Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative update | March 2016

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By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO

Thanks to the generous support of our anniversary event attendees last fall, Pepperwood has been able to dive headfirst into advancing the health of Northern California’s land, water and wildlife as it relates to science-based strategies to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and facilitate the healthy recovery of the burn zones from last year’s devastating fire season.

Like any project dedicated to achieving positive change in the world, change starts at home.  Our preserve management team, led by Michael Gillogly, Pepperwood’s Preserve Manager of over 20 years, is leaving no stone unturned in identifying and pursuing opportunities to reduce wildfire risks on our 3200-acre preserve.  The last major fire to come through our property was the 1964 Hanley fire, which swept from Mount Saint Helena to the edge of Santa Rosa.  Since that day over 50 years ago, fire has been suppressed in the Pepperwood landscape, as it has been throughout California for many decades. This has created the all too common problem of excess accumulation of live and dead vegetation, which provides fast burning fuel for fire.

At Pepperwood, fuels accumulation is mainly due to young Douglas Fir trees coming up in the forest understory. In days gone by, indigenous Native people would have eliminated these saplings through regular forest management burns.  Today, these young trees are creating potential pathways for fire to travel from the ground to the canopy of mature trees.  As we learned last fall in Lake County, the results can be devastating.

Michael has cultivated a close relationship with CAL FIRE, our state agency dedicated to fire prevention and forest management. He is working closely with their vegetation management team in Saint Helena, which helps large landowners by providing technical and regulatory support for wildfire prevention.

Thanks to CAL FIRE and critical donor support, Pepperwood is developing a comprehensive long-term management plan for the preserve as well as a state-approved forest management plan. These plans include mapping all the regions on the preserve where fuels reductions are required and the determining necessary forest treatments to reduce the fuel load.  Pepperwood’s management plan will be a model that can be exported to other large land owners throughout the region.

Since December of 2015, we’ve treated 12 acres of heavy Douglas fir thickets, bringing the total to 358 acres treated since we started this work in 2008. The total treatment area is 1400 acres and includes considerable acreage only lightly infested with Douglas fir. We’ve prioritized treating the densest areas first and will return to treated areas within two years of the initial treatment to cut trees that were missed and any new seedlings. Thus far, we’ve primarily used chainsaw crews that penetrate forest thickets to remove accumulated fuels.  The vegetation material is then cut into small pieces and left on the ground to decompose and enrich the soil.  The downside of this method is that it is labor intensive, and intensive labor can be expensive. In an effort to supplement donor support, we currently have two proposals out to state grant programs to help us raise enough funds to complete the ambitious task of treating the entire preserve and maintain it after treatment.

Our preserve management plan is being reviewed by experts, including members of our Native American Advisory Council and our collaborative of climate adaptation research scientists (TBC3). They are exploring alternative fuel treatments more cost effective than chainsaws for us to consider over the long-term.

Meanwhile, Pepperwood’s TBC3 is serving as the science team for Climate Ready North Bay, a new public-private partnership informing natural resource planning and management in the North Bay by providing data on how natural resources are likely to be impacted by climate change. This spring, we’re releasing our region’s first quantitative projections of how drought and projected climate may affect wildfire risks in Sonoma, Marin, and Napa counties. This data will be very important to public resource management agencies’ ability to plan accordingly to mitigate risks.

The statewide projections model the science team is using was developed by our partners at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara using research hatched in part by Pepperwood’s TBC3 collaborative.  The projections from this model are cause for concern: for the North Bay, the model projects an approximately 20% increase in the risk of fire due to climate change alone over the next 30 years.  The good news is that model projections also suggest that aggressive fuel treatments may be able to mitigate this increased risk.

With any computer-based projection, validation is necessary. This makes the onsite long-term forest monitoring work at Pepperwood all the more critical.  Pepperwood is conducting this forest monitoring in conjunction with UC Berkeley, and we’re generating a wealth of data on the conditions of our forests at 50 plots across the preserve. Because Pepperwood also monitors temperature, humidity, rainfall, fog, wind, soil temperature, soil moisture, and even leaf wetness with our Sentinel Site, we will be able to provide one of the few datasets to check assumptions about how fuel loads change over time in our local forests in response to our variable climate.

Another big push for Pepperwood this spring is to deliver a first class workshop which will bring together scientific experts and local land managers in a facilitated dialogue about the state of science as it applies to chaparral and forest management in our region.  This workshop will be offered through Pepperwood’s Mayacamas Forum – which brings together individuals and entities who manage land and watersheds in the Mayacamas mountain range to share research and planning developments – and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). We’re very grateful to the Bureau of Land Management for their support and deep engagement in developing and delivering this May workshop.

In preparation for the workshop, we are assembling a lineup of experts ranging from botanists to vegetation physiologists, to fire ecologists, to soil and water experts. Together we will define a consensus-based understanding of fundamental opportunities and constraints on fire mitigation, response, and recovery.  During the workshop, we will also have the opportunity to learn from those charged with forest management who are on the cutting-edge of innovating landscape-scale approaches that have great potential for consistent applications across jurisdictions.  We will identify the science most valuable for immediate application, as well as current knowledge gaps and strategies to fill those gaps through collaborative applied research.

Stay tuned for future updates on our brand new website about how we are putting your conservation investments to work!

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