Rethinking mitigation
A Red Flag Warning indicating increased fire danger remains in effect for much of the Santa Cruz Mountains today. High temperature, dry air and gusty wind leave conditions ripe for dangerous wildfire. Adam Pardee / Review

Reading Cal Fire’s 2018 Community Wildfire Protection Plan is like encountering a prophecy. Some of the areas highlighted as high risk are exactly those devastated by the CZU August Lightning Complex fire that is now mostly contained but still smoldering. It warned of “uncharacteristically high fuel loads” and that a fire could “rapidly increase to an unmanageable size prior to the arrival of fire crews.”

Even its prediction about thinly spread resources was spot on: “In the event of a large wildfire, we know there are not enough emergency responders and equipment to protect each and every home,” the report reads.

Local fire response and preparedness agencies say their regional approach to fire mitigation has aided firefighting efforts in the battle against the raging inferno that ignited swaths of forest and destroyed communities in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. But their leaders agree that more work is needed to prevent historic wildfires in the future.

“As catastrophic as this fire was, it could have been worse,” said San Mateo Resource Conservation District Executive Director Kellyx Nelson, who helped prepare the 2018 report.

In January, the RCD received $5.3 million in grants to reduce wildfire fuel loads in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but work wasn’t scheduled to begin until January 2021. Nelson said she hopes the funding can be repurposed because the work to protect that area is far from over.

“The projects we wanted to do to reduce fuel loads still need to happen,” Nelson said.

But getting mitigation projects done isn’t always easy, Nelson said. Strict and lengthy local regulatory processes can delay projects, and so can the public input process. She sees strategies like vegetation management to be responsible, scientifically grounded and rooted in historic indigenous practices. Not everyone agrees, however, that active land management is what’s best for local forests, and some will oppose forest thinning outside of residential areas. 

Lennie Roberts, longtime legislative advocate at environmental group Green Foothills, is one opponent. Roberts argues that the focus on vegetation management is wrong. She said she would rather see an emphasis on reducing the flammability of existing structures and stopping construction of new ones in high-risk areas.

“While it is reasonable to remove hazardous trees immediately adjacent to roads and homes and to thin forests immediately around communities, thinning of forests located away from communities does nothing to protect houses and lives, while often damaging forest ecosystems,” Roberts wrote.

Nelson hopes that after an event like the current fire, there may be more momentum to get mitigation projects done. But there is another factor standing in the way of progress: weather.

CalFire Battalion Chief and Public Information Officer Dan Olson said that as weather conditions become increasingly unpredictable, finding a safe time to begin mitigation practices, like prescribed burns, has gotten more difficult.

“The biggest issue that we see collectively across the state is finding the window to conduct those,” Olson said.

What Cal Fire needs, Olson said, is dedicated staff and funding toward mitigation so that fire prevention projects aren’t delayed again and again. And in recent years, there has been significant progress toward addressing that. Cal Fire established fuel management crews whose primary purpose is to create and maintain fuel breaks, and apart from unprecedented events like this one, they typically won’t get pulled away from that work. Olson also pointed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency proclamation in spring 2019 that targeted funding toward mitigation projects, including several on the Coastside.

These mitigation projects make a measurable difference on the ground, Olson said. Especially in areas like the Santa Cruz Mountains where fire hadn’t burned for a hundred years, fuel breaks can be critical lifelines to crews working to contain a blaze and protect a community.

“Give us that line in the sand where we can make that defensive stand,” Olson said.

One place they may be working is on managed lands. Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District spokeswoman Leigh Ann Gessner said four small fires ignited on Midpen lands after the Aug. 16 lightning storm, but because of ongoing work to train staff and maintain vegetation, fuel breaks and fire roads, they didn’t last long.

“I think a lot of the reason they were able to be contained and put out so quickly was partially because of the ongoing work Midpen does to prevent and prepare for fire on our land,” Gessner said.

Gessner said that Midpen is working to increase its active forest maintenance and annual fire prevention work to combat the effects of a long history of fire suppression and historical logging, which has allowed fuels to accumulate and increased the density of forests. Its existing conservation grazing program is a partnership with local Coastside ranchers to improve ecosystem health and wildfire safety. And a new wildland fire resilience program, which is in the environmental impact stage, would expand their vegetation management capabilities.

But Gessner said that as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, even more needs to be done. Olson agreed that while he’s no climate expert, the evidence on the ground is overwhelming: record-breaking heat and drought have seen fires move at a pace like never before.

“Conditions are changing in California, and we need to be doing more,” Gessner said.

This version clarifies that Lennie Roberts and Green Foothills is not in opposition to the RCD strategy and does not oppose all potential forest-thinning measures.

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