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Fighting Fire with Innovative Partnerships

By Adrian Rehn

In 2019, wildfires continue to threaten our quality of life here in California. Annual wildfire-related deaths grew tenfold between 2016 and 2018. Toxic smoke from these fires threatens public health and economic activity. Fire suppression, past logging practices, and climate change have turned forests into vast thickets of tinder, ripe for the next devastating mega-fire. And the fires are getting worse.

It’s critical that decision-makers see and understand this problem – and potential solutions – firsthand. On June 28th, The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), our region’s transportation and land use planning agency, hosted an excursion for regional elected officials and partner agencies to learn about wildfire and forest management projects across El Dorado County. The day-long tour was organized by David Shabazian, project lead for the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS), and an important accompaniment to SACOG’s toolset for boosting rural economies and preserving natural lands.

El Dorado County Supervisor Brian Veerkamp, a fifth generation county resident and former fire chief, guided our tour bus past expansive thickets of brush on our way north from our launch point at Apple Hill past Coloma and Georgetown. Supervisor Veerkamp acknowledged that many residents use these small trees and underbrush to maintain privacy, but affirmed that the biomass “needs to be removed in order to protect us all.”

Our first stop was at the UC Berkeley-run Blodgett Forest Research Station, where Station Manager Dr. Robert York steered us through several sections of forest where researchers test controlled burning, vegetation management, and approaches to regrowth across nearly 4,400 acres. For over 50 years, research at Blodgett has been largely funded through the annual sale of timber harvested sustainably on its grounds. It is the only research site of its kind in California, and has produced over 400 publications on fire ecology, atmospheric chemistry, hydrology, and more.

The King Fire in 2014 scorched over 97,000 acres of El Dorado County forestland.

In 2014, the King Fire burned nearly 9% of the total area of El Dorado County. Our second stop on the tour was to a sobering viewpoint of the King Fire “burn scar” further along Wentworth Springs Road, where the soil is gray and blackened trees dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Soil scientist Marie Davis explained the devastating after-effects that fires have on watersheds, like nutrient-rich topsoil getting washed into rivers, which slows recovery and clogs up dam infrastructure.

Our final stop was at Big Hill Lookout northwest of Kyburz, where we were treated to a view of SMUD’s Upper American River Project, which generates hydropower via an extensive series of lakes, dams, and powerhouses. The project generates 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year – 15% of Sacramento County’s total power demand.

There are other innovative forest management efforts right here in our region that serve as important models for replication or expansion. The French Meadows Project brings together the Placer County Water Agency, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, County of Placer, American River Conservancy, and UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute to restore forests and protect water supply on 27,000 acres of mainly U.S. Forest Service-owned land in Placer County. The project, nested within the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative, is funded by a shared investment from the federal government through the Forest Service, state government through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and local sources like PCWA, the County of Placer, and private donors. French Meadows’ unique partnership and governance model is allowing the restoration project to advance rapidly to an implementation stage and serve as a model for accelerating ecologically-based forest management across the Sierra Nevada.

Big Hill Lookout near Kyburz was a great viewing place to see the network of lakes and dams that make up SMUD’s Upper American River Project.

Oregon-based Blue Forest Conservation has also introduced a unique partnership and financing model to fund a forest restoration pilot project in 15,000 acres across the North Yuba River watershed. Blue Forest and the World Resources Institute developed a Forest Resilience Bond powered by private capital, which funds the upfront costs of restoration while the Yuba Water Agency and others reimburse investors over time. The result of this financing model is a $4.6 Million project that can begin implementation rapidly with in-kind permitting and planning support from Tahoe National Forest personnel. Both the French Meadows and North Yuba River projects benefit from new collaborations between partners that haven’t historically worked together, unique and flexible financing models that allow for earlier implementation, and the latest scientific findings about treating forests in an ecological manner.

Thanks to David Shabazian for organizing the tour, as well as his team at SACOG who helped put the excursion together – Lynnea Ormiston, Christina Lokke, Rosie Ramos, Renée DeVere-Oki, Kacey Lizon, and CEO James Corless. Thanks also to the tour sponsors – Sierra Nevada Conservancy, SMUD, El Dorado Irrigation District, and Sierra Pacific Industries. To keep up with Valley Vision’s work to advance livability in the Sacramento region, subscribe to our Vantage Point email newsletter!

Adrian Rehn is a Valley Vision Project Manager overseeing the Cleaner Air Partnership and Valley Vision’s online communications.