Leaders, scientists discuss wildfire resilience and recovery at SNC WIP Summit

After back-to-back devastating wildfire seasons, this year’s annual Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program 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.

“I would submit to you that the real issue is not burned area in most of the state, rather it’s fire damage to ecosystems and to human values, what we would call fire severity,” Safford said. “Human deaths, structural loss and economic costs are all rising quickly in California. Forest ecosystems are beginning to experience hotter fires than they can withstand in the Sierra Nevada.”

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.

“Tree planting is not the goal,” said Britta Dyer, senior director with California & Pacific Islands at American Forests. “Creating forests that are healthy and resilient in order to withstand wildfire and other disturbances, that’s the goal. In order to do that, we have to be planting trees, cutting trees, starting fire and stopping fire.”

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.

“With these huge burn scars and large fires, you create a ton of ash and soot and you can imagine with the winds during winter that dust and soot can get kicked up and carried on to the snowpack and actually change the reflectivity of that snow making it darker and absorb the sunlight more, melting it off quicker, exacerbating the effects we are already seeing with climate change,” said Andrew Schwarz, state water project climate action advisor at the Department of Water Resources.

The water agency 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.

“All our major stressors right now operate on a landscape scale,” said Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “Invasive species, insect outbreak, climate change, wildfire and our major values, such as water storage, carbon storage, biodiversity, forest health are all also landscape-scale. So, to appropriately manage, we need to operate on a landscape scale so we can leverage our different management approaches to be more effective in our treatments to do the right treatments in the right place.”

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.

“The goal is to take burned logs, run them through the sawmill, use that lumber to help rebuild the towns of Greenville, Indian Falls and Canyon Dam, along with creating business and employment for the area,” Kusel said, referring to a new sawmill his organization helped reopen in Plumas County. “This is about restoring the forest and this is also about restoring hope in the area because of the implications of the sawmill and the opportunities it represents.”

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.

“I hope that we can jointly prioritize the restoration work and the zones identified (by tribes),” Kusel said. “Are we going to just take care of the urban interface areas, the affluent communities, or can we redirect some of the energy and resources to areas that are important to us? That’s where the smart, inclusive planning comes in. Let’s work together.”

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.”

The SNC is a California state agency that initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities, and the people of California.