What is Wildfire?

Wildfires are unplanned burns in any natural environment, like a forest or a grassland. Wildfire can spread quickly, burning through most anything in their path, causing injury and death to people and animals.

Wildfire is no new phenomenon for the West coast, and certainly not for California. Recent fires in the state over the past five years, however, have been among the largest and most destructive in recorded history. This is due in part to past forest management practices dating back to the California Gold Rush of 1849, as well as dated urban planning strategies that built homes in areas where wildfire had historically burned.

Climate change plays a key role, exacerbating the conditions — drought, heat, gusty winds — that increase the changes of wildfire in certain areas.

Wildfire Experts

Air Quality and Wildfire Smoke

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, is professor of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine and directs the Environmental Health Sciences Center. She can discuss the potential health impacts of wildfire, smoke and ash, as well as other environmental exposures. Contact: ihp@ucdavis.edu, 530-752-3025, or Karen Finney at UC Davis Health, 916-734-9064, klfinney@ucdavis.edu

Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center, can discuss air quality of urban and natural areas, and the impacts of wildfire, emissions and other forms of pollution on air quality. Contact: aswexler@ucdavis.edu, 530-754-6558 Kent Pinkerton, professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine and director of Center for Health and the Environment, can discuss the health effects of inhaled environmental air pollutants, including smoke from wildfires. 530-752-8334, kepinkerton@ucdavis.edu

Keith Bein is an associate professional researcher with the Air Quality Research Center. He can discuss the health effects of air pollution and smoke from wildfires, the role of particles in climate change, air sampling techniques and environmental justice. Contact: (530) 570-2562, kjbein@ucdavis.edu

Helene Margolis is an associate adjunct professor with UC Davis Health & School of Medicine. She can discuss the health impacts of climate change and environmental factors, most notably heat and air pollution, on vulnerable populations, especially children and older adults. Contact: hgmargolis@ucdavis.edu

Anita Oberholster is a Cooperative Extension Specialist in Enology. She can discuss the potential impacts of wildfire smoke on wine grapes, or “smoke taint.” Contact: (530) 754-4866, aoberholster@ucdavis.edu

Thomas Young is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate director of the Superfund Research Program. Young and postdoctoral researcher Gabrielle Black have been studying ash samples from the 2017 Sonoma fires for possible pollutants formed by incinerating household chemicals, electronics and other products. Contact: (530) 754-9399, tyoung@ucdavis.edugnpecora@ucdavis.edu

Forestry and Plants

Mark Schwartz, an ecologist and professor of Environmental Science and Policy, can speak broadly about climate change impacts on forested ecosystems, stressors and management responses. mwschwartz@ucdavis.edu

Hugh Safford is regional ecologist for the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region and holds a research position in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He can discuss forest management and the impacts of climate change on wildfires and restoration ecology. Contact: hdsafford@ucdavis.edu

Malcolm North is a forest ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region and an adjunct professor at UC Davis. He can discuss climate change impacts on wildfire and forest management. Contact: 530-902-8135, mnorth@ucdavis.edu

Andrew Latimer, a professor of Plant Sciences, can discuss how forests and grasslands respond to climate change, drought and fire. Contact: 530-309-9111, amlatimer@ucdavis.edu James Thorne, a research scientist with the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, can discuss the vulnerability of California’s vegetation to climate change over the coming decades. Contact:  530-752-4389, jhthorne@ucdavis.edu

Susan Harrison, an ecologist and professor of Environmental Science and Policy, can discuss post-fire ecology and climate change’s effects on grassland communities. Contact: 530-752-7110, spharrison@ucdavis.edu

Christopher Adlam is a graduate student and lecturer in ecology who works on the revitalization of traditional fire management by tribes in California. He has led classes with Professor Beth Rose Middleton that take students to Native American communities to learn from traditional practitioners and to participate in prescribed burns to manage gathering areas. He is featured in this UC Davis video about this work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vr5LP0UZvKg. Contact: Adlam.c@gmail.com

Burn injury

Tina L. Palmieri is a professor in the Department of Surgery, Director of the Firefighters Burn Institute Burn Center at UC Davis, and Assistant Chief of Burns for Shriners Hospital for Children Northern California. She can discuss the effects, treatment, and outcomes of all types of burn injury, including wildfires, as well as triage, medical response, and prevention of wildfire burns. Contact: 916-453-2050; or Karen Finney at UC Davis Health, 916-734-9064, klfinney@ucdavis.edu

How Do Wildfires Start?

Warmer, drier climates combined with fire-control practices over the last century has produced a situation in which one can expect the frequency and severity of wildfires to increase. Fire management practices have resulted in an unnatural buildup of fuels in forests, increasing fire risk at the boundaries between urban and wildland areas.

Climate Change and Wildfires

Changes in climate, especially in areas that have experienced early snowmelt, have led to hotter, drier conditions that can increase fire activity in those areas. Wildfire risk depends on many factors, including temperature, soil moisture and the abundance of trees, plants and other potential fuels. These factors can be directly and indirectly tied to climate change. Warmer, drier conditions contribute to the spread of bark beetles and other insects that can weaken or kill trees, increasing potential fuels in forests. 

Benefits of Wildfire

Fire can be an important component of maintaining diverse, healthy ecosystems. When fires burn in accordance with their ecosystem, leaf litter and other dead ground vegetation are burned. Fires revitalize native animal habitats and indigenous communities and encourage the maintenance of new native plant growth. Research also suggests cultural burning practices, conducted by many Native American communities, could also be a tool to help alleviate wildfires, too.

Threats Posed By Wildfire

Wildfires have far-reaching impacts on our world, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions, devastating ecosystems and decimating animal populations and their habitats. Wildfire can destroy homes and other structures and create dire and even fatal health impacts for humans.

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