Living with wildfire

University of California Cooperative Extension forestry and fire adviser Kate Wilkin stands outside the extension office in Yuba City, Calif., where she is based. She is helping landowners recover from the October fires while also researching ways to improve forest management.

YUBA CITY, Calilf. — Kate Wilkin had just recently been hired as the University of California’s fire and forestry adviser for the eastern Sacramento Valley and adjacent foothills when the crisis hit.

High winds whipped up devastating wildfires throughout Northern California. While the world was focused on the wine country, where the Tubbs Fire became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, fires also swept through the rural countryside in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.

The half-dozen fires that made up the Wind Complex started Oct. 8. It burned over 17,000 acres, destroying or damaging 209 residences, 204 outbuildings and one commercial structure while killing four people and injuring one.

Much of the charred ground was winter range, and the fires also caused hay loss, Butte County Farm Bureau manager Colleen Cecil has said. While the fires spared most cattle, they forced ranchers to supplement feed to their livestock while their pastures recover, which could take a couple of years.

“For our local Wind Complex, it was just really striking how the fire was really devastating for the community,” said Wilkin, who began her job Sept. 18. “When you have a fire of this scale, it creates a lot of strain, but there was also a coming together. I was really amazed at how much people in rural communities really come together to help people.”

Since the fires, Wilkin and other UC Cooperative Extension advisers, including livestock expert Tracy Schohr, have been holding workshops to help families and businesses recover and rebuild in a more fire-resilient way.

But while Wilkin is keenly aware of the devastation the fires caused, she also sees them as an opportunity to show policymakers the impact of not adequately clearing underbrush in forests.

“My outreach program is to help people understand how to manage lands to be resistant to fire and extreme weather,” said Wilkin, who is based in Yuba City. “It might be with prescribed fires or it might be mechanical (thinning).”

Having grown up in rural Virginia, Wilkin earned her bachelor’s degree at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. She’d seen the impact of fires as a child in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va., but it wasn’t until she was 21 that she gained an interest in fire behavior.

She was participating in an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., where she observed frequent lightning strikes in the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

“In my first week, they handed me a drip torch,” Wilkin said. “My job was to manage prescribed fires. It was interesting to see how the plant community not only was not harmed, but actually thrived.”

Wilkin earned her master’s degree in biology from California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo and worked for three years in Yosemite National Park, where she was part of a team of scientists that studied the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.

She completed her doctorate at UC-Berkeley in 2016, having studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. She took part in the new Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, which trains graduate students for careers in research and outreach.

She was doing post-doctoral work in the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources laboratory with Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens when she was hired to work out of the Sutter-Yuba extension office in Yuba City.

Now she’s studying the aftermath of the Wind Complex fire.

“It was ... really interesting to drive around after the fires were out,” she said. “They were obviously wind-driven fires. ... With the wind, most fires start as the result of spot fires from embers that can travel a mile or two miles and start another fire.

“Also sometimes you’d see a home that burned and the vegetation around it didn’t, which was also because of embers,” she said. “In most cases, the way homes burn is from the inside out, which is again because of embers.”

As part of the recovery effort, Wilkin and other advisers are helping ranchers with post-fire land management while also teaching people in residential areas how to make their properties more resistant to fire.

She’s also been meeting with representatives from the California Licensed Professional Foresters Association and getting to know local foresters and timber operators, she said. A big part of the discussions revolve around improving forest management.

Ranchers in California used to use prescribed fires, but that changed in the 1960s with regulations aimed at preventing fire.

“We would like to start using fire again,” she said.

Fire suppression has caused a proliferation of underbrush, and now forests are 10 times denser than they used to be, Wilkin said. She has received funding to do research within riparian corridors, allowing limited harvests of small trees and brush that will be sold to the timber market.

“Our goal is to do this in a way that’s sensitive to the riparian zone and creates a more resilient forest,” she said. “I understand ... the need to be careful. It’s finding that balance.”

Kate Wilkin

Age: 35

Hometown: Abingdon, Va.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, College of William and Mary; master’s degree in biology, California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo; Ph.D., University of California-Berkeley

Residence: Grass Valley, Calif.

Family: Husband, Josiah Johnston

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