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Even After a Wildfire, Dangers Persist

Nifa Author
Lori Tyler Gula, Senior Public Affairs Specialist

There has been an unprecedented increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires with 2020 marked as the most active wildfire year across the Western United States. While direct impacts from wildfires are devastating as singular events, the legacy of wildfires may last long after the flames have been extinguished.   

Following wildfires, cascading hazards such as debris flow, landslides and flooding may occur, resulting in potentially catastrophic sequences. While dangerous for anyone, these post-wildfire cascading hazards are particularly perilous for underserved communities that include a large percentage of senior, disabled and Access and Functional Needs populations in remote and disconnected communities with rugged terrain and a depressed economy. 

For example, the deadliest debris flow events in California history followed the massive December 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Although the fire was nearly completely contained, heavy rain in early January 2018 on burned hill slopes caused rapid erosion, mud flow and debris flow of soil and stream channels, resulting in catastrophic damage in Montecito Creek and San Ysidro Creek. Twenty-one fatalities, two missing persons, 129 destroyed residences and 307 damaged residences were reported by the inter-agency, storm-response team in Santa Barbara County. 

“In response to the need for programming to address hazards due to extreme weather events, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has established multi-pronged efforts to address rapid response, wildfire spread prediction, and reduction of the hazardous effects on communities,” said Dr. Steven Thomson, National Program Leader, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.  

Reducing the Vulnerability of Disadvantaged Communities to Cascading Hazards 

As a result of the escalating risk of cascading hazards, decision-makers, engineers, social scientists and other stakeholders need to work together to enable communities to better confront cascading hazards. To that end, in August 2021 a team of researchers launched a three-year project aims to reduce the vulnerability of disadvantaged communities to the impacts of wildfire-related cascading hazards under a changing climate. The project is funded by NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI); specifically NIFA’s Smart and Connected Communities priority within the Cyber-Physical Systems collaborative program with NSF.

Led by Mississippi State University, “Reducing the Vulnerability of Disadvantaged Communities to the Impacts of Cascading Hazards under a Changing Climate” brings together researchers from six universities and California emergency planning authorities. The project centers on Lake County, California, which possesses key characteristics of a community at risk for cascading hazards and is home to a significant population of underserved residents.  

Since 2015, more than 60% of Lake County, home to a large portion the Mendocino National Forest, has been burned by wildfires. The county northwest of Sacramento has more than 64,000 residents with a median household income of $47,000, including 13.4% under the age of 65 with a disability and 23% over 65 with a disability. In 2022, Lake County was ranked among the least healthy counties in California.  

Weather Stations and Field Monitoring Equipment Installed 

Dr. Tim Stark with the first weather station installed at Silver Spur Ranch. Credit: Tuleyome.
Dr. Tim Stark with the first weather station installed at Silver Spur Ranch. Credit: Tuleyome. 

As part of the study, scientists will install weather stations and field monitoring equipment in four sites across the county. The sites are vulnerable to wildfires and post-wildfire ground failures such as landslides, so researchers want to closely monitor them and use the data for developing and validating models that predict cascading hazards.  

Recently, team member Dr. Tim Stark from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, installed the first of three weather stations and field sensors at the Silver Spur Ranch. Tuleyome, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Woodland, California, owns the ranch. The weather station and sensors were installed on a small slide that burned in the 2018 Pawnee Fire. The station will record temperature, wind, rainfall and soil moisture. Using the data collected, Stark will determine when slopes are likely to slide.   

According to Nate Lillge, Tuleyome Adventures and Engagement Director, Silver Spur Ranch has many small landslides throughout the property, which makes the property a great study area. 

“This is a critical site to monitor for any possible future post-fire landslide,” said Dr. Farshid Vahedifard, principal investigator on the project from Mississippi State University. “The area was hit by several wildfires in the past. Further, there is a massive active landslide and a large 201-foot dam, the Indian Valley Dam, near the site. There also is a large community, Spring Valley, living downstream of the dam as well. So, any issues with the dam can possibly impact the operation of the dam as well as the population living behind it in a cascading manner.”  

Monitoring sites is just one aspect of the research program. The team also will investigate alerting methods to build safer, more connected communities; conduct community surveys; and develop a K-12 curriculum to enhance resilience and understanding of disasters among youth. 

Working with Community Partners 

One of the unique features of the project is the close collaboration and extensive support the research team receives from community partners Lake County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, Sacramento Police Department and the Lake County Office of Education Superintendent of Schools. 

According to Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, Lake County’s geographic remoteness has resulted in it being underrepresented and underserved. “Our lack of resources and representation, and our lack of economic opportunity has made it difficult to overcome many of these challenges. Despite this, the beauty and community that Lake County has to offer continue to make it a place people call home,” Martin said.   

The worldwide impact of a changing climate, coupled with a change in forest management practices, have led to disasters that have taken a tremendous toll on disadvantaged communities, Martin said. “While people in other communities may experience disasters, they often have the resources to recover. They can move to a different part of their community. Their job may still be available. Adequate social services and support organizations can help them recover,” he said. “In underserved communities, that is often not the case.”  

Rebuilding infrastructure and homes has been a daunting effort, said Lake County Office of Emergency Services Manager Leah Sautelet. “The wildfires don’t recognize boundaries and county lines. Our neighboring, more affluent counties, have also experienced devastating wildfires. These events destroy entire communities, and there are a finite number of companies available to rebuild.” 

And since contractors and construction companies can make more money in more affluent communities, Sautelet said this leaves behind people in other communities to deal with the aftermath because they can’t afford to pay the rebuilding costs that are being paid in surrounding areas.   

“My hope is that the project will bring awareness, and cause policymakers and legislators to earmark and channel funds to underserved communities. I hope this is done with an added effort to create additional jobs and opportunities within those communities so that we don’t simply recover from the disaster, but we become even more resilient,” Martin said. 

NIFA Announcement. Rapidly Responding to Extreme Weather Events. Image of person kneeling down in a damaged wheat field. Courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Person kneeling down in a damaged wheat field. Courtesy of Adobe Stock. 

New NIFA Funding for Extreme Weather Events 

Since NIFA awarded the grant for the California project, it has established AFRI funding priority area, Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Events Across Food and Agricultural Systems (A1712). This priority area seeks applications that focus on critical and urgent solutions in rapid response to extreme weather and disaster impacts on the nation’s food and agricultural systems and that clearly describe short-term deliverables (within three months of award receipt), including a plan for their adoption/use.  

“Disasters caused by natural hazards and extreme weather events can happen anywhere, anytime,” said Ashley Mueller, a National Program Leader who co-leads the AFRI program, Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Across Food and Agricultural Systems. “This summer brought sustained drought conditions for the West and Central Plains; extreme flooding in Yellowstone National Park and in Kentucky; and notable wildfires in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. This fall was marked by hurricanes that impacted Puerto Rico and several states in the Southeast. And across the country, there have been hundreds of localized incidents that didn’t get broad public attention, yet they disrupted peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”  

All applicants must directly address effects associated with an extreme weather event or disaster that has occurred. Applications must address one or more of the following emphasis areas: agroecosystem resilience; agricultural Commodity and nutrition security; and health, well-being and safety.  

Those interested in learning more about the funding priority are invited to attend a Live FAQ Session Thursday, December 8, from 3 to 4 p.m. EST. Please register in advance. The application deadline is included in the FY2022 AFRI RFA. For more information on this priority area, visit the A1712 webpage or contact the AFRI Rapid Response team at afri-rapidresponse@usda.gov

“It’s not a matter of if disasters and emergencies will happen, it’s a matter of when they will. And there’s no time like the present to act,” Mueller said. 

Top image: A car is lodged in a Montecito, California, home following a January 2018 debris flow following the massive Thomas Fire. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey. 

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Farm Bill Priority Areas
Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment
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