist from UC Davis hired by Friends of Knowland Park to review the zoo's plan. But, he added, when you are dealing with an endangered species you must err on the side of caution. "It's just been so political," says Karen Swain, the biologist hired by the zoo to monitor the frog and the snake during construction. She's tasked with making sure construction workers don't harm the snake. "I've had to walk this honest line for what the biology is." In a way, the zoo is walking its own line: even making adequate space for its own animals remains controversial. Heather Paddock and her fellow zookeeper rake old hay away from the feeding areas for the zoo's fourteen American bison. (Sarah Craig/KQED) "We are trying to provide these guys with as varied of an environment as possible, to help them not be sitting around all day bored," says Heather Paddock, one of the zookeepers in charge of the black bears. The bears have more than an acre, dotted with dens, oak trees — even a swimming pool. The zoo says the bears exhibit, as well as all of their new exhibits, exceed the industry's best standards. But Mark Bekoff, an Emeritus Professor of Ecology who studies animal behavior at the University of Colorado, says zoos shouldn't keep large predators because of their need to roam vast distances and hunt prey. One of the black bear cubs wanders over to the glass of his enclosure, which is over an acre and features three dens, oak trees and a swimming pool. (Sarah Craig/KQED) "Wide-ranging carnivores are among the animals who suffer the most when they are put into a cage," he said, referencing a 2014 study published in Nature. While Bekoff agrees that zoos should take in animals who have nowhere else to go, like these bears, he wants them to have more choice and control over their lives. Zookeeper Paddock said she is trying to compensate for this with training and enrichment activities. "We are providing them enrichment every single day, whether that's a new food item or a new device, a toy, a new scent," she said as she fed the black bears a mixture of bird seed, mealworms, romaine lettuce and oranges. But Bekoff maintains that animals need privacy, too. "Because let's face it," he says, "zoos bring animals in as money makers and so many animals in zoos suffer from boredom or stress from being unable to get out of the public's eye." Heather Paddock, a zookeeper for the Oakland Zoo's new exhibit, prepares a food enrichment activity for the zoo's four black bears. She pours bird seed and mealworms into large round containers and tapes off the holes to make it harder for the bears to get the food. (Sarah Craig) But Paddock says the public needs to connect with these animals so they care about saving them in the wild. "You know the wild isn't butterflies and rainbows for a lot of these animals," she says. "They're getting pushed further and further to the fringe of wild spaces." Ultimately, that fringe habitat could be the last refuge — for both snakes and bears — because there just isn't enough wild space left. A major new expansion doubling the size of the Oakland Zoo, called California Trails, opens July 12, and features eight species native or once native to California, a gondola and hilltop restaurant. Source: The Oakland Zoo

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