Recovery After a Million Acre Fire

Our next meeting will be at 6:00 pm on Tuesday February 7th at Turtle Rock Park.  Dr. Jonathan Kusel of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment will be making a presentation on a community’s recovery after the 2021 one-million acre Dixie Fire.  There was a lot of interest in learning about what went right and what went wrong during the 2018 Camp Fire that burned through the city of Paradise, and the County sponsored a well-attended town hall meeting with the Butte County Sheriff and others.  This meeting will be how a community can recover after a major fire by taking advantage of new opportunities.

There will also be a discussion on what, if anything, can be done to improve forest health and resilience at the necessary pace and scale now that Measure D has prohibited a biomass facility in eastern Alpine County.

Biography:  Jonathan Kusel is founder and executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment.  He received a Ph.D. in Natural Resource Sociology and Policy from U.C. Berkeley, where he taught before launching the Sierra Institute in northern California.  He holds a Masters in Forest Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Dr. Kusel helped lead a team evaluating community and social implications of climate change in the Sierra as part of California’s 4th Climate Assessment in 2018, and also led a team that built a small biomass-powered energy facility for rural Plumas County’s Health and Human Services Center.  The facility is housed in the first full cross laminated timber building constructed in California.  Dr. Kusel helps coordinate and facilitate the South Lassen Watershed Group, a landscape collaborative group involving over 25 groups and agencies focused on a one-million-acre area that begins at the top of Mt. Lassen.  He also leads a Sierra Institute team that coordinates the Sierra to California All-lands Enhancement (SCALE) project that convenes landscape collaboratives from across the State of California including Alpine County to share lessons with state and federal agencies and advance peer learning.

Abstract:  The 2021 Dixie Fire burned through the Sierra Institute’s home community, destroying much of the town of Greenville.  Working with partners, Sierra Institute is now building single-family cross laminated timber homes to help residents who lost their homes in the Dixie Fire and pilot home and community hardening using mass timber.  The Institute is also partnering with local businesses to make productive use of the burned timber and provide good paying jobs for residents.

Measure D, which bans “biomass facilities” from eastern Alpine County, passed overwhelmingly.  There will be a discussion of what alternatives there might be that could help improve forest health and resilience at the necessary pace and scale.  It is hoped that people on both sides of the argument over Measure D will participate.  The problem of declining forest health and resilience, and increased risk of severe fire isn’t going away on its own, so we do need to come up with something.

Future Meetings:  To avoid meeting fatigue and not conflict with upcoming County meetings on the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), our meeting schedule will shift to every two months until June or August.  In March, May, and maybe July the County will be hosting meetings on the CWPP.  Please send suggestions for future speakers to dGriffith.9@gmail.com.  Presentations need to be on topics that relate to our mission statement.

Thanks to Alpine County Public Health for their support.

When stress arises, take a break and meditate.

Where To Go Next

There is no January meeting, but Dr. Alexandra (Ali) Urza of the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service will be making a presentation in February on the effectiveness of fuel breaks in stopping or controlling wildfire.

Where to go next:  One of the lessons that is fairly obvious from the overwhelming approval of Alpine County Measure D, which rejected any sort of biomass facility in eastern Alpine County, is that we have largely been preaching to the choir when it comes to the importance of restoring our forest to a healthy and resilient state.  The Alpine Biomass Collaborative (ABC) was always intended as a forum to unify partners to promote forest and watershed health, but instead we ended up with a deeply divided community with a lot of nasty things said during the campaign.

However, the basic problem of an overstocked forest at a time when we are experiencing a warmer and drier climate remains.  State and federal agencies, forest researchers, fire safe councils, resource conservation districts, forest collaboratives and most elected officials from forested counties in the Sierra Nevada are all in agreement that the forest needs to be thinned from in some cases as many as hundreds of trees per acre down to significantly less than 100 trees per acre.  And it needs to be done at a pace and scale that has never been attempted before.  Defensible space and home hardening can help protect homes from catastrophic wildfire, but do nothing to prevent wildfire from consuming our forest.

The California Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force (WFRTF) has been working on this problem for years, and their Science Advisory Panel has recently published its Sierra Nevada Profile, the first of four regional profiles.  The regional profiles “… summarize the social context and ecological condition related to community and ecosystem resilience to wildfire …”.  Eastern Alpine County is in the East subregion.  The profile is an easy read and is intended for the general population.  Three graphs from the profile illustrate the problem, and what stakeholders think should be done.  Stakeholders are individuals from CalFire, Forest Service, BLM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, fire safe councils, resource conservation districts, forest collaboratives and other members of the public that have been participating in the WFRTF Sierra and Eastside Regional Coordination Group over the last few years.

The graph below (Fig. 5, p. 5) illustrates the increasing number of acres burned annually in the Sierra Nevada in the last few years.  Not shown is 2022, which due to a break in the weather and additions to CalFire’s suppression capabilities resulted in “only” 132,400 acres being burned.  The data was collected and summarized by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

2023-01-02_SierraNevadaFireAcres

In comparison, prior to European settlement approximately 1.1 million forested acres burned annually in California (Stephens et al, 2007), but it is estimated that only 1 to 5% burned at high severity.  Of the over 1.6 million acres that burned in the Sierra Nevada in 2021, approximately 575,000 acres burned at high severity, or about 35%.  When a forest burns at high severity it is unlikely that it will regenerate, but under our current and projected warmer and drier climate it is likely to convert to brush, perhaps similar to the Mesa.  So, what can and should we do to mitigate this increased risk to the forest and our community?

Below are the results of the stakeholder survey for the East Subregion (p 35).  In the first graph it clearly shows that the priority areas for investment are resilient and fire-safe communities followed closely by a safe, clean, and reliable water supply.  The second graph shows that the priority investments for healthy and resilient forests are reducing fuel loads followed closely by the related categories of reducing tree density, removing dead trees, prescribed fire, and increasing the forest management work force.2023-01-02_EastSolutions

If we want to save our forests, we need to restore them to a healthy and resilient condition.  One possible tool, a biomass facility of some sort, is currently off the table.  Are those in the community that worked hard to ban a biomass facility willing to work with us to come up with a better feasible way to reduce the excess fuel loading in our forest to restore it to a healthy and resilient condition and hence reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfire?  The ABC will be a willing partner.

New CalFire Fire Hazard Severity Zones and Community Wildfire Planning Process:  There will be a public meeting at 5:00 pm on January 11th at Turtle Rock Park to review and receive comment on the update to the CALFIRE Fire Hazard Severity Zone (FHSZ) map for Alpine County.  This is a county wide dataset so participation from Bear Valley and Kirkwood is encouraged.  Zoom connection information is:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87330681166?pwd=RVQrY21sVHFUNGVOOFBjL0lpQXFiZz09
Meeting ID: 873 3068 1166, Passcode: 304618
One tap mobile, +16694449171,,87330681166#,,,,*304618# US

The current Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Plan (WHMP) are available here.  For more information contact Alpine County Wildfire Project Coordinator Clint Celio at clint@cgcelio.com or 530-694-2140, or CALFIRE Assistant Chief Brian Newman at brian.newman@fire.ca.gov or call 530-573-2321.

Resource Advisory Committee (RAC):  The RAC is a committee convened by the Carson Ranger District to advise the Forest Service on how to spend Secure Rural Schools Title II funds to benefit federal lands.  There is currently about $200,000 available and the possibility of $15,000 to $30,000/year after that.  The RAC will be accepting project proposals until Feb. 1st, 2023.  Possible project ideas could include such things as trail and trailhead improvements, toilets, campgrounds and campground improvements, new or improved signage etc.  Fuels reduction projects are generally too expensive to accomplish with the available funding.

For more information or to submit a project idea contact Brian Peters, bwpeters1@gmail.com, or Matt Dickinson, Matthew.Dickinson@usda.gov, or 775-884-8154.   There are vacancies on the RAC so if you are interested contact Matt Dickinson as noted above.

Future Meetings:  Dr. Alexandra (Ali) Urza of the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service will be making a presentation in February on the effectiveness of fuel breaks in stopping or controlling wildfire.  Please send suggestions for future speakers to dGriffith.9@gmail.com.  Presentations need to be on topics that relate to our mission statement.

Thanks to Alpine County Public Health for their support.
When stress arises, take a break and meditate.

Submit Proposals to the RAC.

Unfortunately, our presenter for the December meeting, Dr. Alexandra (Ali) Urza of the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, has caught covid and will be unable to attend.  Consequently, there will be no December meeting.  Normally there is no January meeting so the next meeting will be in February.

In the mean time please consider making a submission to the Resource Advisory Committee (RAC).  The RAC is a committee convened by the Carson Ranger District to advise the Forest Service on how to spend Secure Rural Schools Title II funds to benefit federal lands.  There is currently about $200,000 available and the possibility of $15,000 to $30,000/year after that.

The RAC had its first meeting in several years and appointed Brian Peters as Chair. The RAC will be accepting project proposals until Feb. 1st, 2023.  Possible project ideas could include such things as trail and trailhead improvements, toilets, campgrounds and campground improvements, new or improved signage etc.  Fuels reduction projects are generally too expensive to accomplish with the available funding.

For more information or to submit a project idea contact Brian Peters, bwpeters1@gmail.com, or Matt Dickinson, Matthew.Dickinson@usda.gov, or 775-884-8154.   Project ideas can also be submitted through any RAC member.  Current RAC members include Mark Schwartz, Don Jardine, Jeff Voorhees, Jennifer Celio, Richard Harvey, Robert Twiss, Debbi Waldear, Carole Morgan, Terry Woodrow, Helen Fillmore, Brian Peters, Steve Yonker, and David Griffith.

There are vacancies on the RAC so if you are interested contact Matt Dickinson as noted above.

Future Meetings:  There will be no meeting in January due to its being just after New Year’s Day.  Please send suggestions for future speakers to dGriffith.9@gmail.com.  Presentations need to be on topics that relate to our mission statement.

Thank you.  Thanks to Alpine County Public Health for their support.

When stress arises, take a break and meditate.

Science and Misinformation

There will be no November meeting as we don’t have a presentation.  There will be a meeting in December.

One of the things that surprised me about the back and forth about Measure D, the initiative on the Alpine County ballot that would ban any biomass facility in eastern Alpine County and prohibit the County from spending any funds to even study or analyze any such facility, is how many reasonably educated people reject the science behind the need for some sort of biomass facility.  I certainly understand people’s concerns about possible local adverse impacts that would directly affect them, but am disappointed that they would reject even studying or analyzing any such facility.  Our efforts to educate the community over the last few years by bringing in top researchers in wildfire, forest health and resilience, have not been as effective as I had hoped.  Suggestions to make these presentations more relevant or effective are welcome.

For those that have any doubt that our forests are in a crisis, read the recently published National Forest Foundation Round Table report.

An excellent article on the problem of misinformation in the context of wildfire and forest health and resilience was recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Volume 20, Issue 7, p. 392-393.  Two of the co-authors have made presentations to the ABC over the years.

Part of the problem is that some scientists tend to overstate the implications of their work and let their personal biases influence their conclusions.  Peer review is in part designed to prevent that, but it is a slow process and much damage can be done in the meantime.

The science behind the need to restore our forests to a healthy and resilient state has been developed over more than two decades, and despite claims to the contrary from a very small number of deniers, the science is solid.

Future Meetings:  The December 6th meeting will feature a presentation by Dr. Alexandra K. Urza (Ali), Research Ecologist with Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station on a recent review of fuel treatment effectiveness.   There will be no meeting in January as agency personnel will be just returning from holidays.  Suggestions for future topics that are consistent with our mission statement are welcome. Please send suggestions for future speakers to dGriffith.9@gmail.com.

The ABC is grateful for the financial support received from the Alpine County Health and Human Services Public Health Dept.’s small grant program.

Community Meeting Summary and Links

The community meeting on the environmental pros and cons of biomass facilities was well attended with 31 people signing in in person and 14 more attending via Zoom.  Based on an informal estimate there were a number of people present that had not signed it.

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Photo by Mary Rawson

There were short presentations by Emily Blackmer, Policy Analyst for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy on their Watershed Improvement Program and holistic forest goals that include biomass infrastructure to meet state policy goals; and Bruce Springsteen, Compliance and Enforcement Manager for the Placer County Air Pollution Control District on their research into the air quality impacts of using biomass to generate electricity.   From CALFIRE, Brian Newman, Assistant Chief for the Amador-El Dorado Unit, and Megan Scheeline, Unit Forester did not make a presentation, but did answer questions.

The meeting was moderated by Ed James, General Manager for the Carson Water Subconservancy District. 

The following links are available for those that were not able to attend or wish to review it.  Peer reviewed papers mentioned by Bruce Springsteen are also available.

Video Recording of the meeting.
Emission Reductions from Woody Biomass Waste for Energy as an Alternative to Open Burning
Forest biomass diversion in the Sierra Nevada: Energy, economics and emissions

Future ABC Meetings:  There will be no November meeting as the ABC has not been able to line up a presentation.  The December 6th meeting will feature a presentation by Dr. Alexandra K. Urza (Ali), Research Ecologist with Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station on a recent review of fuel treatment effectiveness.   Suggestions for future topics that are consistent with our mission statement are welcome.  Please send suggestions for future speakers to dGriffith.9@gmail.com.