Vegetation management, controlled burning could begin this month
Million-dollar grant secured from Cal Fire
By Sarah C. Phelps
Cal Fire has awarded a $1,055,575 grant to a group of six private organizations and public agencies responsible for approximately 18,000 acres of land stretching from eastern Santa Rosa through Agua Caliente, enabling them to undertake more proactive fuel reduction work on their properties over the next two years.
The Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative is made up of Audubon Canyon Ranch (which manages Bouverie Preserve), California State Parks (which manages Jack London, Sugarloaf and Trione-Annadel state parks), Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District (which manages Calabazas Creek Preserve), Sonoma County Regional Parks (which manages Sonoma Valley, Hood Mountain and North Sonoma Mountain regional parks), Sonoma Land Trust (which manages Glen Oaks Ranch), and Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation (which manages Mitsui Ranch).
The collaborative is working with Cal Fire to implement strategic vegetation management projects that aim to reduce the impacts of future wildfires by decreasing fire fuel build up, thereby protecting communities, and improving ecosystem health and resilience to wildfire.
“All of the collaborative’s lands connect to the Sonoma Valley directly or indirectly,” said Cyndy Shafer, natural resource program manager for California State Parks-Bay Area District. “By working together, we can help protect communities while, at the same time, improve ecological health on a landscape scale.” A regional approach makes sense because fire knows no property boundaries or jurisdictional lines.
All of the collaborative’s Sonoma Valley properties sustained some degree of fire damage during the October 2017 Nuns Fire, which burned 56,556 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
Planned projects include reducing hazardous fuels through tree and brush thinning, reducing “ladder fuels” to prevent crown fires, clearing along roadways to improve access for emergency personnel, installing shaded fuel breaks, and executing controlled burns.
“Embarking on these activities was dependent on securing funding and we are so pleased to receive this grant from Cal Fire,” said Tony Nelson, Sonoma Valley program manager for Sonoma Land Trust (SLT). Acting as the fiscal agent for the group, SLT was notified of the grant award on April 16. “All of us have been doing vegetation management for a long time, but funding for this level of large scale management hasn’t been available for a long time in the Bay Area,” said Nelson in a later interview.
This is also an opportunity for work to get done more quickly and easily than ever before in the past. “The bulk of these lands burned, so we are starting the clock at zero plus one,” said Nelson, referring to the idea that fuel loads were cleared out in the Nuns Fire and haven’t significantly grown up again yet. “This allows us to get a lot more done easier and for less money than if we waited. This is a critical time. We will be able to make more progress in two years than we have in eight years before.”
Timing is especially important when trying to control invasive plant species like French broom, knobcone pine or yellow star thistle, all invasive species in Sonoma Valley.
“Burning stimulates all seeds in a seed bank,” said Nelson, “so now in this second year, land managers can go back and burn again – or use another type of control mechanism (i.e. pulling by hand) – and really get a lot out before [the plant] has the time to disperse seeds.”
Jeff Wilcox, managing ecologist for Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation, which owns the 632-acre Mitsui Ranch on the top of Sonoma Mountain, has seen how this works firsthand in his battle against the invasive Medusahead grass, which he has successfully controlled through grazing and controlled burning. “It really does work, if we time it right.” Wilcox said he has seen a controlled burn knock out 95 to 98 percent of the grass – and documented a biodiversity jump right after burning.
Beginning this month, if conditions are favorable, Calabazas Creek Preserve, Mitsui Ranch, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, Glen Oaks Ranch and neighboring Bouverie Preserve will all host controlled burns conducted by Cal Fire through its statewide Vegetation Management Program. The collaborative will notify neighbors before controlled burns occur. Jack London, Sugarloaf and Trione-Annadel state parks are also in the planning stages, but controlled burns will not be conducted there this year, according to Shafer.
In spring 2017, less than six months before the Nuns Fire broke out, Bouverie Preserve had conducted a controlled burn on its land – the first there in almost a decade. When fire ripped through the preserve in October, Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward Program Director, got to see how the controlled burn had changed the fire’s behavior. Outside the areas that had undergone the controlled burn, the fire burned much hotter and created more damage, said Berleman. By using regular, controlled burning as a management tool, Audubon Canyon Ranch hopes to document effects the burns have on ecological diversity and fuel loads in hopes of developing a best practices document for wildland vegetation management – and perhaps a model for responsible fuels management and ecosystem resiliency that can be replicated throughout the region.
In Sonoma Valley Regional Park, which was entirely burned in the Nuns Fire, one of the top priorities, likely to start next winter, is creating a shaded fuel break on the northwest boundary of the park, meant to protect the Carmel Avenue area and surrounding neighborhood. Fuel breaks – selective vegetation thinning in a strip of land – work to slow a fire down, said Jen Stanfield, park program supervisor for Sonoma County Regional Parks. This gives responding emergency services more time, and also reduces the intensity of the burn.
Projects at Hood Mountain aren’t slated to begin until 2021 and will include right of way clearing along the approximately one-mile paved section of Pythian Road to give emergency personnel easier ingress and egress, as well as thinning and shaded fuel breaks.
Also next winter, California State Parks will be focusing on Sudden Oak Death fuel reduction work in Jack London State Historic Park, following up on work State Parks did in 2014 and 2015. “We will also be working with Jack London Park Partners to thin eucalyptus groves in the park to significantly reduce the risk of a canopy fire and also restore the groves to a more open, historically-accurate condition,” said Shafer.
This will also be true in Trione-Annadel State Park, specifically near Lawndale Trail, eliminating the fire risk of those eucalyptus trees in the park and to the adjacent Oakmont community. Cal Fire grant monies also cover access road clearing, shaded fuel breaks, understory thinning and ladder fuel treatments in those parks.
Grant funds will stretch over the next three years, but the collaborative was conceived as a 10-year partnership, said Nelson, and will need to continue well beyond that. “The vegetation doesn’t stop growing and fires aren’t going to stop coming.”
“From SLT’s perspective, I would like to see fire reclaim its ecological role in the landscape,” said Nelson. Native Americans deliberately used fire to improve foraging conditions and visibility for hunting, and the evolution of our plant communities is a direct result of this management tool. But a culture of fire repression in California – putting any fire out completely as soon as it starts – has contributed to a cycle of “fire repression and blow up,” said Nelson. “A change in that dynamic is going to require another seat at the collaborative table and that’s the community.”
The collaborative plans to reach out to neighbors and hopes to have a website set up soon, but “we recognize that people within the larger community may want an opportunity to talk one-on-one with someone,” said Monica Delmartini, stewardship specialist for Sonoma County Ag + Open Space. To report hazards on any collaborative properties, or to discuss concerns, the public is encouraged to reach out directly to the organizations’ main offices.
“We enjoy hearing from people. They are a great resource to help us keep track of what’s going on on the land,” said Stanfield.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.