If wildfires don’t follow property boundaries, why should we?
Due to most Mendocino County residents living in or near a forest, forest management is urgent to decrease the risk of high severity wildfires. Unlike other counties in California, the majority of Mendocino County is privately owned, with only ~10% of forestland held by public agencies. To address this, local agencies, like the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD), Cal Fire, the Fire Safe Council and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), collaborate with private landowners to improve their forests. One of the biggest challenges with this approach is the nature of wildfires. Wildfires do not follow property boundaries, and neither can effective forest improvement projects. To make a significant impact, neighborhoods and local agencies must coordinate to start holistic forest improvement projects. As a GrizzlyCorps fellow with the MCRCD, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about and start to implement rural community outreach strategies to help instigate landscape level forest improvement collaboration projects.
In 2022, The MCRCD received funding for the first phase of the Northern Red Mountain Forest Health Improvement Project (Red Mountain Project). The project spans 997 acres of proposed treatment area, with a budget of 2.7 million dollars, and a timeline of at least 3 years. The project is located on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and contains 14 treatment units branching from a single gravel road. Quite a few private landowners live up the gravel road, which is a large reason why this project was approved. From the residential perspective, with only one main road in and out, the Red Mountain Project was necessary to allow for safe firefighter access and residential evacuation during a wildfire. A common forest management practice implemented along roads is a shaded fuel break. With a shaded fuel break, understory vegetation is heavily reduced, tree limbs are pruned up, and small Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) trees are mostly removed, while larger DBH trees are kept. A shaded fuel break keeps a closed canopy layer made up of larger DBH trees to prevent excessive light from reaching the understory layer. A fuel break does not necessarily keep a closed canopy layer and can consequently promote the regrowth of a dense understory and defeat the original purpose to mitigate fire risk. Ridges, valleys, and watercourses are the most effective landscape features to place a fuel break because they provide a natural shift or break in a landscape. For this project, the shaded fuel break expands a minimum of 50 feet on either side of the road. With a shaded fuel break implemented, fire fighters will have a clearing to set up wildfire crews to mitigate the likelihood of a wildfire spreading. Although a shaded fuel break along the road is a great start to forest management, without treating landscape features or the whole forest, this acts merely as a band aid. The private landowners need to be involved in the forest improvement efforts so natural landscapes, such as ridgetops, valleys, or watercourses, can be prioritized.
Since this is only the first phase of the Red Mountain Project, there is potential for landowners to participate in forest improvement. One roadblock to instigating this is the Northern Red Mountain community has not historically collaborated on forest improvement. The community also seems to value their privacy based on the spacing between neighbors and the difficult road access. So the question is how do you begin to communicate to private landowners who value privacy?
One community outreach strategy that the MCRCD relies on is long-term local knowledge and connections. The Assistant Executive Director has been with the MCRCD since 2011 and has accrued a wealth of local knowledge and connections. A lot of private landowners, who reach out for technical assistance, have heard about the MCRCD via word-of-mouth from a friend of a friend. For the Red Mountain Project, a previous MCRCD staff member had worked with landowners who were acquaintances with a Red Mountain resident, who worked at the local fire department, and was looking for an agency to partner with to complete this project. The landowners referred the Red Mountain Resident to the MCRCD and thus began the collaboration. From there, the Red Mountain resident held a community event to inform his neighbors about the Red Mountain project and was able to communicate the benefits. The first phase of the project will provide an example for landowners and perhaps inspire future collaboration with the MCRCD. This strategy has worked well thus far for the Red Mountain residential community, but community outreach methods vary depending on a variety of factors, such as location, affluence, spatial distribution, prior community connection, etc. As I continue my time here at the MCRCD, I look forward to reaching new communities through a variety of strategies to expand forest improvement projects across Mendocino County.
Information about the Red Mountain Project is from the “Request for Proposals for the Northern Red Mountain Forest Health Improvement Project” administered by the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District & “North Red Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction EA #DOI-BLM-CA-N030-2020-0015-EA” prepared by Marissa Vossmer, forest ecologist, and Alex Miyagishima, Prescribed Fire and Fuels Specialist and reviewed by Dave Fuller & Dan Wooden.
For more information about the Red Mountain Project visit: https://mcrcd.org/mcrcd-news/request-for-proposals-for-the-northern-red-mountain-forest-health-improvement-project