Resilience after two fires in two years

In the Wake of Kincade: Taking Stock

Part One: When the Winds Came

In the early hours of Sunday, October 27th, one of Pepperwood’s meteorological stations just below our iconic Three Tree Hill recorded wind gusts of 60 mph. The Kincade Fire, which had ignited five days earlier on a hillside eight miles north, had doubled its ground overnight, fueled by extreme winds, and was barreling south toward Pepperwood. The Pepperwood team, evacuated safely to family and friends, all waited breathlessly, but by 10 pm that evening, with winds clocked again at 61.38 mph, Kincade was upon us.   

High winds picked up on October 27th as the firestorm moved in. This wildlife cam caught footage of the winds and a spot fire.

Memories of the 2017 Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires loomed as Kincade threatened to cross 101, while the Geyserville, Healdsburg, and Windsor communities were evacuated in speedy succession. We remembered our neighbors in Paradise and the shocking devastation that ensued from the 2018 Camp Fire, shuddering at the prospect of a similar fate if our heroic firefighters and first responders weren’t able to contain Kincade in time. So there we all were, glued to the CAL FIRE and County updates, the KSRO live broadcast feed, and the North Bay’s ALERTWildfire cameras, which were taking live photos day and night of the megafire’s march through Sonoma County. 

For the Pepperwood team our two ALERTWildfire cameras enabled us to watch as the Kincade Fire burned through 60% of the preserve. We watched in real time as Cal Fire and first responders established firebreaks across our 3,200-acre open space preserve to contain the conflagration so that it didn’t spread into urban areas. Firefighters and first responders demonstrated incredible tenacity, courage, and selflessness as they spent sleepless days and nights fighting the fire to save our communities.  When the 15-day conflagration was finally contained on November 6th, it had consumed nearly 78,000 acres and threatened some 90,000 structures as it earned its place as the largest California wildfire of 2019.

Firefighters on the night of October 29th 2019 caught on Pepperwood’s Wildlife Cams as they fight the Kincade Fire. Note directionality of the flames indicating wind direction.

One week later, on November 4th, Kincade was still not quite contained but the winds had relented and conditions had improved considerably. It was our Team’s first day back. While we didn’t know it at the time, Kincade had burned through nearly 60% of the land. Much of the preserve seemed okay as we drove up the long and twisting driveway. This fire had not reached the front entrance or buildings, six of which were lost to the 2017 Tubbs Fire. In fact, it wasn’t until our team drove deeper into the preserve together that we saw the damage on the north and west portions of the land: the dozer tracks, the charred earth, the ghosts of trees that burned so hot all that was left was a shadow of ash in the shape of a tree. 

Michelle Halbur and Kelly Kohrs take stock of the damage in our first week back to the preserve after Kincade. Photo Credit: s. beard

These were emotional days. When you spend time nurturing the same trees, plants, grasslands, forests, and creeks day after day, you come to know them and it feels like they come to know you. You look forward to your field days when you get to spend time with them. You accept what seems like an endless sea of stickers and thistles, just so you can measure the diameter of their trunks or count the number of seedlings around their base every season. These aren’t just species or individual subjects, they’re living beings. They’re complex. They’re interrelated. They have stories, and if you’re patient maybe you learn something from them—something more than their scientific datasets. It’s hard to see our friends like this after the second conflagration in two years. The reality is that many won’t survive. Indeed, some of our oldest trees were taken to the ground this time, including our namesake bay laurel (pepperwood) tree.

Ben Benson, Pepperwood’s Cultural Consultant, surveys the damage to several large black oak trees that are part of the Native Advisory Council’s Black Oak Project. Led by Pepperwood’s Native Advisory Council, the project is a unique collaboration among the the Council, Pepperwood, and Sonoma State University. Black oak trees are a culturally significant species for many California Indian Tribes, including the Pomo, Wappo, and Coast Miwok Peoples native to what is now called Sonoma County. Pepperwood Preserve is located on Wappo Territory, and these trees were cared for by Wappo People for generations prior to European colonization. Photo Credit: s. beard

The people that comprise our Team at Pepperwood team come from diverse backgrounds, and we each have very different skill sets. What unites our Pepperwood family is this land and our shared love for it. That is the bottom line we all share. Yes, our return was intense and emotionally difficult, but as we exchanged tears and silent glances with one another, one thing was clear: our work had only just begun.  

Part Two: Pepperwood as a Key Battleground to fight Kincade

In 2017, after Tubbs destroyed over 5,500 structures and took 22 lives, our Team at Pepperwood vowed to do everything in our power to prevent that level of devastation from happening to our community again. By building close working partnerships with local fire agencies we were able to identify the most critical needs of response teams when they’re actively fighting wildfires. Through this process it became clear that early wildfire detection was essential for improving response time. Pepperwood took action by hosting two of the original eight pilot sites for the ALERTWildfire camera network in the North Bay region. These cams played a crucial role in tracking Kincade’s progress, enabling CAL FIRE and first responders to act quickly by using our open space as a key battleground.

Image captured by Pepperwood’s East cam on the ALERT Wildfire North Bay Network.

Another critical need for response teams was the availability of “defensible space” along roadways and around buildings. This is a key need not only for protecting human safety and property but also for facilitating response teams’ ability to access wildland areas quickly, to install fire breaks, and perform other essential tasks for containing wildfires. With the help of our invaluable corps of volunteers, we were able to create defensible space along all of the preserve’s roadways and around buildings. This time around, CAL FIRE was able to use our 3,200 acres of open space as a key battleground to halt the advance of the Kincade Fire toward urban communities.

Defensible space is a worthwhile tool for protecting property and equipment in fire-adapted country. Many of Pepperwood’s monitoring stations were saved this time around because of the lessons learned from the 2017 Tubbs Fire around the importance of defensible space. Photo Credit: Gerald & Buff Corsi

Kincade moved down from the north, carried by 60 mph winds across the property. To slow the advance of the fire, response crews cut 22.3 acres of firebreaks (15.33 miles in total length) and used Pepperwood’s water resources to inhibit the fire’s progress toward urban areas to our south and east. 

Large machinery is used to cut firebreaks in order to stop the progression of fire. Inevitably, these land-moving vehicles have a significant impact on the land and ecosystems they through which they cut.

When comparing Kincade to Tubbs, we find two very different sets of circumstances. In Tubbs, 95% of the preserve was burned, six mission-critical structures were lost, and much of our scientific monitoring equipment was damaged or destroyed. There was less firefighter presence at Pepperwood during the Tubbs fire, so most of the damage was from the fire itself. Kincade, on the other hand, burned 60% of the preserve, spared all structures (including those being rebuilt), as well as some of our scientific monitoring equipment (largely due to defensible space, and lessons learned from our experience with Tubbs). This time, though, Pepperwood was a base of operations for the firefight, and consequently much of the damage to the land and ecosystems was from the firefight itself.

Several miles of fire break lines were cut throughout the preserve. Sensitive forest, grassland, chaparral, and riparian ecosystems were damaged by these important breaks. Photo Credit: Gerald & Buff Corsi

Ecological Impacts to the Land in the Wake of the Firefight

It usually surprises people to learn that the impact from the firefight itself actually poses the most immediate threat to sensitive ecosystems. Not only that, barring damage to buildings, it’s also the most costly aspect of fire recovery and is generally not covered by insurance. Some of the heaviest earth-moving vehicles were used to cut miles of fire breaks across hillsides and through untouched forest, grassland, chaparral and riparian ecosystems. Fire breaks are designed to interrupt the fire’s advance, so naturally they’re wide and deeply cut. After the fire is over, these lines pose a high risk for sediment run-off and increased erosion, especially when the rains come. In addition, with much of the surrounding vegetation either killed or damaged, less water is capable of being held in the soil and the threat of slides increases significantly. Our main priorities, therefore, are to take down the high walls on the firebreaks (naturalizing them) and to build intermittent water trenches (or bars) to better distribute water and promote even absorption. 

With much of the land now at risk for heavy erosion and sediment run-off, volunteers are helping to naturalize the fire breaks. This type of work is labor-intensive, but wholly important to heal the landscape after the firefight. Photo Credit: Ian A. Nelson 

The vehicles that create fire breaks pose another risk to sensitive ecosystems. These large land-moving machines, which are shipped from throughout the west to the fires’ front lines to cut breaks, often carry in non-native and invasive plant seeds on their tracks. These seeds are deposited in the disturbed soil, increasing the risk of severe invasive species encroachment after the rains prompt their germination. Pepperwood’s next priority, then, is to re-seed these areas with native plants before the rains come. Native plants are generally better at working within these sensitive local systems and can aid in our efforts to prevent erosion.

Volunteers march out together to tackle some of the immense fire breaks on the road to Martin Creek. Photo Credit: Ian A. Nelson

These back-to-back fires present us with a time-sensitive scientific opportunity. Pepperwood is uniquely situated in the overlap of Tubbs and Kincade, making our “living laboratory” a key hub for climate change and fire ecology research. It is important to collect data and monitor the impacts from the fire disturbance and the firefight because the preserve’s diverse ecosystems are representative of the North Bay landscape, and these data contribute to our overall understanding of this region’s response to fire disturbance and climate change.

Part Three: A Note on Collaboration…

Since time immemorial people have inhabited this landscape, participating in relationships with the natural systems that make up the North Bay region. We cherish the beauty that exists here–the diversity of ecosystems, plants and wildlife–but there are realities of this landscape that, as a community, we cannot ignore. Fire is one of these realities.

Two mega-fires hitting the same county within two years, with 3,549 acres of overlapping footprints, do not reflect a simple problem with simple answers. Generally, the arguments advanced to explain this “new normal” are: a century of fire suppression policy in a fire-adapted landscape, poor forest and wildlands management practices, population booms and urban sprawl, and, of course, climate change. But there is no single answer for why this is happening, and likely all arguments are correct to some extent. There is also no single answer for arguably the most important question of all: what can we do moving forward?

The 3,200 acre Pepperwood Preserve lies in the overlap of the footprints of the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire, making it an incredible place for research and monitoring as well as building resilience.

Pepperwood exists in this space of uncertainty, providing a 3,200 acre living laboratory — twice burned in two years — to explore understanding of this complex problem. Most importantly, we’re not doing this alone: collaboration is our greatest strength. We leverage our Sentinel Site both to provide real-time emergency data on fires and floods for first responders and to create a reliable long-term record of trends that can better predict fire risks and behavior. We bring our expertise in large landscape analysis and conservation to boost many local collaborations focused on building fire resilience. These include both public-private partnerships with local fire, water, and park agencies (including CAL FIRE), the Sonoma Farm Bureau, and emerging volunteer organizations, including Fire Safe and Fire Wise councils, CERT, and COPE neighborhood associations.

Furthermore, building on years of fire research, Pepperwood’s applied fire science is filling critical knowledge gaps with respect to our region’s wildfire preparedness, first response capacity, recovery strategies, and long-term resilience. We also work with our Native Advisory Council, whose local knowledge is crucial for understanding the cycles this region has experienced over the course of thousands of years, informing our role in this natural system moving forward. 

In the meantime, we have been improving the accuracy of our region’s forest, climate, and combined fuel hazard maps, so necessary to reducing wildfire risks and improving community fire preparedness. We leverage our Sentinel Site both to provide real-time emergency data on fires and floods for first responders and to create a reliable long-term record of trends that can better predict fire risks and behavior. We bring our expertise in large landscape analysis and conservation to boost many local collaborations focused on building fire resilience. These include both public-private partnerships with local fire, water, and park agencies, as well as emerging volunteer organizations, including Fire Safe and Fire Wise communities, CERT, and COPE neighborhood associations.

Within two years, our community has witnessed several mega-fires and the subsequent tolls on our region. This is a complex problem, but in times like these we see how connected we are to each other and to this land. Part of our resilience is understanding what it means to live in a fire-adapted landscape for ourselves and our community, and that’s where Pepperwood comes in. As a key hub for climate change and fire ecology research, and a leader in best land stewardship practices, we hope you’ll support our work to promote resilience in our wild and working lands for the benefit of our region and communities.  

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