Commentary: Wildfires underline need for active forest management


Issue Date: August 28, 2013
By Elisa Noble
An air tanker drops fire retardant on the American Fire in Placer County,
Photo/ Courtesy U.S. Forest Service
Wood chippers from the Placer County Resource Conservation District, have been used to help create containment lines around the American fire.
Photo/ Courtesy Placer County Resource Conservation District
Elisa Noble-Comment

Anyone driving from the Central Valley to the Sierra knows that this year's fire season is in full swing.

The American Fire in the Tahoe National Forest area of Placer County is one of at least four wildfires currently burning along the Sierra Nevada range. At more than 20,200 acres and 66 percent contained as of press time, we are gratified that firefighters are getting close to mopping this one up. But other fires, such as the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County, continue to rampage (see story).

The American Fire is burning in steep, rugged terrain that is grossly overstocked with trees and underbrush. Fire history maps show that only about 2 percent of the area has burned in the last 100 years or so. While the terrain is too rugged to manage economically for timber harvest, there are other fuel treatments that could be utilized. Prescribed fire and strategically placed fuel breaks would help minimize the damage that occurs when a wildfire does break out.

Private lands are interspersed over about 10 percent of the area that has burned. Most of these areas have been actively managed for timber harvest or other uses and therefore have slowed the speed of the fire. While this helped firefighters contain the fire, it also harmed those areas being managed as commercial timberland.

The Placer County Resource Conservation District is actively involved in forest management and fuels reduction work at both the policy level and through on-the-ground projects. We are directly connected to the American Fire in two ways: Our forestry chippers are being utilized on site, and the northwest edge of the fire burned to the top of Deadwood Ridge, which is the location of one of our current fuel-break projects.

The Placer County RCD Chipper Program provides a low-cost, curbside chipping service to help landowners reduce fire hazards by creating defensible space and converting large brush piles that would otherwise be burned into small, biodegradable chips useful for mulching or landscaping.

As the American Fire attack ramped up, we had the opportunity to contract two of our forestry chippers for the effort to establish containment lines around the fire. Once the location of the containment lines is determined, hand crews begin cutting brush and trees to remove the available fuel for the advancing fire. Our chippers are then used to reduce this fuel to wood chips, which are significantly less flammable.

At the more strategic level, Placer County RCD partners with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to plan and implement fuel breaks. As an RCD, we can efficiently contract with state and federal agencies to get funding to work on the ground.

Fire season reminds us that we all have a responsibility to create and maintain landscape-level forest fuel management. Forest management is increasingly important as our population grows and more homes are built in and around forests. Citizens have a responsibility to safeguard their personal residences and be involved in community wildfire planning and natural resource management.

In Placer County, much of the landscape is forested, and 90 percent of the parcels are 10 acres or smaller. As a result, outreach, education and technical assistance for rural landowners are particularly important for reducing wildfire risk and protecting natural resources.

As less commercial timber is available for harvest from the national forests, communities are investigating other types of forest management that can contribute to the rural economy and community. Just last week, the Placer County RCD helped facilitate a community discussion in Foresthill—a community 10 miles southwest of the American Fire—about the potential of locating a biomass facility in the area. Speakers provided information on how other communities in the Sierra are advancing similar projects. Tom Quinn, forest supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, expressed support for converting the large piles of biomass that currently exist as a liability into a revenue generator.

Managed forests provide many benefits for the environment, species and communities. Healthy forests produce renewable resources in the form of wood and paper products. Young, managed forests optimize carbon sequestration in their trees and reduce the threat of wildfire that harms air quality. After harvest, wood products continue to store that carbon, unlike other materials such as steel, concrete and plastic. Managed forests also provide renewable energy resources that can be utilized in biomass plants.

Healthy forests make more water accessible, because water is not being sucked out of the ground by overly dense trees. Watersheds are healthier and water quality improves because managed trees stabilize the soil and filter water runoff. Healthy forests also help maintain biodiversity across the landscape, as a variety of plants and animals are able to thrive.

How healthy forest management is accomplished at the local level will look different in every community. We encourage you to work with your local resource conservation district and learn how you can be involved in creating healthy forests and employing other land management practices to conserve our natural resources.

(Elisa Noble is executive director of the Placer County Resource Conservation District in Auburn. She may be contacted at elisa@placercountyrcd.org.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.