Jeff Chambers, faculty scientist within the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at Berkeley Lab, provided testimony relevant to the impact of climate change on wildfire risk. The subject was the focus of the first informational joint hearing of the California State Assembly Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation and the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. California lawmakers convened at the state capitol building in Sacramento for an informational hearing held in February while counties across the state still struggled to regain their footing in the wake of 2017’s 9,000 wildfires.

The greatest threat to California’s 33 million acres of forest are catastrophic events such as large wildfires, according to experts at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Chambers, who has been studying the damage done to forested ecosystems throughout the Americas for nearly 30 years, is regularly called upon to share his expertise on how tree mortality affects the ability of old-growth tropical forests to sequester carbon. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Chambers led a team of researchers who estimated that more than 300 million Gulf Coast trees had died or suffered severe damage as a result of the storm.  More recently, Chambers and colleagues used satellite images of Puerto Rico and image processing techniques to draw similar conclusions about the damage inflicted on the island’s trees by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

At the February hearing in Sacramento, Chambers addressed state legislators about the potential for using similar tools to determine how California wildfires affect tree health and mortality. The ecologist referenced what he’d learned from contributing to a UC Berkeley-led effort to assess the impact of extreme drought on tree mortality during the years 2013 through 2016.

Chambers says that it was clear during the informational hearing that lawmakers were deeply concerned about the effect’s the state’s many wildfires could have on California forests. “The hearing itself focused mainly on the fires,” says Chambers. “But the lawmakers present seemed to also take an interest in the additional factors – like drought and climate change  – that could impact the state’s forests.”