Fires in California continue to set new records for the “largest,” “most damaging,” “worst air quality” and sadly, the “most deadly” we’ve ever seen.
What’s causing this dramatic turn for the worse? It’s driven by many factors including extreme weather, past land use decisions and a century of forest and wildfire mismanagement, leaving many communities and natural lands a spark away from catastrophe.
Some of the factors that shape the frequency and severity of wildfire in California, like drought, record high temperatures and strong winds are beyond our control and in many cases, exacerbated by a changing climate. Other factors, such as how we manage our fire-adapted conifer forests, where we build homes and how we prepare and protect our communities are within our control.
It is important to note that the causes and consequences of this extreme fire pattern vary across ecosystems in California. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Solutions in the forested Sierra Nevada and other fire-prone forests look very different from those in the shrub-dominated California coast and foothills. With this in mind, we must move quickly and strategically to act where we can, and we must tailor our strategies to the different environments and the challenges they face.
HOW WE CAN START FIXING IT
While we can’t stop this problem overnight, there are two things we need to invest in immediately to better protect people and nature in the face of wildfire: forest restoration and fire resilient communities.
Science shows that forest restoration - controlled burns and ecological thinning to remove small trees and brush that ignite fire - delivers a one-two punch, reducing the risk of megafires in fire-adapted conifer forests, like the Sierra, while allowing fire to be safely reintroduced with many ecological benefits.
It is also critical that we make all communities in fire-prone regions more resilient by taking measures to make homes less flammable, improving response and evacuation plans, giving homeowners in risky places the option to move and building new communities in the right places.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND FOREST RESTORATION
Our just-released paper, Wildfires and Forest Resilience: the case for ecological forestry in the Sierra Nevada, cites over 130 scientific studies to make the scientific case for ecological forestry as the best solution to combat megafires in California’s fire-adapted conifer forests. Our major findings are:
Ecological thinning, combined with controlled burns and managed wildfires, can significantly reduce the risk of megafires in fire-adapted conifer forests and create healthier forests that are more resilient to fire, drought and climate change, with significant benefits for air quality, water quality, carbon storage and wildlife habitat.
Addressing the megafire threat in forests will require applying ecological forestry at a landscape scale, like our French Meadows project and the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative in the northern Sierra.
In the fire-adapted forests of the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the state (such as the southern Cascades around Mt. Lassen and the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California), decades of aggressive fire suppression following intensive logging that removed many of the large, fire-resistant trees have left these forests overly dense. A healthy forest would have more frequent, less intense fires to clear small trees and brush. By suppressing these fires, small trees and brush become the fuel that can turn fires into megafires.
Through the practice of ecological thinning, we can promote healthier forests and create conditions under which controlled and managed fire can be safe and effective. Ecological thinning does not mean clearcutting, old-growth forest logging or extensive salvage logging after fires. It is explicitly focused on protecting the oldest trees and creating a diverse mosaic of natural features that are essential for forest diversity and regeneration.
Forest restoration plays an important role in protecting the many critical values conifer forests provide for people and nature, such as clean water (60% of California’s clean water supply comes from Sierra Nevada forests), clean air, carbon storage, recreation and wildlife habitat. These values are increasingly threatened by megafires. By protecting our forests from extreme fire, we are protecting the forests’ ability to store carbon over the long term, an important tool in our fight against climate change. We are also protecting important wildlife species like the California spotted owl from critical habitat loss.
INVESTING IN RESILIENT COMMUNITIES
In the face of megafires, we have a responsibility to invest in and create fire resilient communities. To do this, we must thoughtfully consider where we build new homes for California’s ever-growing population, as well as how we adapt our existing communities to deal with the escalating threat of fires.
This is particularly true in the coastal and foothill regions of central and southern California, where many people live within and next to highly flammable shrublands. In these areas, vegetation management and controlled burns may make matters worse. Our best defense in these areas is a robust investment in community protection measures focused on preventing human-caused ignitions and creating fire resilient communities.
For communities that have already been established in high-risk fire areas, we must make those homes and communities more resilient to fire through fire-safe building retrofit incentives, science-based defensible space programs, evacuation planning and prevention of human-caused ignitions. Developing updated Disaster Preparedness Plans and investing in early detection and fire suppression systems in the most dangerous weather conditions can also further protect communities.
We also need to rethink the land-use policies that put people in harm’s way. We need new policies that provide incentives to build in safe and sustainable locations. We also must ask hard questions in the face of these fires - such as how do we respond to increasing risks from climate change factors including fire, floods and rising sea levels? We need new solutions to incentivize building in locations that enhance public safety and make our communities more resilient.
In places like the Sierra Nevada, resilient communities require smart development planning AND healthy forest management. In more shrub-dominated landscapes, smart decisions about where and how we build our communities and identifying measures to reduce ignitions can greatly reduce risk to people, making their homes more secure.
WHAT WE’RE DOING AND HOW YOU CAN HELP
TNC is hard at work to break the cycle of disastrous megafires in the Sierra Nevada through on-the-ground science, education and advocacy. Informed by science, TNC is advocating for increased funding and policies that:
Promote forest restoration and fuels reduction in fire-adapted forests like the Sierra Nevada, through controlled burning and ecological thinning
Take a landscape scale approach to forest restoration by planning and managing for restoration across multiple watersheds and prioritize restoration in the places and at the scale where it will have the greatest impact
Invest in policies and programs that promote fire resilient communities by directing growth away from high fire risk zones and creating options - including both fire-hardening and relocation - for people already in harm's way
On the forest restoration front, California is off to a good start. The governor and the state legislature have committed to forest health and fuels reduction in 2019, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to protect California forests and our communities.
To further advance forest restoration, fire resilient communities and fight climate change, we urge legislators to support:
Senate Bill 45 (State Senator Allen) - This legislation places the Wildfire Disaster Prevention Bond Act on the March 2020 ballot allowing voters to decide whether to invest $4 billion to help curb megafires and reduce the impacts of floods, droughts, excessive heat and sea level rise in California including funding for home hardening and defensible space protection.
Assembly Bill 1516 (Assembly Member Friedman) - This legislation strengthens defensible space regulations and fuels reduction management in order to better protect homes/structures in the event of wildfire.
Assembly Bill 38 (Assembly Member Wood) - This legislation would increase community resources for fire protection by providing funding to harden existing homes and create regional community fire protection counsels.
Senate Bill 182 (State Senator Jackson) - This legislation would call for critical safety updates to planning and zoning regulations in areas at high risk for wildfires. It is important that the funding for this fire resilient community bill does not come at the expense of forest restoration efforts. There is an opportunity to fund this work through through the Hazard Mitigation Fund.
But this is just the start. We must breakdown the barriers to developing and implementing critical forest restoration and fuels reduction projects while maintaining environmental safeguards. We also need a comparable investment in California’s forests from the federal government. Finally, we need policies and programs to make communities safer by directing growth away from high hazard zones and investing in measures that will reduce risks for existing communities.
MORE SCIENCE & CASE STUDIES
In the Sierra Nevada, TNC’s science is leading the way in better defining the problems facing our forests and solutions by:
Setting out a scientific case for ecological forestry as the linchpin strategy for reducing the risk of megafires in our forests
Prioritizing Sierra watersheds for restoration with respect to biodiversity value and risk to communities
Showing partners that investing in ecological forestry makes economic sense and also benefits people and nature
Here are three pilot projects underway in the Sierra Nevada that helped inform our forest restoration recommendations to curb the cycle of megafires.
Case Study #1: Independence Lake Preserve
TNC is using our 2,325 acre Independence Lake Preserve, located in the northern Sierra Nevada near Truckee, as a demonstration site for forest restoration. High-severity wildfire is a significant threat to the water supply, neighboring communities and wildlife that thrive here. Since 2010, TNC has used ecological thinning and controlled burning to reduce wildfire risk and promote healthier, more resilient forests at the preserve.
Case Study #2: French Meadows Forest Restoration Project
TNC is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, Placer County Water Agency, Placer County, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, American River Conservancy and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced to restore 28,000 acres of forest in the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the American River, just west of Lake Tahoe. We believe this partnership can serve as a model to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration on national forest lands throughout the Sierra. TNC just published a Lessons Learned Paper on behalf of the French Meadows partners summarizing the elements that were key determinants to the success of our partnership and making policy and practice recommendations for future partnerships.
Key elements of the project include:
Collaborative management, allowing the project to advance quickly and efficiently
Funding from a wide variety of federal, state, local and private sources
Shared stewardship to accelerate on-the-ground restoration with TNC helping to direct use of prescribed fire
Research on how forest restoration benefits water supply and forest health
Innovative planning, including use of state-of-the-art fire behavior modeling
Case Study #3: Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative
Independence Lake and French Meadows are part of the much larger Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative (TCSI), covering approximately 2.4 million acres around Lake Tahoe and the central Sierra Nevada. TNC is part of a diverse coalition bringing together innovative approaches to increase the pace and scale of restoration work across this entire region. The TCSI initiative is improving the health and resiliency of forest ecosystems and communities by:
Raising federal, state and private funding
Using a rigorous planning and analytic process (co-led by TNC) to develop forest restoration approaches that can influence the entire landscape
Analyzing the benefits to clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and other values from implementing the forest restoration scenarios
MEGAFIRE: a fast-moving, high intensity forest fire that burns a large area, typically 100,000 acres or more
FOREST RESTORATION / ECOLOGICAL FORESTRY: the use of forest thinning in combination with controlled burns, where it is safe and appropriate, to reduce high fuel loads that contribute to megafires
FOREST THINNING: strategically removing smaller trees and brush from conifer forests that fuel megafires
CONTROLLED BURN: an intentionally-ignited fire contained within a designated area. the goal is to remove highly-flammable undergrowth (and thus reduce the risk of megafire) while promoting healthier forest conditions
MANAGED WILDFIRE: lightning-ignited fires that can be safely managed for the benefit of nature while reducing the risk of future megafires
Our work to curb the cycle of megafires is far from over. TNC is uniquely positioned to protect our fire-adapted forests and help communities prepare for climate-exacerbated natural disasters. Let’s stop making history and start fixing the problem.