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Thwarting wildfire remains a county objective

Funding from PG&E will target vegetation management

By Chris Rooney

Earlier this year, Sonoma County announced it would utilize funds secured from PG& E to target vegetation management and fire prevention efforts in areas vulnerable to wildfires — most notably, in Sonoma Valley, the Trinity ridgeline, Gordenker Ranch, Nuns Canyon, and Bennett Ridge.

At a recent North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC) meeting, Kim Batchelder, the county’s vegetation management coordinator, explained that fire prevention and vegetation management are an ongoing issue being addressed by county officials. Batchelder, who has been with Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space) for more than a decade, later fielded questions pertaining to what residents can expect as far as local measures to thwart future wildfire damage.

Batchelder explained that Sonoma County sued PG& E, whose equipment was responsible for igniting the 2017 Nuns Fire, for damages, and a settlement was reached in 2020 for $149 million. The Board of Supervisors set aside $25 million for vegetation management-related activities.

In the fall of 2020, a group called CLEE (Center for Law Environment and Energy, out of UC Berkeley’s School of Law) helped local and regional experts determine the best way to use the funds and prepared recommendations for the supervisors, who adopted the recommendations in March 2021. The first action the CLEE report proposed, Batchelder said, was devoting $8 million to a vegetation management grant program in the first two years, providing funding to communities around the county recovering from wildfires or interested in mitigating wildfire via vegetation treatments.

In June 2021, 19 projects were selected by an independent panel of experts and county departments, for a total cost of $3.65 million. Ag + Open Space was asked to manage the program, and Batchelder “stepped in to finalize the grant agreements with those 19 applicants in June.” In September 2021, he was named vegetation management coordinator at Ag + Open Space and charged with managing the program and assisting in “coordinating the county’s efforts in becoming a more wildfire-resilient community.”

To determine how the funds should be spent, Batchelder formed a technical advisory committee (TAC), composed of specialists in vegetation management, environmental compliance, resource protection, and wildfire mitigation from county agencies, as well as experts in prescribed fire and emergency response, including representatives from CAL FIRE, the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Sonoma Ecology Center, and Fire Forward. “I proposed criteria to help us select the best project proposals for the 2022 grant cycle … We awarded grants to 28 new projects in 2022.”

Going forward, Batchelder explained the TAC is “helping apply the CLEE report recommendations and provide guidance to the supervisors on how the remainder of the PG& E funds should be used over the next couple of years. We hope to provide our recommendations to the Board by the end of the year.”

Addressing how the vegetation management program may alleviate fears among residents wary of the next conflagration, Batchelder said the PG& E funds have been invested in projects on the ground, including “community chipper programs, roadside clearance projects to improve access and evacuation routes, landscape-scale projects like creating shaded fuelbreaks along prominent ridges to protect communities, extensions of prescribed burn treatments, and prescriptive grazing to allow more landowners to reduce fuels so that wildfire threat is reduced.”

In addition, funds have been invested in “distribution of emergency radios to disadvantaged communities, defensible space clearance on tribal lands, and the development of a Sonoma County-specific Vegetation Management Handbook on Principles and Practices for landowners, resource managers, and crews,” he said.

Some funding has also been invested into developing tools like the Fuel Mapper (led by Pepperwood Preserve, Sonoma Water, and UCCE) and the Wildfire Resilience Planner (led by Sonoma Water and UCCE) “to help us prioritize our actions and target our treatments specifically to areas with the highest wildfire risk,” Batchelder added.

So far, 46 grants have been funded over two years countywide, at a cost of $8.3 million. “Some of these projects are going through the environmental compliance analysis in order to have a larger and longer impact on the ground,” Batchelder said. “It is a process called the California Vegetation Treatment Program (Cal-VTP) – and is essentially a state-sponsored environmental impact report that focuses on fuel treatment projects statewide. [It] will take about six to eight months to complete the cultural and environmental surveys; then [the projects] will be implemented next spring and summer.”

The TAC will be providing recommendations to the supervisors in November to determine if a third year of grants will be offered. Also, the committee “is helping Permit Sonoma to roll out the Hazardous Fuel Mitigation program funded by a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grant. The lessons learned from our Vegetation Management Grant Program have been instrumental in helping us to determine the best way to use those federal funds across the county,” Batchelder said, noting more information on that program is forthcoming — hopefully this fall.

The ultimate goal of the vegetation management program is to ensure county residents “are not facing this fear every year,” he said. The biggest challenge is uniting private and public entities to work together to create a healthier landscape and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Workshops and education play a role in “getting our ducks in a row right now.”

For the longest time — more than 100 years — vegetation has been allowed to grow unchecked, creating ideal circumstances for wildfire, and those conditions “will take some time to fix,” Batchelder said. If he could turn back time, he added, he would have encouraged spacing out trees and addressing invasive species of trees such as eucalyptus.

Batchelder cited the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative for its efforts and said projects such as “grazing” (using goats and other animals) along the Highway 12 corridor between Skyhawk and Oakmont have already proven effective in stopping potentially devastating fires from spreading.

Batchelder also suggested residents utilize a Fuel Mapper website (toolkit.climate.gov/ tool/sonoma-county-wildfire-fuel-mapper) to review their personal circumstances in regards to fire safety. Property owners can plug in an address or area to learn of fire dangers, as well as safety routes. “It will help them understand if they are in a high-risk zone and what to do, down to the parcel level,” he said.

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