A natural resources tour
by Heather Hadwick
Recent wildfires in the northern California county of Modoc inspired a Resources Tour through the Stone and Cove Fires in November 2018. The Modoc County Sheriff’s Office and Office of Emergency Services organized the event, inviting agencies and organizations that play key roles in natural resource management in the area. The gathering provided a venue for sharing knowledge about planning, practices and limitations. “It was really a day to teach each other and get information first hand to share with the public,” said Tex Dowdy, then Sheriff-Elect and now Sheriff of Modoc County. “We’re trying to get all the players to the table so that we can all work together to improve our public lands. In the end, we all have the same goal and that is to serve our county the best we can.”
In 2018, more than 1.6 million acres burned in over seven thousand individual fires in California on state, private and federal land. Modoc County accounted for just under 42,000 acres burned. The last two fire seasons in California have produced eight of the top 20 most destructive wildfires in state history, with losses eclipsing previous records. The economic impact of wildfires in the state is astronomical and growing. In 2018 alone, California spent nearly $3 billion on fires, including nearly $1.4 billion in fire suppression costs. “We have so many examples of devastation in the aftermath of these fires” said Modoc County Sheriff Mike Poindexter. “I’d like to see a more concentrated effort and more of our precious dollars spent on prevention. Fire is inevitable but a properly managed forest has a much better chance to survive and thrive. We can change things by working together to remove restrictive barriers so that those with the job of managing can actually be proactive rather than reactive.”
The tour began within the boundaries of the Stone Fire which had burned in September. North of the Cottonwood Flats Campground the difference between treated and untreated forest was clear. A distinct line separated the healthy burn created by fuels treatment, and the untreated area blackened by flames. In the treated area grasses had already started to grow back, and the trees, although scorched by fire, held branches of healthy green needles. Kenneth Heald, Fuels Specialist from the Modoc National Forest spoke about the impact of reducing fuels in the forest. He noted that in the treated area, wildlife had returned to forage and trees were recovering just two months after the fire. He pointed out that the untreated, severely burned areas could take up to 80 years to recover. “It won’t just bounce back” he added. “If we’d been able to get in there and remove biomass and give the heat somewhere to escape, we’d have had a healthier burn.”
Wildfire, Wildlife, and Ranching in Modoc County
Wildlife and livestock live side by side in Modoc and both are equally important to residents and visitors alike. The vast open range and countless outdoor recreational opportunities are what bring people to Modoc, a place that’s truly emblematic of its slogan: “Where the West Still Lives”. It has the largest expanse of permitted grazing land in California within 1.7 million acres of National Forest. The group discussed grazing opportunities, needs, and range readiness.
The county is also home to one of the oldest deer herds in the state. The California Deer Association’s Dale McDougall said, “We have migration corridors that are vital to the sustainability of the deer and elk here. The herd historically ran 100,000 plus deer. It’s running only 10% of those numbers today. We can add credibility to our cause by collectively telling the story. Resource management is not just up to one agency or one organization. We all need to be in this together.” Paul Bailey of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation added, “We need to ask ourselves if we want to pay for it before or after. The Stone Fire cost seventeen million dollars. But in the end, we just lost 80 years of forest growth. What is the cost of that?”
Bryon Hadwick, District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service outlined some of the NRCS resources available for ranchers and private landowners that can help wildlife and livestock alike. These include technical and financial assistance, erosion control, removal of invasive juniper, range seeding, cross fencing, wildlife/livestock water projects, and pre-commercial thinning through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. Collectively these actions increase fire resilience by mitigating fire severity, conserving water, and restoring habitat for wildlife including sage-grouse, mule deer and elk.
Defensible Space for the Win
Although wildfires are inevitable, the destruction of property and lands is not. This was clear during the next stop where the group visited the 2017 Cove Fire and the Bushey Ranch in Canby, where participants were able to clearly see where the private landowner was prepared for wildfire.
The homes and outbuildings were saved because of the defensible space created around the structures. Steve Walker, CAL FIRE Battalion Chief, provided perspective about property protection and CAL FIRE’s defensible space inspections. “On the big fire seasons, people are a lot more receptive about our inspections. It’s on their mind and in the news. In the years that we don’t have fires, landowners don’t make fire safety a priority and it gets put on the back burner. “We need to make sure that our county ordinances are being monitored and know who enforces them” he added. “Keeping up with the violations takes a lot of resources and most of our county agencies are already stretched thin.”
Noting that CAL FIRE can only inspect structures, Heather Hadwick, Deputy Director of Modoc County OES added, “We want to emphasize the importance of resilient forests as a whole and local community capacity in wildfire preparation and response. The fire events in California have highlighted the consequences of not making resource management a priority in our state. We want to be the county that does.”
The final tour stop was also in the Cove Fire between Adin and Canby. The Pit River Resource Conservation District is overseeing the Cove Fire Restoration Project. The plan includes removing 10 miles of roadside hazard trees, additional biomass removal, and the planting of 1,400 acres of merchantable timber. But like many postfire restoration efforts, conflicting perspectives among citizens threaten completion of the plan. Some feel that logging this area is taking away from wildlife habitat and would like the project stopped.
Chris Christofferson, District Ranger from the Modoc National Forest, spoke about this challenge. “The problem arises when we aren’t able to make restoration efforts after a fire. If dead trees are not removed, they will fall on the ground. This will result in a tremendous amount of fuel loading and subsequent fire risk. It’s not just the regrowth though. Think of our water systems, the soil erosion and the downstream users. I’m thankful for meetings like this to educate each other. We need to figure out how best we can spend what little money we have to prioritize areas for restoration to do the most good.”
The Modoc Fire Safe Council provided lunch while Bruce Ross, District Director for Assemblyman Brian Dahle’s office, gave an update on a new bill that passed in August regarding wildfire mitigation funding. “The passing of this bill means that there will be $200 million each year for the next five years for fuel reduction, prescribed burns and forest health in general. Meetings just like this need to happen all over the state. Cooperation between communities and organizations is exactly what we want to see with this grant program. There is money for capacity building as well.”
Sheriff Mike Poindexter highlighted the urgency of the need, adding, “Unfortunately, most of the public forest that burns may not be in a condition that draws visitors to Modoc County to boost our economy, enjoy our beauty and bucolic lifestyles. Every fire is taking this away from our grandchildren and their children. The cost of fire is more than just dollars. Working together to change that is a good thing for all.”
The group agreed that there are many examples of devastation in the aftermath of recent wildfires in our own backyard. Poindexter cited the 2007 Fletcher Fire and the 2012 Barry Point Fire as examples of how federal foresters struggle with bureaucracy when trying to restore burned areas. Restoration activities remain incomplete in these areas. “We need to ensure that the Cove and Stone fire sites don’t end up that way,” he added. “The contrast between the two areas is easily seen today. Restoration needs to be a priority.”
As the tour ended, Tex Dowdy summarized the big picture, saying, “In the end, we need to have a united front for the public. We need to have accurate information about our partners and stakeholders, and what we are all able to do. The collective impact of our area agencies and organizations working together is very powerful. We need to create movement and accept nothing less than excellent when it comes to our quality of life. We are blessed to live in Modoc County; where there are so many different uses for our land. Whether we are hiking, hunting, farming, grazing cows, or just going for a drive, we want to make sure that our lands are at their full potential. Our natural resources deserve our best.”
About the Author: Heather Hadwick is the Deputy Director of the Office of Emergency Services in Modoc County, California. She received an Ag Science from Chico State and then her Masters in Leadership and Management. Her focus on agriculture and partnering with agencies supports her new role in Emergency Services for the county.