Santa Rosa, CA – September 4, 2020 – The County of Sonoma has begun working with members of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Watershed Emergency Response Team to address public safety and health concerns caused by the Walbridge and Meyers fires in Sonoma County. The creation of the WERT came at the request of Sonoma County’s Watershed Task Force, a coalition of local, state and federal agencies. The WERT will provide critical analyses of the watersheds impacted by the fires and will guide local recovery planning efforts, including hillside stabilization, water quality protection and fishery habitat restoration.
"Sonoma County has been hit incredibly hard by wildfires over these last three years. We've worked hand-in-hand with Cal Fire and the County to secure these desperately needed resources,” state Sen. Mike McGuire said. "The team will be deployed to assess the environmental damage caused by the Walbridge Fire and develop a long-term mitigation plan to restore the watershed. We're especially grateful to Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter for his partnership on this important mission.”
“We applaud the tireless work of Cal Fire and all fire crews in bringing the Walbridge and Meyers to the brink of full containment,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose 5th District includes the Lower Russian River. “But we know the hard work of repairing the environmental damage from this massive wildfire is just beginning. The WERT will ensure these critical issues are addressed.”
“Our upmost appreciation to our state representatives for this vital support to protect our fire scarred watersheds as we move through the fall and Into the winter,” said Supervisor James Gore, whose 4th District includes the northeastern areas of the Walbridge fire. “Outside of immediate fire response and supporting those with damaged properties, this is the most important effort we need to recover.”
The County of Sonoma is no stranger to the challenges of protecting natural systems following major wildfires. Beginning in 2017, after the Sonoma Complex Fires, and continuing in 2019 following the Kincade fire, the County coordinated a multi-agency response approach by using a post-fire Watershed Task Force where local, regional, state, and federal organizations and agencies work together to tackle issues of water quality protection and landscape restoration.
“The Watershed Emergency Response Team will provide Sonoma Water with critical information that will support water quality improvement and fisheries habitat restoration projects within the Walbridge and Meyers fire zones,” said Sonoma Water General Manager Grant Davis. “We are thankful for the state resources to protect our drinking water and endangered fish species within the Russian River Watershed.”
In 2020, the County began organizing the latest version of the Watershed Task Force within days of the start of the Walbridge and Meyers. The first full meeting took place on Monday, Aug. 24 while the fires were still actively burning. Members of the Watershed Task Force include Sonoma Water, Permit Sonoma, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District as well as the county departments of Transportation and Public Works, Information Systems, and Recovery and Resiliency. The task force also includes the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, Sweetwater Springs Water District, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The Sonoma Resource Conservation District also provides support to those impacted by the wildfires in our community. Sonoma RCD can provide technical assistance and site visits to help determine resource needs and appropriate actions concerning erosion, riparian areas, and forest management. More information about Sonoma RCD can be found on the district’s website at https://sonomarcd.org/resources/fire-recovery/
“When caring for the land after wildfire, there are a few universal basics,” said Valerie Minton Quinto, Executive Director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District. “Protect bare soil with natural materials such as leaf litter and seed-free straw; try not to disturb soils further; watch for drainage issues such as clogged culverts. Getting the advice of a professional can be a great way to figure out next steps for property and watershed protection, and the RCD is here to provide that guidance.”
The Watershed Task Force looks at three main areas of effort. First, data-driven strategies and prioritization of actions. Second, appropriate mitigation efforts based on understanding how the natural environment can be protected and restored. Third, communication and coordination among many different departments and agencies at all levels of government, involving community-based organizations and with those with properties impacted by the fires.
The creation of a Watershed Emergency Response Team through Cal Fire was one of the first actions the Watershed Task Force took in response to the recent fires. This state-led effort produces a WERT report that outlines many watershed recommendations, which will help the County and other local jurisdictions evaluate threats and prioritize efforts to protect life and property from future storm threats. Groups that supported the activation of a WERT included the North Coast Regional Water Control Board and the Mill Creek Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE), which recently completed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan for their neighborhood in June 2020.
The WERT process is science based and data driven. WERT members use satellite-derived imagery to assess post-fire vegetation condition as a measure of burn severity. This data is then field-verified and adjusted if needed. After the information is combined with geologic data to feed into a hazard model developed by U.S. Geological Survey. The team of engineering geologists, civil engineers and hydrologists then use the model to identify values-at-risk during heavy rain events with a focus on life and property safety from possible debris and mudflows and high erosion rates. In addition to informing recovery strategies and priorities and heavy rain event awareness for emergency alert and warning, the County publishes the finished WERT report for the public to access and understand.
The next steps for the Watershed Task Force include damage impact and needs assessment, mitigation funding and continued public outreach. Recovery information can be found on the Sonoma County SocoEmergency.org web site.