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Wildfire Preparation and Air Monitoring Efforts Heat Up

On Friday, August 30th in Sacramento, local leaders heard new eye-opening statistics about the state of California’s forests. Compared to last year’s 1.2 million acres burned in wildfires across the state, this year has been far less destructive, with less than 5% of 2018’s fire-scarred acreage burned so far in 2019. With under four months to go before 2020, there is hope that we can continue to manage wildfires at the current pace and save lives in the process.

Every three months, the Valley Vision-managed Cleaner Air Partnership gathers business leaders, agency representatives, environmental advocates, elected officials, and others to discuss pressing topics in the air quality space. On August 30th at the Sacramento Regional Builders’ Exchange (SRBX), 55 attendees had a conversation about the State of California’s wildfire preparation efforts and received an update on implementation of Community Air Protection efforts (also known as AB 617) in the South Sacramento – Florin area. A full video of the gathering can be viewed here.

The meeting kicked off with an update from Pat Shelby, a resident of the South Sacramento community where Florin Road crosses Highway 99. This community faces deep environmental inequities related to air pollution in particular, and last year was designated one of ten AB 617 implementation communities across the state. AB 617 (also known as the ‘Community Air Protection Program’) empowers residents to take ownership of air monitoring and community investments meant to alleviate environmental injustices. Currently, Pat serves as Vice Chair on the Community Steering Committee which is guiding deployment of air monitors and working toward a Community Air Monitoring Plan, in partnership with the local Sac Metro Air District, to be informed by the monitoring data. The Committee meets monthly and the public is encouraged to attend. You can find more information, including an upcoming meeting schedule on the Sac Metro Air District website.

A Steering Committee of South Sacramento – Florin residents is guiding clean air investments to improve air quality and to alleviate environmental injustices.

A panel of wildfire and forest management experts then took the stage: Supervisor Brian Veerkamp, representing the County of El Dorado; Evan Johnson, Executive Officer at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and head of the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery; John Melvin, Staff Chief for Resource Protection & Improvement at CAL FIRE; and Matthew Reischman, Assistant Deputy Director for Resource Protection & Improvement at CAL FIRE. Matthew provided the following eye-opening wildfire statistics from January 1st to August 26th:

  • In 2018, there were 5,300 fires across the State
  • In 2019 so far, there has been a total fire count of 4,200 fires, which is shaping up to be a similar total to 2018
  • In 2018, 1.2 million acres burned statewide
  • So far 2019, only 55,000 acres have burned (27,000 acres in the state responsibility area, and 28,000 on federal land)
  • Typically, CAL FIRE keeps 95% of wildfires on state-managed land to 10 acres burned or less

Of course, this begs the question – why are we in such better shape this year compared to last? Panelists provided a number of reasons for the improvements. This year Governor Newsom and the Legislature provided CAL FIRE with additional fire suppression resources and aircraft to combat fires. Our state continuously setting records for its worst historical fire season over the past five years has resulted in a deeper awareness of catastrophic wildfire and the danger it poses. Two “wet years” following an extended drought period increase health of trees and surrounding vegetation. Deeper snow pack combined with late spring rains have shortened the fire season, and we have been lucky with a comparative lack of high winds so far this year.

But luck isn’t enough, and state agencies and localities are moving rapidly to build resilience and to prepare. Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-05-19 on January 9, 2019, which directed CAL FIRE, in consultation with other state agencies and departments, to recommend immediate, medium and long-term actions to help prevent destructive wildfires. CAL FIRE identified 35 priority fuels reduction projects across the state to be completed before the end of 2019, a map of which can be found here.

Evan Johnson’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery authored a final report that includes recommendations to revise existing utility liability provisions, establish a wildfire fund, and take action on cost recovery and wildfire insurance.

El Dorado County Supervisor Brian Veerkamp and a panel of forest management experts provided an overview of state and local wildfire abatement efforts.

The State of California is also in the process of pulling together a shared stewardship agreement with the federal government. CAL FIRE, the Governor’s Office, and U.S. Forest Service Region 5 officials are in talks to finalize this agreement, which will outline responsibilities of the state and the U.S. Forest Service. It will include everything from fuel break work to capacity-building and finding new uses for wood products. Workforce development and new strategies to elevate rural economies are deeply interwoven with this process.

Supervisor Veerkamp affirmed the need for homeowner education. In 2018, the State codified Public Resources Code 4291, which includes mandates for properties on forested or mountainous lands. Unfortunately, only a small minority of El Dorado County residents are aware of these laws. In line with PRC 4291, El Dorado County passed a mandatory vegetation management ordinance which crosses property lines – with vegetation required to be kept at a minimum of 100 feet from structures that will burn.

In August, the Governor announced Listos California, a new $50 Million statewide effort to build resiliency from the ground up in vulnerable communities at high risk for wildfires and other disasters, with Valley Vision serving as the support team.

John Melvin summed it up well – “the state has committed $200 Million toward wildfire preparation every year for the next five years. Can we continue to spend $200 Million annually to do this work?” In order to continue to treat overgrown forests at risk of wildfire and to ensure markets for the debris that is generated, commercialization becomes a priority and an avenue to real change. If we work together to find innovative solutions, perhaps we can make certain that this work gets done.

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 managing the Cleaner Air Partnership and Valley Vision’s online communications.

Fighting Fire with Innovative Partnerships

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.

Valley Vision Staff Cook Meals for Camp Fire Victims

In the immediate wake of the Camp Fire, several organizations arrived in Butte County to support those facing life with an overwhelming amount of uncertainty. World Central Kitchen, founded in 2010 by Chef José Andrés, was one of the first organizations on scene providing support. For the last several weeks, chefs around California and beyond have rallied to leverage commercial kitchen spaces in making a difference.

World Central Kitchen (WCK) made headlines previously when disaster hit Haiti and Puerto Rico, as well as during the Mendocino Complex and Carr Fires earlier in the year. They have established a reputation now as the tenacious non-profit known for being the go-to organization to feed thousands in the wake of natural disasters. When it became apparent the Camp Fire was going to be yet another wildfire for the record books, WCK made its way up to Northern California to set up a facility. With Paradise only a short drive away and so many people affected, the staff at Valley Vision immediately wanted to find a way to help. In less than a day Project Associates Sonia Duenas, Yzabelle Dela Cruz, and myself registered as volunteers and made our way to Chico, California the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

We arrived in Chico around 11 am and immediately took notice of the blackened hills and fire lines coming right up to the freeway pavement. The smoke was heavy, and not much could be seen past the few cars in front of us. In both directions we passed more than a dozen Cal Fire Trucks, dusty and grayish-red as they returned back down Highway 99, horse trailers packed with animals being transported to makeshift animal shelters, Red Cross disaster vans, pedestrian vehicles noticeably loaded with supplies, bags of clothing, and food, and regular families probably leaving the only home they’ve known. It was a leveling experience just coming into the area. However, once we arrived at the WCK headquarters, the tone instantly changed. What a few moments ago felt so dire, was replaced with a bustling group of cheerful and smiling WCK volunteers that immediately welcomed us and directed us to a station. The Red Cross had just arrived to pick up what was probably lunch, and there was a line of people loading up cambros and sack lunches into the disaster vans. After a quick tour of the facility and run down of tasks to be completed, we made our way across the parking lot to the kitchen to help prep food for the dinner shift. Chef Dominic Orsini, head chef from Silver Oak Winery, greeted us at the door and immediately led all three of us outside to a table with 5 large boxes of Spanish onions that needed to be sliced up for dinner.

“Can you cut onions?”

Slightly intimidated we each quickly grabbed an onion, rubbed off the outer layer of dried peels, sliced off the nubby little ends, and julienned the little herbaceous plants as fast as we could.

“Great! Get started”. And like that, we were off.

For the rest of the day, we were flying around the kitchen, working alongside the many other World Central Kitchen staff, the Silver Oak Kitchen team and other volunteers. As Kerrie Jacobson, a representative from Chef Tyler Florence’s team, was moving back and forth hastily making chimichurri sauce for the dinner meal and simultaneously making batches of quinoa, several of us were outside braising beef chuck on large paella pans. Time flew by as we shared stories about where we were from and why we had come to participate. We met several amazing people including Carrie, a massage therapist who had driven all the way from Santa Rosa to lend her hands, and Joe, a Red Cross organizer who had flown in from Connecticut to help with the relief efforts. Together we were able to prepare over 2,500 dinner meals for Camp Fire victims.

Returning to the car covered in sweat and kitchen debris, we couldn’t help but feel completely humbled and inspired by our time spent with World Central Kitchen. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we watched as the Red Cross vans departed down the road with the meals for delivery, hopefully to bring some comfort to those in need. The experience was one of a kind, and aside from the unfortunate circumstances, Sonia, Yzabelle, and I were grateful that we were able to participate in something so impactful.

Emma Koefoed is a Valley Vision Project Associate contributing to the 21st Century Workforce and Food and Agriculture impact areas. 

Building Business Resiliency in Wildfire-Risk Communities

Business resiliency is of vital importance to businesses themselves, and to the communities of which they’re a part. Recognizing that, Valley Vision and partner Sierra Business Council recently brought business resiliency workshops to small businesses in two rural communities in the Sierra Nevada, Sonora and Grass Valley. The workshops, funded by a grant from PG&E, are designed to inform and motivate small business owners and leaders to put plans in place for their businesses in the event of wildfire (or other) disasters.

The workshops are based on Valley Vision’s existing Business Resiliency Toolkit, which provides an easy-to-use, step-wise process way for small businesses develop their own business resiliency plan. Throughout, the Toolkit directs business owner/operators to respected existing resources, such as Kaiser’s Hazard Vulnerability Assessment tool, to most effectively get their disaster planning work done.

The resilience of small businesses is increasingly important to communities for several interconnected reasons:

  • First, thirty-years of national data show that natural disasters are increasing in frequency, severity, damage, and unpredictability. And as we saw all too clearly with events in late 2017, the drought and pest damage to our wildlands is resulting in wildfires of greater intensity and ferocity than ever before.
  • Next, research consistently shows that small businesses are the least prepared for, and the least able to recover from, disasters that strike, whether community-based, like a wildfire, or localized, like a building fire. After an event that causes small businesses to close unexpectedly for five days, 40-60% never reopen.
  • Additionally, small businesses contribute the majority of employment and wages in communities across the country. Particularly in more self-contained rural towns, the small business community is the backbone of local economies – so broad-based small business closures can have significant and long-lasting impacts to the economic health of those communities.

For these reasons, and others, Valley Vision and Sierra Business Council teamed up with local chambers of commerce, and PG&E’s financial support, to bring the Disaster-Proof Your Business Workshop to Sonora and Grass Valley.

In a half-day format, small business owner/operators learned from experts about the five steps of the Business Resiliency Toolkit.

  1. Understand Your Risks and Your Environment
  2. Assess Your Readiness
  3. Take Action
  4. Test and Update Your Plan
  5. Engage with Community Resiliency Efforts

Because the Toolkit is designed to help businesses prepare for a disaster of any type, Valley Vision and Sierra Business Council also developed wildfire-specific recommended actions.

For more information about the Toolkit or the Disaster-Proof Your Business workshop, please contact us!

Meg Arnold is Managing Director of Valley Vision, leading the Clean Economy and Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategies.

707 Is Rising

Region Rising.  That’s what Valley Vision branded our first-ever regional town hall back in 2015, produced with our government partner SACOG.

But it wasn’t this innovative conference that drew 1,000 participants that kept coming to my mind at last week’s California Economic Summit in San Diego.  It was a single region.  The counties of Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Lake, and Solano now working jointly.  People and institutions rising after the wildfires that killed 43, destroyed 8,400 structures, and laid waste to a land mass equal to the size of 13 cities – each the size of San Francisco.

A special session organized by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore one evening drew dozens of political and business leaders from across the state, matched by their own school, business, government and community service leadership.  We sat in a circle, looking eye-to-eye at each other, seeking to understand the extent of the damage to lives and property, and what was needed next.  The stories were riveting.

One story hit me deeply:  A mother admonishing her teenage son on his way home from college to keep his eyes on the road when driving down Highway 101.  The devastation is so jarring, drivers get fixated on the apocalyptic scene, lose track of where they are, and crash into each other.  Another: A wife and husband, already struggling to make ends meet, pay their mortgage bill this month on a house that is now an ash heap.

While you couldn’t help but be deeply moved by countless stories of personal loss and suffering, the conversation didn’t stay there long.  The focus instead was on action.

Attending as a friend of Sonoma County leaders and as co-chair of the California Stewardship Network, it was clear to me that this is not a disaster impacting a few, but instead thousands.  Area residents are making decisions now (or over the next few weeks) about whether they will stay and rebuild their lives or leave the area or even the state. I asked Supervisor Gore, “How are you and others staying in touch with residents to know their needs and to make decisions based on real-time information?”

His response drew the room quiet, “Our first action was to teach community organizing,” he said.  “In town hall meetings attended by hundreds of people across the fire-impacted areas we placed big blown-up maps of the cities on easels and trained people to organize at the block level to form a support network,” Gore explained.  Neighbors selected their own leaders to support and serve them.  People stepped up. Communication is disseminated instantly using Facebook or Twitter… emerging needs are raised.  “It’s just how we do things in Sonoma County,” Supervisor Gore said matter-of-factly.  “I stay in touch with these new community leaders – we all do…” as he looked around the room.

In the wake of events like these, I was reminded again of the very best aspects of humankind.  Selfless acts.  Neighbor helping neighbor.  Government moving smartly and swiftly to provide the right safety net services to those who need it most, coordinating closely with nonprofits doing the same.  Businesses mobilizing and rebuilding, providing both the philanthropy and investment capital necessary for forward progress.  More real-world proof of the power of networks to improve people’s lives.

The devastation is also driving unprecedented conversations and collaboration across city and county boundaries.  California, the nation-state, is actually a state of regions – areas with distinct but connected economies, transportation networks, workforce, and food systems, all interlaced.  It’s a truth upon which the California Economic Summit is based and policy advanced.

I witnessed this again and again over two days with my peers from across California on affordable housing, water and workforce, punctuated this year by new needs rising from the wine country fires.  These local leaders aren’t talking about rebuilding communities that once were, but instead seizing this awful moment to accelerate well-thought-out plans that pre-existed the fires to transform their communities to be more prosperous, just and sustainable – but 5-15 years faster than earlier envisioned.  They need the State’s help to do so, and the State is responding.

We will see this on display when the California Economic Summit is held in Sonoma County next fall.  They will have much to teach us about resiliency.

James Gore ended the meeting with a comment that this region might be called “707” for short after the area code that covers them all.  Short.  Memorable.  Everyone smiled.

707 is rising.

Bill Mueller was Chief Executive of Valley Vision.