The unusually strong August lightning storm that sparked fires across California included 20 ignitions on the Mt. Hough Ranger District of the Plumas National Forest. Several of these merged to become the North Complex, the second-largest Sierra Nevada fire and the deadliest in all of California in 2020.
The destruction of the 2020 fire season was neither uniform nor completely random. In places where public and private partners had already completed work to improve forest health, fires appeared to burn in less dangerous and destructive ways. Nearly a decade prior to the North Complex Fire, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy awarded a grant to the Plumas County Fire Safe Council to thin overgrown forests and create defensible space on 20 properties totaling 172 acres near Quincy, California. The project complemented existing work by the Plumas County Fire Safe Council and created a 2.5-mile-long buffer of fire resilient forests along Quincy-La Porte Rd.
Without these strategic restoration efforts, the North Complex may have destroyed more homes when the fire made a run out of the Middle Fork Feather River drainage. Despite the intense, fast-moving fire burning through the project area and across nearby Highway 70, no lives or homes were lost. In a letter to the Plumas County Fire Safe Council, Plumas National Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton explained the importance of these fuel reduction projects to their firefighting efforts:
“Indirect fireline was incomplete and we were forced to implement both an evacuation plan and structure protection plan. Hundreds of spot fires ignited throughout the community. Fuels reduction treatments completed as part of the La Porte Road project reduced the intensity of the fire as it burned through the community, allowing firefighters to safely remain in the area despite extreme fire behavior and lack of aerial firefighting resources. Given the short time that firefighters had to prepare, and the limited resources available, there is no doubt the excellent work done by the Plumas County Fire Safe Council was critical to the successful defense of all homes in the area.”
For Hannah Hepner, the Plumas County Fire Safe Council Coordinator, the difference their work made during the North Complex Fire is immensely gratifying.
“This is why we do the work,” she remarked discussing the homes saved from the fire. “Every community in our rural county is in the wildland urban interface, and we’re surrounded by a million acres of public land. The scope of the effort is immense, but our organization and our partners are committed to improving the health of local forests.
Through the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), we quickly and effectively put money on the ground to restore resilience to the forested landscapes and communities in the Sierra Nevada. Read more about our work through the WIP in our 2020 Annual Report.