Expert Sources on Wildfires

Expert Sources on Wildfires

Press Release

17June 2005


The following UC Davis faculty members have expertise regarding forest management, monitoring, suppression and recovery. Also listed are University of California wildfire-prevention resources for property owners.
Before fires

* Forest restoration 
* Predicting fires from models
* Thinning wildlands
* Fire to heal wildlands
* Rescuing horses from fire

During and after fires

* Fire and forest ecology
* Wildfires and air pollution
* Nanoparticles, combustion and air pollution
* Wildfires and organizational behavior

Videos and publications

FOREST RESTORATION — Current wildfire strategies are giving Californians a false sense of security and don’t go far enough to eliminate the threat of catastrophic wildfires, says the “father” of restoration forestry, Thomas Bonnicksen. A visiting professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, Bonnicksen says, “So far, even if unintentional, we have chosen to sacrifice our communities and our forests to catastrophic fires because we do not have the will to act on what we know.” Cutting dead trees, building strategic fuel breaks, and making firefighting organizations more effective are helpful. What’s needed now is an aggressive forest restoration plan based on their historical fire-resistant conditions that will ensure the safety of homes and communities, and the biodiversity and health of forests. Author of “America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery,” Bonnicksen is working on restoring beetle-killed forests in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California and the Tahoe Basin, and restoring forests throughout California. Contact: Thomas Bonnicksen, Plant Sciences, (407) 821-3269,

PREDICTING FIRES FROM MODELS — The frequency of major forest fires can be predicted using relatively simple mathematical models based on the frequency of much smaller fires, according to Donald Turcotte, a professor of geology at UC Davis. Earthquakes, floods, landslides and fires all depend on “self-organized criticality” — an accumulation of small changes that causes an abrupt change in the state of a system. For example, patches of new growth in a forest gradually form larger and larger areas of fuel that can cause a major wildfire. In a 1998 paper published in Science, Turcotte (then at Cornell University) and colleagues showed that this model compared well with data from actual forest fires. One implication of the model is that large fires are more likely to occur when fuel is allowed to build up because small fires are suppressed. Contact: Donald Turcotte, Geology, (530) 752-6808,

THINNING WILDLANDS — Bruce Hartsough, professor and chair of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis, has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and private industry on projects to manage wildlands for both fire management and better wood utilization. When people encroach on forested land, vegetation should be thinned near houses, especially smaller trees and shrubs and vegetation close to the ground. Thinning and/or prescribed fire is also needed in less-developed forests. Reducing the amount of fuel reduces the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires, he says. Contact: Bruce Hartsough, Biological and Agricultural Engineering,

FIRE TO HEAL WILDLANDS — The large-scale suppression of wildfires during the past century has led to a massive buildup of fuel in the nation’s wildlands in the form of shrubs, small trees and natural debris. Fires now tend to burn hot and high into the trees, rather than just along the forest floor. They not only burn branches and scar trunks but also kill most of the trees. Michael Barbour, an ecologist with the UC Davis Tahoe Research Group, recommends that purposely set fires known as prescribed burns be used as one of a suite of management tools in the forests surrounding California’s renowned Lake Tahoe. Set on calm days when the moisture content is high enough to slow the spread of flames, such fires will burn smaller trees, brush and forest litter and prevent catastrophic fires. Prescribed burns, coupled with thinning to remove some otherwise burnable biomass, should help foster the survival of the most mature trees and eventually restore the forests to old-growth status. Contact: Michael Barbour, (530) 752-2956,

RESCUING HORSES FROM FIRE — Advance preparation may make the difference between life and death for horses caught in the path of a fire. John Madigan, a UC Davis authority on equine and emergency veterinary medicine, urges horse owners to first clear brush at least 30 feet from barns and corrals. Trucks and trailers should be kept nearby and operational in case animals need to be evacuated, and an alternate exit by foot planned in case roads are blocked by fire. Stalls and doors should be closed after evacuation to prevent fire-panicked horses from running back inside. A community-based emergency evacuation plan for horses is essential. Horse owner groups should work with animal control and local fire departments to develop a plan and a list of horse hauling resources and sites to take horses to safety rapidly. A practice drill should be done early in the fire season. A veterinarian should examine any horse burned or exposed to heavy smoke, and owners should not apply any topical treatments to burns. Photographs and written descriptions of all horses should be kept in a bank safe-deposit box to help identify animals that become lost or separated during a fire. Contact: John Madigan, office (530) 752-6513, or the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (530) 752-0290, Madigan is traveling and not available until July 21.)

FIRE AND FOREST ECOLOGY — Malcolm North, a UC Davis associate professor of forest ecology, specializes in the study of ecosystem response to wildfire and thinning, particularly in the extensive mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada. Following a burn or thinning, he analyzes changes in ecosystem function, structure and composition, particularly changes in vegetation and forest structure, microclimates, soil moisture, nutrient cycling and biodiversity. North’s primary employer is the U.S. Forest Service, where he is a research scientist in plant ecology. Contact: Malcolm North, Department of Environmental Horticulture, (530) 754-7398,

WILDFIRES AND AIR POLLUTION — Michael Kleeman, UC Davis associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, studies urban and regional air-quality problems in the Los Angeles area and in the Central Valley. He has studied emissions from wood-burning fireplaces, which produce emissions similar to those from forest fires. He is especially interested in the size and composition of atmospheric particles and in gas-to-particle conversion processes. These issues are important because research has found that airborne particles with diameters less than 2.5 microns cause adverse health effects, and the size and composition of particles found in the atmosphere determines much of the haze in large cities. Contact: Michael Kleeman, Civil and Environmental Engineering, (530) 752-8386,

NANOPARTICLES, COMBUSTION AND AIR POLLUTION — Ian Kennedy, a UC Davis professor of mechanical engineering, studies how very small particles of metal and carbon (soot) — measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter — are formed within flames. These nanoparticles, which contribute to air pollution and may be hazardous to human health, come from burning wood, oil and coal in processes such as welding and from diesel engines. In wildfires, minerals in soil can become processed into nanoparticles as well as comparatively large ash particles. Contact: Ian Kennedy, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, (530) 752-2796,

WILDFIRES AND ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR — Organizational sociologist Tom Beamish studies how organizations and institutions deal with disasters. Beamish, an assistant professor of sociology, can talk about how organizations — governmental, commercial and social — respond to human-induced disasters. He says many disasters reflect long-term problems actively ignored or simply not seen by the organizations charged with protecting the public. These organizations are generally reactive. Being proactive requires making difficult choices over funding and priorities, choosing among the risks, and overcoming a basic inertia in organizational routines. Beamish wrote “Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis” (2002). He received a 2003 Hazards Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Contact: Tom Beamish, Sociology, (530) 754-6897,  (Note: Beamish is traveling and not available until June 27.)

A number of wildfire prevention and recovery publications and videos are available from the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. For more information, see or call (530) 757-8930 or (800) 994-8849.

* “A Property Owner’s Guide to Reducing Wildfire Threat” — Pamphlet. Management of vegetation adjacent to homes is discussed, as well as recommendations on defensible space for different areas (also available in Spanish — “Proteja su propiedad de los incendios de maleza”). Publication 21539 (or in Spanish, 21545), $1.50.
* “How Can We Live With Wildland Fire?” — Publication. Discusses the role fire plays in the natural cycle and what choices those who live in the West can make to cope with wildland fire. Publication 21582, $8.
* “Wildland Fire: How Can We Live With It?” — Video. Information about wildland fire in California and the choices communities can make to cope with wildland fire problems. Designed to stimulate public discussion and community action planning. Video V97-I, $20. Both publication and video ordered as a set are Publication 21582A, $27.50.
* “Recovering From Wildfire: A Guide for California’s Forest Landowners” — Publication. Discusses issues that family forest landowners should consider following a wildfire in their forest. It includes information on how to protect property from erosion damage, where to go for help and financial assistance, tax implications of fire losses, how to manage salvage harvesting and how to help the forest recover. Publication 21603, $5.
* “Managing California’s Wildfire Danger” — Video. Discusses steps that can be taken to reduce the threat of wildfire in California’s forests and woodlands. Video V89-BP, $10.

Media contact(s):
• Sylvia Wright, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-7704, 


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