Wildfires should be considered a top threat to survival of species

A post-fire landscape in Kangaroo Island, Australia, evidence that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already fire-prone regions. (Photo Credit: Luke Kelly/University of Melbourne)

A new study by 27 prominent scientists from around the world — including UCLA’s Morgan Tingley — emphasizes the need to include fire among the list of potential threats to the survival of plant and animal species.

Traditionally,  fires have been viewed as a standard part of ecological cycles, necessary for species to survive and breed. But with increases in the frequency and severity of major wildfires, the way scientists view fires might need to change.

“If you ask a random scientist what the major threats are to biodiversity, they will generally list three: climate change, land use change, and invasive species,” said Tingley, a UCLA professor of ecology and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Undoubtedly, that’s true. What we’re seeing here is that fire should be included on the list.”

The paper, published in the journal Science, also offers strategies to manage fires more successfully.

The authors write that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already-fire-prone areas such as California and Australia, and that they are occurring in new regions — including the Arctic tundra and tropical forests of Asia and South America. At the same time, fire is disappearing from environments that depend on fires, like the grasslands of North America and Brazil.

The researchers determined that changes in fire activity around the world are a threat to 15% of species already categorized as in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including koalas and orangutans.

Tingley said the more diverse a system is, the faster it can bounce back from ecological disruptions like wildfires.

“The more species you have packed into an area, the more resilient that area is,” he said. “We want a forest that has burned to become a healthy, beautiful forest of mature trees down the line. One of the ways that happens is by attracting biodiversity to it. If you can attract birds to an area after a fire, you’re going to get more seed dispersal. You’re going to get more nutrient cycling. You’re going to get more decomposition.”

The 2020 Apple Fire in Riverside County, California, burned more that 33,000 acres. (Photo Credit: Brody Hessin)

The paper’s lead author, University of Melbourne professor Luke Kelly, said he’d never seen fires like this year’s Australian bushfires.

“I stood on a ridgeline looking out across the landscape and, almost as far as the eye could see, all living vegetation had been consumed,” Kelly said. “Scientists rarely use the term ‘unprecedented’ but it’s a good way to describe the total area burnt in 2019–20 in eastern Australia. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The paper also recommends improvements to fire management practices.

One problem with existing strategies, they write, is that the combined forces of climate change, human development, past fire suppression efforts and invasive species are changing the way fires behave. The outcome came into stark relief during California’s 2020 wildfire season, which burned twice the acreage of any other season in recorded history.

Fire management typically focuses on protecting people and property, but neglects the broader ecosystems in which human communities exist. And wildfires are often managed the same way across ecosystems, even though fire behaves in different ways. In the Northern California, for example, the coniferous Sierra Nevada experiences frequent surface fires, while coastal shrublands in the southern part of the state experience infrequent but high-intensity fires.

Those differences are mirrored in regions around the world.

One recommendation is that fire management incorporate more ecological knowledge. But that doesn’t need to come at the cost of protecting human life, said Alexandra Syphard, a co-author of the paper and the chief scientist at Vertus Wildfire, a San Francisco-based insurer.

“If there are two different actions that result in equal benefits to humans, but one has ecological costs and the other doesn’t, a fire manager without an understanding of biodiversity may unintentionally choose the most ecological harmful one,” Syphard said.

In practice, this might mean letting small, natural fires burn to clear dead vegetation from the forest floor and make room for new plants to sprout. It also means passing zoning laws to prevent development in fire-prone areas.

Although ecosystems react differently to fire, they are also rapidly being altered by climate change and other human impacts. Some wildfire ecosystems are becoming more like others, so the paper recommends that experts around the world collaborate more to share effective strategies.

“Understanding the complexities from a global perspective helps to get a better sense of what is unique and what is general,” Tingley said. “It helps us understand if there are approaches people are taking in other areas that could be really important here.”

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom