Understanding Fire Hero Image

The Fires of 2018: What Happens Now?

Following one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in California history, the students, faculty and staff of the California State University are still coming to terms with the magnitude of the loss and the impact on our people.

While we deepen our understanding of the ever-lengthening and more extreme fire season across the state, the difficult truth is that no one can completely prepare for this kind of catastrophic event. Almost certainly, the CSU will need to continue to draw on the strength of the people within our 23-campus system, coming together to support one another and the surrounding communities in times of crisis.

Read on to learn more from leading CSU experts about California's biggest wildfire challenges and how our people and land are recovering from the devastating fires of 2018.

How the Fires Affected the CSU

The Camp Fire started on November 8, 2018, in Northern California's Butte County, home to California State University, Chico. Campus leaders closed the campus from November 9 through November 25, and residents of some surrounding communities were ordered to evacuate. While no university structures burned, hundreds of staff, students and faculty members lost their homes. (A number of other CSU campus were also temporarily closed due to poor air quality from the Camp Fire, including Cal Maritime, CSU East Bay, Sacramento State, San Francisco State, San José State, Stanislaus State and Sonoma State.) By the time the fire was contained on November 25, it had burned over 150,000 acres and destroyed more than 17,000 buildings across the county—the majority of those homes. The town of Paradise and adjacent Concow communities were hardest hit.

Also on November 8, the Hill Fire began in Ventura County, where California State University Channel Islands is situated. Officials closed the campus on November 8 due to a mandatory evacuation order, although the 4,500-acre Hill Fire only came within three miles of campus at its nearest point. Further away, the larger Woolsey Fire (which began the same day) destroyed 1,500 structures in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, burning more than 90,000 acres in total.

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Before: Courtesy of Google After: Courtesy of Jason Halley/Chico State

Before: courtesy of Google Street View; after: courtesy of Jason Halley/Chico State

Helping the Healing

"We've always had a very strong sense of community in Butte County, but I've noticed after being evacuated myself that the fire seems to have brought more of that out," says Don Hankins, Ph.D., professor of geography and planning at Chico State, speaking of the Camp Fire. Here are some of the ways people and communities affected by this year's wildfires are helping one another to heal:

1. By being there. One of the best ways to help someone dealing with loss after the wildfires is simply to be present. "Whether it's listening or providing meals or housing, gestures like this come from within the community fairly easily in this area," says Dr. Hankins, adding that people can also consider making a donation to the Wildcats Rise Fire Recovery Fund.

2. By recognizing that grief takes different forms. "A lot of healing has taken place and a lot will still happen," says Sean Murphy, media relations coordinator at Chico State. "We see people grieving in very different ways, so as a campus we need to be really cognizant of that. The care needs to continue—it's not done yet." A survey sent to the campus's students and employees in the days after the fire found that more than 310 people lost their homes. Hankins is also concerned about a psychological condition known as ecological grief, in which people grieve when their land changes drastically, such as after a fire or even the removal of a tree from their property. "Obviously, there's an ecological impact when the landscape changes, but there's also a psychological impact … It's a source of trauma," he explains.

3. By giving communities time to recover too. "The thing I'm most concerned about is community resilience. Our communities are resilient—but to a point," says Sean Anderson, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Environmental Science and Resources Management (ESRM) program at CSU Channel Islands. Previous wildfire disasters show that recovery can be slow; Dr. Anderson's survey following the 2017 Thomas Fire found that 45 percent of respondents were significantly impacted during and immediately after the fires. One year later, about 15 percent still didn't feel they had recovered.

4. By preparing students and staff for next time. Anderson knows the stress his students face, which is why he's encouraging them to seek out counseling and support services offered at CSUCI. For faculty, "there's no handbook on this, in terms of how you deal with this," he says, but he suggests that professors and lecturers consider creating an extra lesson or two that students could complete online, in case a future emergency throws a wrench into class schedules. At Chico State, psychology professor and licensed therapist Kyle Horst, Ph.D. prepared a guide to help faculty in supporting students; it's available on the campus's fire updates page.

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Lending a Hand to Chico State

The Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires affected five CSU campuses, but none more than Chico State. During the crisis, the CSU showcased its remarkable teamwork by sending in personnel from across the system to aid the campus's university police department: Fifteen CSU campuses sent personnel and 37 CSU employees were deployed: 32 sworn campus police officers, two lieutenants and a dispatcher, police chief, and communications manager.

The officers conducted preventative patrols to keep the peace, responded to calls on the Chico campus, and performed evacuations and search-and-locate services within the fire perimeter. "The support we received during the hours after the Camp Fire began was a true testament to the strength of the CSU community," says John Reid, chief of University Police at Chico State. "I'd especially like to thank our sister campus police officers who stopped everything they were doing to travel to Chico and lend a hand."

From Scorched Earth to 'Greening Up'

When a wildfire tears through an area, it's a given that smoke fills the air and ash covers the landscape and may be carried into waterways. But the sheer number of homes that burned in the Camp Fire released what may be an unprecedented amount of contaminants, says Jackson Webster, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering at Chico State, who studies wildfires' impact on water systems.

"There hasn't been a comprehensive study looking at large-scale urban burning on contaminant transport. In this scenario, it's really a big unknown," explains Dr. Webster. He and colleagues have teamed up with the campus's Center for Water and Environment (CWE) to conduct post-fire research into the impact on local water sources.

When electronics, vehicles and chemicals like pesticides and solvents burn, they may release toxins into the ground, which post-fire rains can carry into waterways. The most worrisome contaminants include heavy metals like mercury and organic chemicals such as black carbon, which can have implications for water treatment downstream, says Webster. His biggest concern: potential contamination of the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which provide high-quality drinking water for many California residents and for agriculture.

Civil engineering professor Dr. Jackson Webster tests water in the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. He and colleagues are collecting data to measure the impact of the Camp Fire on the area's water systems. 

Further south in L.A. and Ventura counties, the Woolsey Fire has left its mark as well. CSU Channel Islands' Dr. Sean Anderson and his students are already busy surveying burn areas with drones (using citizen science mobile phone apps to document harmed wildlife) and sampling beach sediment after the fires to quantify the environmental impact.

They will also monitor waterways to detect microplastic debris, which can be released into the environment after a wildfire burns urban areas. Similar to ash, when plastics burn, small particles (less than five millimeters) of plastic may float through the air and deposit into streams and water bodies or be washed into waterways after a storm. There's still much research to be done here, but Anderson believes that microplastics could provide researchers with an accurate, time-saving and cost-effective way to measure the amount of pollution an urbanized watershed receives after a fire.

An increased risk for landslides and mudslides also concerns those who study the aftermath of fires. The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) preliminary hazard assessments of the Camp and Woolsey fires show a greater probability of debris flow after a rainstorm in some of the Woolsey burn areas, due in part to the topography of the land and the types of vegetation.

Binod Tiwari, Ph.D., associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at CSU Fullerton, studies landslides and mudslides in California and globally. His students are now researching the effects of rainfall on soil in the state's burn areas; their work could eventually make it easier to accurately predict mudslides after a fire.

When it comes to trees and vegetation in wildfire, survival or regrowth depends on many variables, explains Dr. Don Hankins, who's also field director of Chico State's nearly 4,000-acre Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) and an expert in fire ecology. In Butte County, he expects many of the deciduous (non-evergreen) oaks will survive because they were already becoming dormant for the season, which improves their resiliency to heat stress. So come spring 2019, many will be sprouting leaves and growing like normal, he says.

Just three weeks after the fire, Hankins was already seeing grasslands "green up," as he calls it. "Generally speaking, nature is incredibly resilient. We can throw the worst at it and it seems to be able to resolve things for itself," he says, noting that he is concerned about the possible effects of fire on the wild Chinook salmon in the Sacramento Valley, a population in peril.

But most wildlife find, somehow, a way to survive. "Two days after the fire, I heard the songbirds in a landscape that looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. If these resilient birds can make it, it'll be okay."

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Dr. Sean Anderson's students employ a variety of data collection methods for their post-fire research, including drone mapping of burn areas. Images courtesy of CSU Channel Islands

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Anderson (right) and an Environmental Science and Resources Management student flying a drone to survey a burn area after the 2017 Thomas Fire.

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Dr. Anderson and his students are monitoring waterways for the presence of microplastic debris from urban fires.

Rising from the Ashes

"After the fire, it just makes you want to double down on your work," says Eli Goodsell, manager at BCCER, who even sees a silver lining to this devastation: greater opportunity for educating students and the public about maintaining the health of the state's forests. 

"The CSU is in a position to lead that next generation of land managers, with boots on the ground—whether foresters, ecologists, fire professionals, agency administrators, utility company employees or university faculty," says the Chico State alumnus, who was born in Paradise and went to high school there.

Here's what Goodsell and other experts at the California State University say will help lessen the impact of future fires on both people and property:

Prepare skilled workers to care for our forests. Student interns and staff are out on the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve every day, says Goodsell, working the land, thinning vegetation and learning about wildfire mitigation tactics. "It's a win-win for our students and our community," he notes, adding that BCCER will soon introduce a community education program and is exploring innovative ways to prepare Chico State graduates to become future leaders in forest health and fire management.

"The CSU is in a position to lead the next generation of fire professionals, land managers and foresters with boots on the ground."

—Eli Goodsell, manager at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, Chico State

If you're a homeowner, maintain a fire-safe property. "You can't have your house look real pretty if you want it to survive a fire," says Craig Clements, Ph.D., director of the San José State University's Fire Weather Research Laboratory and associate professor of meteorology and climate science. Clear away all the vegetation or dried fuel (such as pine needles, dead leaves and firewood) from at least 30 feet around your home; this is called creating a defensible space. If a house has a big tree hanging over the roof, firefighters might not even try to save it during a wildfire event, cautions Dr. Clements.

Support community fire-safe awareness programs. "There are these teachable moments right after the wildfire and those six months after, where people remember being evacuated, they remember the threat, so they are more incentivized to actually do something about it and learn about it," explains Wade Martin, Ph.D., professor of economics at California State University, Long Beach and co-author of Wildfire Risk: Human Perceptions and Natural Implications.

Hankins is the board secretary for the Butte County Fire Safe Council and a member of the Forest Ranch Fire Safe Council, organizations that increase awareness of fire risk and encourage community members to work together on wildfire preparedness and landscape resilience, including stewardship with prescribed fire (also called controlled burns).

Membership is typically open to any resident of a community and the councils are often supported through charitable contributions and grants. For communities in high-risk wildfire areas, hyper-vigilant citizens and fire-safe education are critical. 

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Dr. Chris Dicus, wildland fuels and fire management professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, shows fire ecology students the recovery of a former wildfire burn area.

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Goats are used to help thin vegetation—and mitigate fuels for potential wildfire—at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.

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Mitch Bamford, Chico State biology master's student and land steward at BCCER, participates in a prescribed fire on the reserve.

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Dr. Don Hankins points to signs of resilience in a tree where a prescribed burn passed through.

The CSU's 23 campuses touch nearly every part of California, and so, unfortunately, does wildfire. As a system that serves the state's citizens, we are incentivized to find solutions as quickly as possible.

"As the most geographically dispersed educational system in one of the most populous states in the country, we really do span all of the risk zones—urban, rural, coastal, valley," says Dr. Sean Anderson of CSU Channel Islands. "How do we rebuild after these natural disasters that are only becoming more intense?"

"The aftermath of these devastating fires will inform our planning and public policy in the future," adds Anderson. "And the role of the CSU will be to help facilitate that. The CSU is well positioned, given that we are so geo-dispersed, to provide more data to help inform decision makers."

Studying Fire at the CSU

California's need for well-trained fire and land managers and fire science and meteorology specialists continues to grow as the state improves its wildfire management strategies. The CSU offers bachelor's and master's degree programs in a broad range of fire-related disciplines at several campuses.

In addition, the CSU is talking to state and municipal organizations about creating educational pathways for fire and emergency services personnel who want to pursue a college degree. They may be able to receive college credit for professional training they've already received and "pathways like these would integrate with industry certification, too," says Sheila Thomas, Ed.D., assistant vice chancellor and dean of Professional and Continuing Education (PaCE) at the CSU Chancellor's Office in Long Beach.

While there are many disciplines, including geography and geographic information systems (GIS) that intersect with wildfire policy or management, there are a number of programs specifically focused on fire across the CSU:  

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
B.S. – Forestry & Natural Resources (Wildland Fire and Fuels Management)
M.S. - Fire Protection Engineering (online)

Cal State LA
B.S. – Fire Protection Administration and Technology

CSU San Marcos
B.S. – Wildfire Science and the Urban Interface (online)

Humboldt State
B.S. – Forestry (Wildland Fire Management)

San José State
B.S. - Meteorology
M.S. – Meteorology (fire weather and wildfire dynamics)

This article is the fourth and final in our series on the California State University's role in understanding, preventing and fighting California's devastating wildfires. Read our previous coverage on the CSU’s role in understanding fire to better predict and prevent it; get to know a dedicated wildland fire crew  comprised mostly of CSU students and alumni; and meet a Humboldt State student who is blazing her own trail and career in fire.

Story: Hazel Kelly

PHOTO CREDIT: (GOATS) JESSICA BARTLETT/CHICO STATE

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