After back-to-back devastating wildfire seasons, this year’s annual Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP) Summit brought together California’s top leaders, scientists, and community and tribal leaders to discuss wildfire recovery strategies that can help communities and landscapes not only recover from recent fires, but also become more resilient to major disturbances in the future.
“If you look at this last decade, from my view, it’s terrifying and I think from the people who live and work in the region it’s a little bit terrifying,” said Angela Avery, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen more than 2 million acres burn in the Sierra Nevada. Two fires, including the Dixie Fire, which is the largest single-source fire in California’s history, have burned up and over the crest of the Sierra Nevada.”
Hugh Safford, former regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and current chief scientist for Vibrant Planet, agreed. He added, however, it’s more about how severe recent wildfires are burning and less about the overall acreage burning.
The increase in wildfire severity and more people moving into rural, forested areas are why real solutions for post-fire recovery, as part of a broader forest and community resilience strategy, are so crucial. As the panel discussed, recovery is not about simply replacing trees, it’s also about landscape scale forest restoration, water-supply protection, strategic reforestation, rapid expansion of wood-utilization infrastructure, and support for community-led initiatives.
Essentially, that means thinning overly dense forests through fuel-reduction projects and using prescribed fire to create a more resilient landscape—both before and after wildfire. It also means applying these and other management strategies to protect our valuable water supply. Large burned areas have less shade cover to protect the snowpack, and exposed soil means that more dirt and silt enter our waterways when it rains.
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) is investigating how megafires like the Dixie Fire impact the state’s water supply and how preventive and response measures can protect and restore watersheds.
In the southern Sierra, severe wildfire has exacerbated record tree mortality brought on by drought, disease, and insect infestations. In fact, tree mortality rates in the southern Sierra Nevada are already at levels that several scientific studies predicted would not occur until 2070 or 2080. To restore impacted landscapes and protect our remaining forests, land managers have to focus their efforts on much bigger tracts of land than ever before.
Considering the 27-million-acre Sierra Nevada and Cascade region is home to more than 75 percent of the state’s drinking water, 60 percent of state’s animal species, 50 percent of our state’s forest carbon, and countless rural towns and communities, protecting and restoring this region is paramount for all Californians.
That may seem like a daunting task with high-severity wildfires on the rise, along with other major forest stressors in a changing climate, such as drought, bark beetle, and disease.
Yet, the state and federal government recently pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to wildfire resilience and recovery throughout the Golden State. Many have called this new funding a “game changer.” But as Jonathan Kusel, executive director at the Sierra Institute of Community and Environment, pointed out, only if it is used “wisely” to not only benefit the landscape, but also local economies. That means investing in community capacity-building and wood utilization infrastructure in the rural Sierra Nevada.
Kusel referenced a new sawmill his organization helped reopen in Plumas County as an example.
Other fire-impacted communities have identified different needs. Dirk Charley, the tribal liaison for the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and a tribal liaison for the U.S. Forest Service, urged inclusivity in recovery investments.
With more available funding, valuable partners in place to get the necessary work done, and confidence that the funds will be invested in prudent, holistic, and inclusive projects, Avery concluded by stating she is hopeful for the future.
“We are not powerless in the face of these huge challenges,” she said. “With action, we can help restore the resilience of our landscapes and protect the myriad values they offer.”