Sonoma and Butte counties see natural lessons in wake of megafires

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Bouncing back from wildfires takes more than cleaning up and rebuilding, according to experts working together in Sonoma and Butte counties. It now increasingly involves the ways we think about and manage our wildlands.

Eli Goodsell has a unique perspective on California wildfires. In 2017, he was managing wildland conservation projects in Sonoma County when the Nuns and Tubbs fires roared through neighborhoods, parklands and preserves.

The next year, in his new position based in Butte County, he watched as the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve he was hired to manage near Chico was consumed by the Camp fire.

The lesson, Goodsell said, wasn’t lost on him. Now, when he walks through woodlands and canyons, meadows and hillsides, he sees these natural spaces with different eyes.

“I ask myself: How will fire move through here?” he said.

It’s a question being asked by growing numbers of public and private land conservation groups in the North Bay and Sierra Nevada foothills, as a new environmental perspective takes root in the wake of the state’s increasingly intense and catastrophic burns.

“A healthy landscape,” Goodsell emphasized, “isn’t one that we keep from burning. It’s one that is resilient when fire comes.”

Like Butte County, site of the devastating Camp fire, Sonoma County is a rolling tapestry of forests and grasslands, water-cut canyons and wild landscapes. But all that uncontrolled vegetation in time becomes fuel for fires.

If those fires come frequently, passing through once or twice in a decade as they once did, the brush, fallen wood and dried vegetation burns away. Up above, most trees live on, branches held high above the flames. While their leafy crowns survive, the fires clear out layers of fallen leaves and thick undergrowth, returning nutrients to the soil at their roots.

That’s how California’s landscape evolved until about 100 years ago, when state and federal agencies started suppressing fires.

The result, according to Jason Mills, restoration program manager at Sonoma Ecology Center in the Sonoma Valley, was a decadeslong accumulation of burnable material at the base of trees, dense thickets of chaparral and deep layers of grass thatch, all across the landscape. These so-called ladder fuels burn hot and high enough to torch the entire tree, fueling firestorms that rise into the forest crowns - and into unstoppable wildfires that consume hundreds of thousands of acres.

Those extremely hot and intense fires burn almost everything in their path, destroying life right down into the soil with their heat.

In addition to loss of life and property, catastrophic wildfires also release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Forests and wild lands store tremendous amounts of carbon. But in 2018, the unusually hot wildfires in California released nearly 68 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s about as much carbon dioxide as taking 14 million cars off the road for an entire year in California.

Mills, a restoration ecologist, just returned from a restoration workshop on the Camp fire in Chico. He has been addressing the impacts of the Nuns and Tubbs fires here since the embers were still hot. His work currently involves effective vegetation management practices, efforts to reduce fuels, to lower the potential that catastrophic fires will happen again. This often means treating landscapes with the understanding that fire is not only normal, but often restorative and essential.

One of the techniques Goodsell and Mills now employ is building shaded fuel breaks. A fuel break is an area that has been partially or fully cleared of burnable materials. Creating spaces without dense fuel can slow or damp wildfires when they come through, or help give firefighters a more defensible space to fight them.

The traditional approach to fuels reduction has been to cut trees and thin forests. A shaded break is an alternative approach that clears ladder fuels from beneath trees, but leaves the upper story of the tree to shade the ground below.

“Shade is your friend,” Mills said. The trees’ shade helps the soil from drying out as quickly, and by blocking sunlight, helps keeps undergrowth from growing as thick around the tree. Videos from Cal Fire clearly show areas with shaded fire breaks burning with lower flames, and less heat, than surrounding areas.

In addition to fire breaks, both Mills and Goodsell also promote the careful use of prescribed fires - intentionally set to help burn out fuels before they accumulate, a tool employed by Native Americans for thousands of years.

Wildland managers are using such fires on a greater swath of land than ever in California, with an eye on reducing devastating potential of wildfire when it breaks out and can’t be contained.

In Sonoma County, six agencies and organizations that together control more than 18,000 acres of parkland and open space are now working together, using prescribed fire and other vegetation management practices to reduce future wildfire risks, while enhancing ecosystems.

Much of the acreage was badly burned in the 2017 fires.

But the new collaboration isn’t so much about recovery as it is about building a more resilient landscape for a warmer, more volatile future, according to Monica Delmartini, a stewardship specialist at the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

“It makes sense to use the language of recovery when we talk about the tragic impacts to the community,” Delmartini said. “But it’s anthropomorphic to talk about wildlands that way. Wildlands aren’t recovering from fires. The fires are really just restoring a process that was unnaturally suppressed for decades.”

Agencies and groups in Butte and Sonoma counties, and throughout California, are coming together around that more nuanced view of wildfire and urging others to think about it on the level of watersheds and wider landscapes.

“Fire doesn’t respect fences, boundaries or property lines,” Goodsell said.

Preparing for future wildfires with prescribed burns is gaining public support, Delmartini said. Mills and Goodsell see it, too.

Involving the public is a critically important part of the effort, they say. The Sonoma Ecology Center offers site analysis and consultation to interested homeowners, to help build defensible breaks. Part of Goodsell’s focus on the Butte Creek preserve, operated by Chico State, is to conduct research and provide hands-on training to the next generation of land managers.

“We don’t get to choose between fire and no fire,” Delmartini said. “We’re either going to wait for wildfire, or step in first.”

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