About Allie Weill

I am a graduate student in the UC Davis GGE. Prior to making my way to California, I grew up in New Jersey, with many a summer spent stomping around the woods and boating on the lakes in upstate New York. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2011 with a BA with honors in Biological Sciences and a BS in Geophysical Sciences. During and after college, I worked in research and science education with a variety of institutions, including The University of Chicago, The Field Museum of Natural History, The Nature Conservancy, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

At UC Davis, I am a member of the Latimer Lab, where I study the relationships between fire, plants, and climate over the short and long term. I am focusing on fire-adapted plants in Mediterranean shrublands in southern California (chaparral and coastal sage scrub) and South Africa (fynbos and renosterveld). I am interested in the ways that fire regimes differ across landscapes and the ways that fire regimes have changed over time and will continue to change as the climate warms and how plant populations adapt to those shifts. I am also interested in fire behavior on islands and in isolated reserves.

I maintain a strong interest in science communication, education, and outreach, with particular enthusiasm for science writing and outdoor education. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, sailing, canoeing, crossword puzzles, and playing music outdoors.

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In the Black & Green at Stebbins Reserve

Note to local readers: Stebbins is presently still CLOSED to the public and is expected to reopen in early May. Please respect the closure and allow the ecosystem some time to recover. In the interim you can visit via a guided walk or as trail crew–see here for more information.

I have written a couple of times now about last summer’s fire at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. It’s not a fire that you would have heard about on national news. It wasn’t very big, and it didn’t cause a lot of infrastructure damage. But I’ve been very interested in this particular fire, because it’s local. I can drive to the burn site from my house in about 30 minutes. In fact, I can take a quick turn off the street where I live and can then drive all the way to Stebbins on the same road. When the fire was burning, I watched the smoke sit heavy on the horizon from my front yard, and I watched ash fall from the sky like summertime snowflakes. Stebbins is a place where I and my fellow residents of Davis go hiking on weekends; it’s where I took a visiting prospective student to give her a taste of California ecosystems; it’s where my colleagues and I built a new citizen science program over the last few years. Stebbins has become one of “my places,” along with the reservation behind my family’s house in New Jersey, my island scout camp in the Adirondacks, Lake Michigan, and others.

In environmental education and related fields, we talk about one’s “sense of place.” Your sense of place includes your knowledge of a landscape, ecological or otherwise, how you fit into it, and your experiences there. I am interested in the fire at Stebbins because it is a major change in a landscape for which myself and many people around me have a sense of place. Not only has the color and composition of this landscape changed since the fire, but so has the way we interact with and experience this place.

I have visited Stebbins now three times since the fire: August 2015, November 2015, and February 2016, each time with a different group of people. Here is what I’ve observed so far:


Visit 1: August 2015 (just 2 fire ecologists)

My first visit was about a month after the fire. I stopped by with a friend who has worked on the CPP-Stebbins citizen science project on the way to do some fieldwork for my dissertation research, just up the road. We were two fire ecologists, and we were excited to be there. The most striking thing was how the landscape had opened. I could suddenly see hillsides stretching up high to both sides, and out beyond the trail. Before, trees and dense shrubs blocked that view. Most trees still stood as they always had, but many shrubs were skeletons. We saw crisp blackened leaves still hanging on the trees and ash covering the ground. The bulletin board near the entrance had become a window, and fiberglass posts marking phenology trail plants had exploded–proving that they were, indeed, made of fibers. And amidst the brown and black and grey, even in the dry heat of California summer only a month post-fire–during a drought no less–was green. Green sprouts on a hillside of black soil, green sprouts at the base of trees, and green sprouts from the branches of a California buckeye! The buckeye wasn’t supposed to have any leaves at all in the summertime! We poked at resprouts and talked fire ecology until we reached a point where the trail was covered in debris, and we headed home.

Visit 2: November 2015 (citizen scientists)

In November, I put together a visit for the volunteers for our citizen science project, the California Phenology Project at Stebbins. These volunteers had been taking data on the timing of leafing out, flowering, and fruiting for a year before the fire, and they were eager to visit. We had a group of about 15. Our mission was to see how the reserve had changed, to take an informal inventory of the plants that they had monitored, and brainstorm how we might begin to do citizen science again post-fire. Though we’d had rain at this point, the landscape didn’t look too different than it had in August. The green sprouts were taller. Ladybugs had taken up residence in the remains of a shrub.

But this time, I got to watch a bunch of people who had developed a very strong sense of place in this landscape see how the place had changed. I had adopted Stebbins as my own over the past couple of years, but I didn’t really visit all that often. Our volunteers were out there every month, or every couple of weeks. They had a routine. They observed their plants closely. They knew them well. I had been concerned that we’d need to use GPS data to find the plants that they’d monitored, but I needn’t have worried. I watched with amazement as the volunteers identified the location of nearly every plant–chatting amongst themselves, “No, that toyon was definitely by this rock here” or “This is where one of the monkeyflowers was, I’m sure of it.” In the end, we located all of the plants except a few monkeyflowers, which would have had the least protection of any of the plants during a fire. For the volunteers, they not only saw the broad landscape change, but they could pick out changes to individual plants.

Visit 3: February 2016 (fire ecology students)

My most recent visit was less than two weeks ago, a little more than 6 months post-fire. I tagged along on the class field trip for UC Davis’s fire ecology course. It was obvious from the moment we got there that there had been big changes: there was lots of green. The shrub skeletons remained, but grass and moss had filled in between them on many hillsides. California poppies colored some slopes yellow-green. We paused every hundred feet or so to get the name of another wildflower. I saw tiny, half-inch seedlings of the Ceanothus species that I am germinating (with fake fire!) in the lab. Not all was green–some areas are still pretty black and brown. But other places are brighter green than I’ve ever seen them. One hillside was covered in moss so colorful and soft that a student and I agreed that we should like to take a nap right there, on the new green carpet that had sprouted under the burned out chamise. It was so cool that I went home and googled “fire moss regeneration,” but I didn’t find much–just papers about fires in peat.

Over the course of three visits, I’ve built on my sense of place at Stebbins, watchning how it has grown and changed so far. I’ve seen changes to the landscape view–the macro scale–and to branches of individual trees–the micro scale. And I’ve watched other people build their sense of place, too.

I’ve been in several post-fire landscapes before–including several on a much larger, more newsworthy scale. I remember seeing the effects of the Yellowstone Fires in about 1998 with my family, ten years after those huge fires shaped national perceptions of wildfire on the landscape. More recently, I had the opportunity to explore high-severity areas of the Rim Fire in Yosemite. I learned a lot in those landscapes. But there is something truly special about watching a fire change a landscape that you know well, that you can visit by driving down the street for half an hour. That’s what a sense of place is all about.


A Tale of Two Fires

Note: Stay tuned for a long overdue Wildfire Media Roundup as well as a report from my visit to the Association for Fire Ecology’s Fire Congress in San Antonio. In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote for a campus publication recently about fire and outreach. 

I’d been keeping an eye on the Cal Fire maps all summer, looking for fires in the vicinity of my field sites. It was a hot, dry summer, and I was setting up seed traps in dense, flammable chaparral stands up and down the state. But I didn’t find out about the first fire near one of my sites from the internet. It was the blanket of smoke that sat on the horizon, visible from my front yard in West Davis. This was the 8,051-acre Wragg Fire, which started in late July 2015 and burned through Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. A week later, the 69,438-acre Rocky Fire burned large sections of Lake County, including much of McLaughlin Reserve. Not long afterward, the Jerusalem Fire burned up to the edge of the Rocky Fire, forming one large burn area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two fire events recently (considering the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires together)—how their similarities and differences reflect the complexity involved in fire ecology and management at large. Both reserves are dominated by chaparral and oak woodland. Both have steeply sloped terrain and lie within California’s Northern Coast Ranges. The fires would have burned hot and spread quickly through shrublands. Both places are characterized by vegetation that is well-adapted to fire and will likely recover without much difficulty or prodding. And though both reserves are intended for research and teaching, they sit within broader landscapes and communities. It is this last part that reveals why these fires are different. Though my own field sites were unaffected by the reserve fires, I have been involved with two reserve-based outreach programs over the past few years: the California Phenology Project at Stebbins, a citizen science program, and the Kids Into Discovering Science program for 5th grade students in Lake County schools. Both programs rely heavily on one of the reserves that burned, and both would be affected to some extent by the changed landscape in those reserves.

Though Stebbins is a UC Reserve, it is mostly used as a local hiking spot. It is part of our home, broadly speaking, but not many people live in the area affected by the Wragg Fire. The Wragg Fire caused little to no damage to infrastructure or human life. When our citizen science volunteers headed out to explore the reserve post-fire, the atmosphere was largely one of excitement: look at how this place we have been observing has changed! At Stebbins, we are free to think about fire as an ecological force, to enjoy the wildflowers, to use the opportunity to educate people about fire ecology. Our volunteers are also a self-selecting bunch—mostly adults, with strong backgrounds in science.

Talking to the Lake County kids about the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires this coming winter will be a very different story. Despite the similar landscapes, these fires were different from the Wragg Fire in important ways: 49 residences were destroyed in the two fires that burned McLaughlin, and the nearby Valley Fire destroyed over a thousand structures. These fires occurred on or quite close to the landscapes where many of these kids live. For them, wildfire doesn’t mean chamise skeletons and wildflowers. It means danger, evacuation, expensive repairs, and people displaced from their homes.

The narratives we can pull from my descriptions of these two fire events are the same two stories that are often told about fire in the media. Most often, we see the danger narrative from the Lake County fires. Numbers dominate the headlines: evacuees, firefighters, structures destroyed. Then, months or years later, we might see a story with the ecology narrative, usually a story about regeneration on the burned landscape. Rarely are these narratives put together. Yet so much of our modern understanding of fire science lies at the junction of the human story and the ecology story—climate change, fire management, invasive species, erosion—these are ecological issues and human issues.

As the CPP Stebbins at Kids Into Discovering Science programs continue into their post-fire lives, we’ll need to consider how we talk about wildfire. The fires at the two reserves are different. The audiences are different. Should the narratives we provide as teachers be different, too? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, and discuss what it means to live in a fire-prone ecosystem? The UC Reserves are places for both ecological research and for teaching, and the fires of 2015 will serve as a case study for both.

Wildfire Media Roundup #2, 11/12

Over the past two weeks, there have been a wide range of interesting fire articles. The articles below, taken as a group, are impressive in scope: from California to Indonesia, from fire science in a lab to restoration in the field, from serious investigation to dark comedy. Some of the news sites are small and local; others have international readership. The writers and their interviewees lament the loss of trees and homes, marvel at the way fire moves through vegetation, and take action to shape their local landscapes. Sometimes it is easy to think fire is only one thing–a fire in the hills of a California that destroys homes. But there are so many perspectives to consider in the study of fire. Here are a just a few:

International news focus on fires in Indonesia: until very recently, mentions of fire this year in the newspapers with national and international readership were almost exclusively about wildfires in the western US, mostly in California. However, as it’s cooled and begun to rain in California, a number of newspapers have shifted focus to Indonesia, a region not widely known for forest fires. All of a sudden, the Indonesian fires have become the subject of a wide array of articles, from this FAQ from the Guardian, to a human health-focused piece from the Economist, to a wildlife-focused one in the New York Times viagra prise.

But the American west still looms large in any media roundup. Now that the ashes have cooled from the big fires of late summer, people are taking stock of the effects of fire and looking forward to the future. In this article about the Butte Fire, locals lament the destruction of not only human structures but also the forest and discuss erosion control heading into a rainy winter. In some ways, it takes the opposite point of view of an article I linked last time, which marveled at forest resilience and discussed the value of large wildfires. Both articles present an opinion on how we should perceive wildfire, even though neither article looks much like an op-ed.

Next up–three articles of the focused more on the fire research side of things: a discussion of erosion and wildfire, a tour of the exciting happenings at the Riverside Fire Lab, and a study of fire dynamics in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). In these types of articles, researchers are the main characters. It’s about the fire research itself, and less about a specific fire event. The researchers clearly care about fire-prone landscapes and the people who live there, but they focus less on whether big fires are good or bad.

Finally, one of my favorite pieces of fire media yet: an article from the humor site The Onion–it takes themes from fire ecology and applies them in a ridiculous and wonderful fashion to a completely unrelated issue.

Wildfire Media Roundup: October 28

In an effort to blog more regularly and to provide a resource for those of you out there who are interested in wildfire reporting but can’t be on Twitter 24/7, I’m trying something new: a weekly or bi-weekly “Wildfire Media Roundup.” The idea is to summarize and link to a handful of media stories from around the web in one place–articles, radio pieces, video, and other resources. Here’s this week’s roundup:

  • Wildfire, climate, and controversy at the LA Times: Last week the LA Times published an article claiming that there is no established link between climate change and recent fire activity in California, accusing Governor Brown of misinforming the public. Many fire scientists took issue with the story (including people quoted in the article!), and wrote to the newspaper, discussing the evidence that does exist for the climate-fire link and describing the holes in the first article. This week, the LA times published several of those letters.
  • “As wildfires spread, homeowners insurance retreats”: This is a quick radio story about homeowners insurance in the wake of California wildfires. Fire is still covered under homeowners insurance, unlike floods and earthquakes, which have separate policies. But recent fires are making it harder for people to get homeowners insurance at all, with many people unable to renew existing policies.
  • Smokey Bear says it’s wildfire prevention month:  Apparently, it’s Wildfire Prevention month. I have a lot of opinions on this and Smokey Bear, which I’m saving for a later blog post, but for now, skim through Smokey’s Twitter live chat from this morning to get a sense for current Smokey rhetoric and priorities.
  • “Forest renews itself in the wake of ‘devastating’ Lake Fire”: A beautifully written article describing a hike through the burn area from the Lake Fire this past June, down in the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California. Some history and discussion of wildfire policy, with the view that high-intensity wildfires have value.
  • “Lessons learned–and ignored–from a fire that destroyed 3,000 homes”: A short article about the ways that home construction and fire prevention efforts have shifted in the 24 years since the Oakland Hills Fire, from new roofing and brush clearance to “fire millionaires” building bigger and fancier homes.

Happy reading, and feel free to add links to articles I missed in the comments.

It’s not just California forests: what’s your local fire story?

California is burning. It’s been burning for months–millennia, really–but if you’re a person in this country who pays moderate attention to the national news, you likely know that California has been burning an awful lot these past several weeks. In July, the Rocky Fire first hit national headlines when it burned about 70,000 acres in rural Lake County. The Rough Fire, now at about 150,000 acres, has burned through large sections of Kings Canyon National Park (though most of the acreage is on National Forest land); the Butte Fire covered about 70,000 acres further north in the Sierra. Finally, the Valley Fire of Lake, Napa, and Sonoma Counties burned over 75,000 acres. The Valley Fire, close to population centers and wine country, did by far the most damage in terms of loss of life and structures despite burning similar or lesser area than the other fires. And these are just a few of the more well-known fires.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you already know this–that California has been having the worst fire season in many years, if not the names and acreage of each fire. Looking at the New York Times archive (i.e., a paper that is based clear on the other side of the country), I count 11 articles about California wildfires in September alone. That’s 2-3 a week, and that doesn’t include anything from the A.P. or Reuters. Since the Valley Fire was front-and-center in September, many of these are disaster oriented and single-event focused–homes lost, animals rescued, area contained, and so on. But that’s not all–many articles discuss the bigger picture: how this fire season compares to previous ones, the effects of smoke and ash, links to drought, heat, and climate change, home insurance policies in fire prone areas. Most articles are in the U.S. section of the paper, but there was also a great feature article in the Science section last week.

But that’s just California. Now, I love California. I live here, and it’s pretty great. And California does have a huge population, a huge economy, spectacular mountains and forests and coasts, and lots of valuable infrastructure. But consider this: as of September 2 (I have not yet found a more up to date figure), over 8 million acres have burned in the United States this year. How much of that is in California? The NYT coverage might have you think it’s a lot, but CALFIRE reports a figure of only about 300,000 acres. The vast majority of area burned has been in Alaska–about 5 million acres, mostly earlier in the summer. Despite its low population numbers, fire in Alaska is hugely significant–the tundra and boreal regions are highly sensitive to climate change, and huge amounts of carbon are stored there. Blackened tundra absorbs more heat, leading to positive feedbacks that can exacerbate warming. Here’s a good summary, though it’s a few years old.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center provided this map of Alaska wildfires in June.

I talk to a lot of people about wildfire these days–I tell them what I study, and I get a lot of questions. These conversations often reflect the NYT news coverage. One common first question is “So, like forest fires?” And I say, well, sort of, but I’m mostly working on shrublands. Another line: “Like how fire is actually natural and good for the plants?” Again: well, sort of. I do study plants that regenerate well after fire and often rely on fire for germination. But in most of the places I study, over 90% of fires are human caused. Most ignitions are not natural in Southern California. Most recently, I’ve talked to people about the huge area burned this year. But I’ve met very few people who had any idea that Alaska was on fire at all. Many were surprised that Alaska could even burn.

It’s great when media coverage of wildfires discusses the science, or the bigger picture beyond destruction and incident management. We need to be talking about why fires are the size and intensity they are, and we need to discuss the best ways to manage fire. But much of the coverage presents fire as a thing that is more or less the same everywhere. It’s mostly California, and when the subject is management or science, it’s often forests with a fire deficit, where suppression has been highly effective over the past century. We hear about California forests and the consequences of highly effective fire suppression over and over–and this isn’t really a bad thing. There’s plenty of evidence that suppression has changed forest densities and fire intensities in Sierra forests and elsewhere. It’s an interesting, dramatic story, with lots of players, and–some actual solutions. It’s not a particularly new story for fire scientists, but some of the public is hearing it for the first or second time. This story is an important one, because it forces us to reconsider the way we manage fires, in California mixed-conifer forests and elsewhere. But it’s only one fire story, and we can’t rely on this story when we think about fire in the United States.

The story with Southern California fires, and most shrubland fires, is different. Most fires are human caused. Suppression has not excluded fire effectively. There are more fires burning now than historically, not fewer. Santa Ana winds play a big role.

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

The story with Pacific Northwest wet forests is different, as is the story of the infamous Yellowstone Fires of 1988. The fire interval in these forests is about ten times longer than that of the Mediterranean Sierra forests.

The story with Alaska, as noted above, is different, too. So are the fire stories in the pines of the southeast, the grasslands of the midwest, the northeastern deciduous forests, the scrub in the southwest. The way to manage fire on these landscapes is to first understand that fire isn’t just about forests, and it’s not just about California. Fire is like rain–it occurs nearly everywhere, in greater or lesser amounts. Sometimes there is a thunderstorm, other times there are hurricanes. So some places build houses on stilts, while others build reservoirs and desalination plants. Fire is part of landscapes all across the country, and there are as many fire stories as there are ecosystems. Fire stories involve plants and weather patterns but also indigenous burning, colonization, environmentalism, and houses.

Can the general public handle this complexity? Should we expect them to know all of these stories?

I don’t think people should learn how fire works everywhere, but I do think they ought to understand that it is different everywhere. People can start by understanding the complexity of fire by studying their home system. Those of us who work in science outreach and education often talk about “sense of place”–how understanding the your local environment makes you more interested in conserving those spaces. A fire story (or “sense-of-fireplace,” if that’s not too terrible a pun for you) is one aspect of “sense of place.”

I work on fire in CA now, but I started in upstate NY (yes, there are fires there!). When I returned to Chicago, where I attended college, I learned that prescribed burns were going on all over the Chicagoland area, that fire had been part of the prairie that once dominated the area, and later, that the Chicago Botanic Garden conducted burns on their property. I hail from New Jersey, home to the Pine Barrens, but I didn’t think about fire in this system until I read an early paper in my research area focused on that region.

A recent fire in the Shawangunks of New York state, not far from my first fire ecology gig in college. From Woodstock Fire Department.

Give something a try for me: research your own fire story–what is the fire history of the places you’ve lived, played, and worked? Your home state? Your cousins’ home state? The place where you did fieldwork? That place you went camping one time? If you live in a place where fires are common, and commonly discussed, try learning about a different place. Start by googling the name of your region or local vegetation type (e.g. “fire in the southeast” or “grassland fire.” You don’t need the full story of every place, but here are some questions to get you started:

  1. How often do fires burn in your place? How often did they burn in pre-colonial times? Before people lived there at all?
  2. What kinds of fires are there? Big or small? Killing all of the trees or just undergrowth? Have they changed over time? Are they caused by lightning or people (intentional or unintentional)?
  3. How do the fires in your system affect plants, animals, and people? Are there plants that have fire-adaptive traits? Are there a lot of homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)? Are there local fire safe councils?

If you like, share your “fire story”–whether you already knew it or just learned it, in the comments.