Wildfire prevention studies show fuel reduction efforts save money

By From page A1 | April 28, 2014

Recently released studies strongly suggest that foothill and mountain counties could save significant amounts of money by taking action to reduce the forest fuel loads that plague millions of acres of the state and threaten what are now being labeled “megafires.” The research was done over the past three years by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Nature Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service.

The study, called the Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Costs Analysis, focused on the Mokelumne Watershed area roughly midway between El Dorado County and Yosemite. An NPR report last week cited the benefit to cost ratio of proactive fuel reduction measures versus fire fighting.

El Dorado County District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting alerted the Mountain Democrat to the story and forwarded a copy of the NPR report. Nutting has found occasion to bring up the topic of fuel reduction as a way to combat catastrophic wildfire at nearly every board meeting for years. Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree also sent copies of several related stories.

“The three-year study shows that an ‘average’ fire would have minimal effect on the water supply, but firefighting, and the damage to homes and infrastructure, would cost up to $224 million. Fuel reduction efforts, on the other hand, would cost $68 million … Such actions could reduce the threat of wildfire by 70 percent,” NPR noted.

A story published on April 10 in the Sierra Star newspaper in Oakhurst in Madera County near Yosemite cited other elements of the study. Quoting Jim Branham, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the paper reported that “Megafires have become much more common in the last decade — the average size of a fire today is nearly five times the average fire from the 1970s, and the severity is increasing. The Sierra Nevada is at especially high risk this year with only one-third of normal snowpack as a result of the drought,” Branham said. “Many scientists are predicting an increase in the size and severity of fires due to a changing climate,” the article read. In addition to loss of forest, megafires destroy wildlife and “release massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and can result in many other adverse impacts.”

Researchers used computer modeling to generate five different scenarios comparing how various fuel treatments could affect fire behavior within the target area. East of Stockton, the Mokelumne River and its watershed are a primary source of water for more than a million residents in the San Francisco East Bay regions. Conclusions suggest that loggers could thin stands that have grown unnaturally dense, in part because of suppression of the low-intensity fires that used to keep the understory open. This could be paired with controlled burning, done when conditions allow, to mimic fires that once were sparked by lightning and American Indians, according to statements from the agency.

People from industry, government and environmental groups already agree on this general idea, though they might differ on the location and volume of logging. New urgency has come from last year’s Rim Fire, which burned about a quarter-million acres in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land.

“Our ongoing goal is to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work, and this study strongly supports that,” said Regional Forester Randy Moore, who oversees all of California’s national forests. “Our current pace of restoration work needs to be accelerated to mitigate threats and disturbances such as wildfires, insects, diseases and climate change impacts.”

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) is a state agency created by bi-partisan legislation co-authored by Assembly members John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), according to the state’s Website. Assembly Bill 2600, the Laird-Leslie Sierra Nevada Conservancy Act, was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2004. The SNC has a broad mission based on the understanding that the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Region and its rural communities are closely linked and that the Region would benefit from an organization providing strategic direction and bringing attention and resources to the Region to better understand and meet its needs.

The mission of the SNC is to “initiate, encourage, and support efforts that improve (and sustain for future generations) the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities and the citizens of California.”

The agency provides funding for local projects, offers technical assistance and other support for collaborative projects in partnership with local government, nonprofit organizations and Tribal entities. Along with fire protection and reducing risk from other natural disasters, the SNC supports a number of programs dealing with water and air quality, increased tourism and recreation that boost the region’s economy and preservation of physical, historical, cultural and “living resources.”

Financing for the implementation of the SNC’s programs comes from the California Environmental License Plate Fund and Proposition 84, The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coast Protection Bond Act, was approved by voters in 2006. The SNC was allocated a total of $54 million of Proposition 84 funds for grant distribution and necessary administration of the grants. As of March 2013, the SNC has awarded over $50 million dollars to 296 projects throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Chris Daley

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