by Tom Tolliver
In the 2015 Sonoma County Community Wildfire Protection Plan it describes the 1964 Hanley and Nuns Canyon fires that burned in the same manner and path as the 2017 Tubbs and Nuns Canyon fires. It’s clear from our history that Sonoma County burns. If you haven’t done so already check out the interactive county fire map depicting wildfires from 1939 to 2016 developed by our GIS guru Joe Kinyon:
If fire is a natural occurrence on our landscapes, how does the Land Trust become as resilient as the landscape we protect? By being prepared for future fires. In the coming months we’ll update our fire disaster planning template to address three key areas: fire prevention, fire response and fire recovery. Using this template to create and implement a fire disaster plan for each preserve will become an important element of our property stewardship.
For each preserve, we’ll review and document defensible space practices at each building, focusing on removing or reducing fire fuels beginning at the building and moving outward. From the building out five feet is the non-combustible zone; from five feet to 30 feet is the “lean and green” zone; and from 30 to 100 feet the reduced fuel zone.
In a wildfire, most buildings burn as a result of embers blowing in the wind. Building retrofit will be a priority so our structures don’t contribute to fire ferocity in high winds as we witnessed last October.
Fire fuel management on our lands might include a combination of fire and ladder fuel reduction and something we’ve not done before: prescribed burns. It’s important that we work with local fire responders to assist us in reviewing fire fuel locations and reduction methodology. And how can we work with neighboring land owners to collaborate on fire fuel management? One current example is in Sonoma Valley where a coalition of conservation landowners are in the beginning stages of developing an area-wide fire prevention and response plan. More on that in a future M + M blog.
Our first concern in a fire is the safety of our staff, caretakers and neighbors. In October we were very fortunate that all staff and property tenants were quickly accounted for, but we realized that we could create a better phone tree and identify a central meeting location, such as our main office. In addition, each preserve needs to have a well-developed evacuation plan created in concert with our neighbors.
Providing resources for firefighters and first responders is also important. Some preserves have fire stand pipes and some even have water storage tanks. Their locations and functionality needs to be documented, mapped and shared with local fire responders along with roads and gates with access information. In addition, providing the location of sensitive natural and cultural resources on this map helps our firefighters to both protect the resources and avoid damage.
This process was something new to the current staff. After a thoughtful “lessons learned” conversation with staff and colleagues at other organizations, we realize that planning for recovery before a fire is important. Our mantra remains, “first, do no harm.” Getting staff access to burned Preserves quickly for inspections looking at immediate safety concerns, damage to infrastructure and fire impacts to habitat gets recovery activity underway.
And while we believe we’ve been effective in our recovery activities, today we better understand how grasslands and forested lands respond. We also know from practical experience how noxious weeds respond to fire events. And as we rebuild our infrastructure we do so with methods that might survive the next fire, and are documenting the reconstruction for revised preserve maps. And finally, we have a deeper understanding of our insurance policies and can document the insurance claims process.
Mother Nature can be counted on to throw curve balls at land managers, and while we’ve been able to deal with most of them, October’s fires pushed us to the limits. With those fires fresh in our minds, now is the time to look forward and ask, “What would I do differently next time”?
more resources on fire recovery
Tom Tolliver is the fire recovery project manager at SLT. Almost daily he gets to enjoy spectacular views and witness nature at its finest, and he continually asks himself, “They pay me for this?”
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.