Flames in extreme wildfire conditions on the County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties consumed 1,000 acres an hour July 1. It had burned more than 90,000 acres by July 11 and still wasn’t fully contained.
In nearby Lake County, the 14,000-acre Pawnee Fire jumped containment lines and continued to consume an area all too familiar with wildfire in recent years, before it was eventually contained.
These were just two of approximately 60 wildfires burning in the western United States in early July.
With summer just weeks old, California and other western states are already feeling the impact of catastrophic fires on the landscape.
Decades of mismanaged forests and drought conditions, coupled with high winds and low humidity are combining to destroy thousands of acres of timber, grasslands, homes and livelihoods.
Catastrophic wildfires are here to stay as long as conditions and fuels are readily available, according to Ryan Bauer, Plumas National Forest Forest Fuels and Prescribed Fire Program manager.
A catastrophic wildfire is one that kills nearly all vegetation, destroys watershed areas and forces other devastating impacts.
PNF is among local fire-wise groups to continue efforts to minimize the effects of catastrophic wildfires.
“We need to get ahead of the problem,” Bauer said about the importance of doing more hazard fuel reduction projects, not just on the Plumas, but also throughout the West. “There’s a long ways to go.”
Efforts toward this reduction goal was the theme of a June 22 six-hour tour of the Big Hill hazard fuels reduction project, a Soper-Wheeler timber harvest area, and the 2017 Eureka Fire, all roughly south of Sloat. The tour was sponsored by the Plumas County Fire Safe Council (PCFSC).
It was 9 a.m. on a day that promised to be hot.
Representatives from agencies included on the tour were Paul Violett, a forester with the Soper-Wheeler Company; Dan Martynn and Evan Smith from Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Shannon Lawson from Plumas Audubon; Mike Yost, private citizen and a member of the former Quincy Library Group; Kyle Felker, citizen; Shane Starr representative of Rep. Doug LaMalfa; Chuck Bowman of Graeagle Firewise; Mike and Sue McCourt, retired USFS and interested citizens (Sue is also the county’s fire prevention specialist) ; David Popp, citizen; Don Gasser and Hannah Hepner with PCFSC; Matt Jedra, Beckwourth Ranger District ranger; Don Fregulia, a firefighter lead with the Beckwourth Ranger District; Marty Senter, fires/fuels, Beckwourth Ranger District; Gary Parque, citizen and professional chipper for the PCFSC; Kelly Weintraub, a Rangeland Watershed Initiative Partner biologist with Point Blue a conservation science group; Nancy Francine, an ecosystems staff officer with PNF; and John Sheehan, retired Plumas Corporation director and citizen.
Some of those on the tour would be discussing various aspects of fuels reductions.
Taking the Sloat turnoff from Highway 70, the caravan slowly wound its way along Plumas County Road 509 to 509A. A van, pickups and other all-wheel-drive vehicles stirred the dust into billowing clouds as they traveled to the second rendezvous point. There, specialists in timber management and others joined the tour.
Soon we were passing splendid meadows with a mountain range backdrop of rocks and trees to the right, as the caravan edged along at 10, 15 maybe even 20 mph. As a driver, it was tough to enjoy unfamiliar landscape, while avoiding rough places in the roadway and attempting to stay well behind the dust-stirring vehicle in front.
Fire-safer forest – Big Hill
The first stop was to show how thinning and clearing had visibly changed the landscape on one side of the forest road. This was a small portion of the Big Hill project.
Here the timber had been thinned to allow the selected, healthy trees an opportunity to continue to grow without limbs tangling and trunks jammed together.
By letting the sun in, trees and beneficial vegetation stand a better chance growing healthy timber stands and offering habitat for local species.
Eliminating the competition is a goal in thinning a forest. Select timber, including ponderosa, Jeffrey, sugar pine and Douglas fir are preferred. These help create a fire-resilient forest and eliminate or reduce the number of white fir and incense cedar that are more shade tolerant in an overcrowded, mismanaged or unmanaged forest.
Participants were invited to look over this landscape, while various local experts discussed the project, what happened and what they hope to achieve.
Ladder fuels, including lower dead limbs, brush and downed timber was cleared away.
If a fire should pass through, forest science shows that it is more likely to do less damage to the landscape with much of the readily, highly flammable fuels gone. Fire is part of the ecosystem and does the environment good, provided the more combustible fuels are gone to help prevent the raging fires we’re now seeing throughout the western states.
Within the Big Hill area remained decks of small timber and brush piles ready for biomass crews to transport them to Honey Lake and another local project.
The group assembled to discuss the thinning project in a section of timber that had not been marked for fire reduction methods and timber harvest. The untreated area with its thick stands of timber, brush and many years of accumulated forest debris looked ripe for wildfire.
Jedra told the group that many different elements had to be considered, including type of trees, habitat and wildlife, when planning a treatment area.
Big Hill project plan
The Big Hill project is 35,624 acres within the Beckwourth Ranger District with treatment focused on approximately 5,230 acres. The project area is northwest of Graeagle near Eureka Ridge and in the vicinity of Cromberg and Sloat.
The primary objective of the plan was to reduce fuel loads within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) to help protect Johnsville and Plumas-Eureka State Park, Eureka Ridge Estates, Sloat, Cromberg, Layman’s Camp and the Poplar Valley areas, according to the plan.
Defensible Fuel Profile Zone (DFPZ) and WUI treatments were designed to “move fuels and vegetation toward a desired condition in the treated stands,” according to the plan.
According to the plan, “Treatments are needed to modify potential fire behavior by reducing and restructuring surface, ladder and canopy (crown) fuels and promoting a fire-resilient landscape.”
But these projects don’t and can’t “just” happen, according to Bauer. In the case of Big Hill, the planning phase for the Environmental Impact Report took a year and a half. Smaller projects could require only six months of planning.
The EIR follows federal and state regulations and must be approval by designated agencies before a project can begin. A project can’t be undertaken, even on privately owned land like that belonging to Soper-Wheeler, without an EIR.
Within the purpose and need plan for action identified in the ERI, five major areas are included:
– The need to reduce fuel loads to modify landscape fire behavior and promote healthy, diverse and a fire resilient forest.
– The need to improving forest health and stand resilience.
– The need to protect old forest ecosystems and associated wildlife species.
– Help contribute to the economic health and stability of local rural communities.
– Improve watershed health.
As Jedra indicated, this is where all the forest’s related resource specialists weigh-in with concerns prior to the project’s final approval.
PNF specialists in air quality, forest vegetation management, economics, wildlife, hydrology and soils, botany, non-native invasive plant species, recreation and scenic resources, wild and scenic river concerns, cultural resources, and legal regulatory compliance and consultation are all involved.
But the underlying need is to reduce fire hazards. If a wildfire sweeps through the area, little else matters.
What specialists were seeing before the project were multiple stands of timber with moderate to high amounts of surface, ladder and canopy fuels. The amount of debris or fuel loading would have created flame lengths exceeding 6 to 12 feet during a wildfire. This flame height was well above the desired four-foot maximum flame length or less in this area.
What fire/fuels specialists were intent on was producing a forest environment that discouraged catastrophic wildfire.
“The combination of high surface fuel loading, low live-crown-base heights and low crown separation (that) would easily allow a wildfire burning … to transition from the surface to the forest canopy resulting in rapid large fire growth, moderate to high burn severity and high tree mortality,” according to the plan.
Other desired conditions within the planning area were to see potential fire intensity lowered to a level where tree mortality would be less than 10 percent if conditions were in the 90th percentile weather conditions in the DFPZ and less than 20 percent of the dominate or co-dominate trees in the same conditions in the WUI.
According to the USFS, 90th percentile weatheris defined as the severest 10 percent of the historical fire weather, i.e., hot, dry, windyconditionsoccurring on mid afternoons during the fire season.
While planning ahead to lessen the effects of wildfire, the forest in the Big Hill plan also was to become more resilient to drought, insects and disease.
What they were seeing prior to the plan implementation was competition for water, a shift to shade-tolerate white fir and incense cedar, a lack of nutrients in the soil, and less vigorous growth with the desired plants and trees.
Desired conditions, and what participants on the recent tour were seeing, involved an uneven-aged, multistoried, fire-resilient forest dominated by ponderosa, Jeffrey and sugar pine and Douglas fir. They were also looking to increase spacing between trees so that crowning would have less potential in a wildfire.
By thinning, the remaining timber would have a better chance of improved growth rates and health, and could combat insect and disease more effectively.
Included in the plan was the elimination of two noxious weeds — 2.3 acres of yellow starthistle and a little rush skeletonweed. A variety of applications, including hand pulling, weed whackers, burning and herbicide use, were applied.
Protecting mountain lady’s slipper orchids was also in the plan.
The plan’s intent was to protect and return the area to old forest ecosystem habitat by protecting or encouraging a return of native species.
Threatened, endangered and sensitive species identified in the EIR include the foothill yellow-legged frog and the Sierra (Mountain) yellow-legged frog.
Francine, an ecosystems staff officer with PNF, told the group that this is her area and she works closely with the PNF supervisor.
Seven birds were also of concern, including the bald eagle, California spotted owl, and the northern goshawk.
Mammals considered in the environmental review of the project include American martens, California wolverine, Pacific fisher, pallid bat, Sierra Nevada red fox, Townsend’s big-eared bat and the western red bat.
Part of the plan not only includes providing proper habitat, but not working during critical nesting times and other considerations.
What is left behind on the project is relatively specific. According to the plan, downed wood and snag retention follows federal requirements.
On Big Hill’s west side, approximately 10 to 15 tons of various vegetation types are left behind. Even the number of larger logs left behind is regulated.
Within the east side, three large downed logs are generally left per acre, and in some areas believed to have few or no large woody debris, cull logs are left at the stump and not hauled to the landing. When there’s a question of what to do, the district wildlife biologist and the sale administration need to agree the scale and intensity of the treatment.
Snags are also important to wildlife habitat. Guidelines specify that four of the largest snags in an acre on the west side were left. These included mixed conifer and ponderosa pine. Six of the largest snags per acre were red fir. Four of the hardwood varieties were left.
On the east side, three of the largest snags of pine types were left per acre.
During the tour, the group either stopped at or traveled past examples of the use of hand-thinning practices, mechanical thinning, use of a masticator for chipping up larger pieces of brush and timber to cover the forest floor, and creating hand-piles.
Although some don’t like the looks of using masticators to chip vegetation, the chips or rather uneven shards of wood, do a lot in protecting the soil. Some describe the process as mulching the forest. It works in reducing wildfire risk and reduces the opportunity for fuels to return the forest to its unmanaged state.
About 32 percent of the Big Hill project was mechanically treated, Bauer explained.
Hand thinning is another application process that was used in some sections.
In some areas, logs were hauled away. Piles were then created using brush and the small timber that was cut. The remainder will be chipped and sent to a local biomass project where feasible or in some cases burned when the piles are dry and the conditions are right.
In one area we passed more traditional piles that had been stacked mostly using hand crews. Jedra explained that it takes one to three years for the piles to dry sufficiently to burn.
With that said, there seemed to be a buzz around the group when hand piles were mentioned. Apparently some members of the public don’t like seeing them.
And hand piles are expensive, according to people on the Beckwourth Ranger District and PNF. It’s prescribed when the funding is available. Sometimes it’s the best way to treat an area.
The second stop to gain additional information on the tour was at the Devol Forest, owned and managed by Soper-Wheeler, based in Strawberry Valley.
Forester Paul Violett took the lead on this phase of the tour. (See related story on page 12B.)
It was Labor Day Weekend last year, Sept. 5 to be exact, when lightning started the 480-acre Eureka Fire, according to Bauer.
Only one engine and a few experienced in fighting wildfires were on the forest. Most were committed to other fires. “Don (Fregulia) and one engine was all we had to send to it,” Bauer explained about the situation.
Forests were at Level 5, Bauer explained. That’s the highest commitment of staff and resources to fires. “There were no extra resources to spare,” he said.
But with that high a rating, crews could work more than the 14-day maximum without a break. They could also use the National Guard.
That engine and personnel were sent to McCrae Meadows where they bedded down for the night. “We didn’t want to send crews at night,” he said. Besides fire, there were other nighttime hazards.
And with just one engine and a handful of firefighters, Bauer said they needed to weigh their options. It was apparent that the conditions were good for a managed fire.
To do that, Bauer said they not only needed to get the approval of the Beckwourth District Ranger, but that of the Feather River District. Its boundaries touched on the opposite side of McRae Ridge.
Violett said he learned about the managed fire proposal and knew that if things didn’t go as planned, some of Soper-Wheeler’s property could be in the fire’s path.
Bauer said they had to identify their management objectives for this plan to work. “We didn’t want it to hit the Tahoe (National Forest).”
But there were some favorable natural points, including rock outcroppings and forest roads, which created areas that would stop a fire from spreading. Those natural and man-made barriers appeared at the north and south of the Eureka Fire.
According to incident information posted at the time of the Eureka Fire, it was indicated that a “confine and contain” suppression strategy was in use.
In ways, this fire was doing what fire was originally meant to do — it eliminated heavy dead and downed materials on the forest floor.
And just like on the Big Hill project, nature was restoring the forest to a healthy and resilient condition.
Precipitation also helped keep the fire within its boundaries and helped with containment.
Allowing the Eureka Fire to burn was a risk, but looking back it was well worth taking.
Indicating the dried, brown spots on the McCrae Ridge mountainside, Bauer showed the tour group the fire’s path. It hop-scotched lightly through the area. There were no visible charred areas seen all too frequently when fire hits areas with heavy fuels, few barriers and winds. It was not a catastrophic event.
The final leg of the tour was spent following the lead vehicle through a portion of the Eureka Fire.
It was more like looking at small areas where flames had touched and then went out or danced on.
We weren’t seeing the big areas where the ground was turned to white ash and the standing trees nothing but skeletal remains. It was obviously a gamble worth taking.