King fire threatens decades of campus research

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CAL FIRE/Courtesy

A key UC Berkeley research station located 56 miles east of Sacramento was under threat from the massive King fire until wind and firefighters redirected the blaze this weekend.

The 4,270-acre Blodgett Forest Research Station narrowly avoided the fire after flames jumped initial containment lines. The fire burned as close as half a mile to the station, when northwest winds altered course. Bulldozers created containment lines, clearing vegetation to eliminate fuel for the fire. Air tankers attacked from above and dropped flame retardant on the blaze.

“As it was approaching, I saw a large column of smoke,” said Robert York, research stations manager of the campus Center for Forestry. “It was clear it was coming close. But then, it raged by. It was like a freight train had gone by.”

Although York stayed through the weekend, his team evacuated the premises Sept. 16 as California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection worked to save the property. Experts were primarily concerned about the potential loss of decades’ worth of research. Forestry specialist and the center’s co-director Bill Stewart warned it “would have been a multimillion dollar loss.”

The research station has been devoted to a number of forestry projects since the land was donated to the university in 1933. Researchers at the site study wildfires, soil, tree growth and other elements of the forest ecosystem.news.fire.seyeonkim-01-01

“There aren’t that many research forests in the world, so all of them are special,” said UC Berkeley second-year graduate student Robin Bellows, who worked as a natural resource assistant at Blodgett this past summer. “If it burns, the long-term studies will be changed or lost. That could be devastating to people trying to benefit from that research.”

The King fire has ravaged more than 87,500 acres of El Dorado and Placer counties since it started Sept. 13. Authorities believe the cause was arson and charged Wayne Huntsman, 37, with intentionally starting the fire.

On Friday, Huntsman pled not guilty. He is being held in lieu of $10-million bail.

Captain Tom Piranio, a spokesperson with Cal Fire, said the topography and weather conditions of the area created a “nightmare” for containment efforts.

“If you were to light a piece of paper on flat ground, it would burn slowly,” he said, explaining how the mountainous terrain contributed to the fire’s spread. “But if you tip it, it would burn much, much more quickly. With the steepness and the wind, the fire almost doubled in size last Wednesday.”

Nearly 6,000 personnel are camped in the region, actively combating the blaze. Berkeley Fire Department sent one fire engine to work on a strike team, along with engines from the Alameda County, Fremont and Livermore-Pleasanton fire departments.

The fire is so massive, according to BFD Deputy Chief Avery Webb, that teams from all over the country have been deployed to help. Firefighters from as far as Florida and Alaska are working in conjunction with the Bay Area crews.

By Monday, teams were able to contain the blaze to 18 percent, but 32 buildings and houses were destroyed. As of Monday evening, about 3,000 people were still displaced after mandatory evacuations.

“We call this wildland urban interface — where you have forest coming up against houses,” said Carlin Starrs, project and policy analyst for the Center for Forestry. “You deal with it much differently than when there are fires just in back country.”

According to Stewart, fire resiliency research will be the number-one priority for Blodgett in the coming years.

For Bellows, too, the fire represents an opportunity to learn more about wildfire prevention and control.

“(The forest) has become my outdoor classroom,” Bellows said. “This won’t be the last fire we have. Hopefully, some good things can come out of this one — not just destruction and damage.”

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.

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