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New alliance of firefighters, environmentalists, plans to restore forest health

Three people building a fire.
Bell Springs fire chief Will Emerson and fellow volunteers conducting a biochar demonstration at Sunday's kickoff event for the Northern Mendocino Ecosystem Recovery Alliance.

April 5, 2022 — A new alliance of environmentalists, fire departments, and landowners in northern Mendocino county is seeking to make forest resilience a priority for changes in the climate, economy, and social structure. About fifty people showed up at the kickoff event for the Northern Mendocino Ecosystem Recovery Alliance at Tan Oak Park in Leggett on Sunday.

Kerry Reynolds is the Organizational Development Director for the Trees Foundation, which is the fiscal sponsor of the new Alliance. She notes that a lot more state money has recently become available to forest health projects, now that heavily populated areas are suffering the impacts of wildfires.“The funding is available,” she noted. “Finally. Even the Bay Area was having that total smoke-out and red skies, so there’s no place in California that’s not impacted by wildfires, obviously.”

Will Emerson is the chief of the Bell Springs Fire Department and chairman of the board of the new Alliance. Prescribed fire will be a big part of the strategy to prevent raging infernos. Emerson says he hopes restoring the health of the forest will also provide paid work for his volunteers. “Firefighters are realizing that every time they put out a fire, they’re creating a debt,” he explained; “that really, the land needs to burn at some point, but you don’t want it burning in August when it’s a hundred degrees and the wind’s blowing. So, better to burn in the winter. All these forests are adapted to fire, if we let them. And all the suppression that’s happened in the last hundred years has just meant that there’s this huge buildup of fuel, and we’re paying the price now…we formed this organization around the three local volunteer departments of Piercy, Leggett and Bell Springs. Fire departments, especially volunteer fire departments, are great community organizations. It’s like our community is centered around them.”

During the morning session, Emerson told the group that he can “hear the air hissing out of the bubble” that has sustained the economy of the Emerald Triangle. “People are going to have to find other work besides growing,” he acknowledged. “And it’s probably going to mean more work and less money. But it’s good work. There’s these mutual problems of an overgrown forest, climate change, and a weakened economy. So let’s combine them, and get people working in the forest, making it healthier.”

Michael Furniss, of Cal Poly Humboldt, agrees. “We’ve been talking about the need for fuel treatments for decades, but there’s never been any money for it,” he began. “A little bit here and there, but nothing that scales with the problem. And now, after these big fires and really terrible fire seasons the last few years, and cities burning up and the Bay Area getting smoked out, the money is now flowing, big time. So it’s a new day. It’s a time when there’s going to be a whole industry here of building fire resistance and resilience in these forested communities.”

As a soil scientist, Furniss does advocate low-level broadcast burns to reduce the excessive buildup of fine fuels, but he encourages less burning and more sequestration to improve the health of the soil and, ultimately, the forest.

“Any kind of logging, especially the thinning that everybody wants to see now, and these fire resilience treatments, you generate a lot of slash, a lot of excess wood,” he observed; “and what are you going to do with it? In terms of climate, we want to limit the amount of greenhouse gasses that go into the atmosphere. It’s really important, even though these are not from fossil fuels, they’re carbon dioxide, there’s some methane, there’s black carbon, which is really bad for atmospheric heating, so to the extent to which we can sequester that carbon, in biochar or in chips that we just spread around the forest floor…and that’s not what we typically do. We pile it up and burn it. And it just goes away. Look, the pile’s gone! But it’s not gone. It’s in our atmosphere now, and we’ve recognized that to be a big problem for humanity; for the whole globe, really, and everything that lives here.” He acknowledged that, while careful seasonal burning is useful for keeping down excessive buildup of fine fuels, it is possible to overdo it and decrease forest productivity. “But the main problem with that is if you keep doing it,” he cautioned. “And if we do it just in small areas, in these shaded fuel breaks, it’s probably worthwhile. But if you continue to clean off the forest floor with this duff and fine woody material you get a longtime decrease in soil productivity…The key thing, though, for these little creatures that run the world, is to leave some large wood in place. And those are biological oases.”

Fire suppression will still be part of the equation, though. Emerson said his department just got a grant from the Mendocino County Firesafe Council to buy three 2,500 gallon water tanks, which he plans to install at strategic points along Bell Springs Road.

And Jessica Roemer, the Executive Director of Tan Oak Park, said the Leggett Fire Water Project has raised about a third of the anticipated $115,000 it will take to install a 62,000 gallon water tank at the park.

“We used to have drafting pools along the rivers and other places to get water,” she recalled. “They’re no longer in existence. We’re eight and a half miles south of Leggett, fourteen miles north of Laytonville, and this will be the only water source for several miles around Highway 101. With that amount of water, it can fill up either twenty 3,000-gallon tankers, or 120 attack units. And for initially knocking a fire down that’s close to the highway, having water available might be the difference between saving all of our communities and not having them.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.