In addition to the tragic loss of life and the destruction of homes, businesses, and public infrastructure from the October 2017 fires, wildlands and working landscapes also burned. Sonoma County’s natural resources need to be healthy and productive. They are managed to support community and watershed resiliency and protect public health and safety, and contribute to enhanced recreational opportunities and economic vitality.
Lands damaged by the fires and fire suppression efforts will adjust and respond through natural processes. Some areas will need physical rehabilitation and restoration, active management, monitoring and follow-up measures. Such efforts would be targeted to prevent runoff of toxic materials and sediments into drinking water supplies and sensitive habitats; to minimize the threat of flooding, landslides, and other safety hazards; and to facilitate ecosystem recovery that trends toward an improved, more resilient condition.
Sonoma County has been leading the local recovery effort, working closely with other local, State, and Federal agencies to address the overall impacts of the fires, including those to natural resources. The County has been co-leading the Local Agencies Watershed Task Force (WTF), with representation from several County agencies and departments, including Sonoma Water, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space), Permit Sonoma, and Sonoma County Regional Parks (Regional Parks).
- Ag + Open Space performed and supported response and recovery on District lands and easements. It is conducting several fire recovery and resiliency research and planning studies and has integrated these considerations into its programs. Ag + Open Space also provides technical input to winter storm hazard analysis and forest management and stream system condition targets. In addition, the District helps fund the Natural Resources specialist working in the Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
- Sonoma Water coordinated with numerous local and state agencies during response and early recovery, interacting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) to improve storm hazard forecasting and alerts. They prepared cautionary signage and mailings during the first post-fire winter. Sonoma Water also helps fund the Natural Resources specialist working in the Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
- Permit Sonoma has overseen storm water quality throughout fire response and as rebuilding proceeds, to support protection of water quality consistent with the MS4 permit. In coordination with other partners in the Watershed Task Force, they have been educating landowners, homeowners and contractors about their responsibilities and the resources and options to help protect streams and water resources. https://www.sonomacountyrecovers.org/rain-ready/
- The Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures (Agricultural Commissioner) helped secure permission and facilitate special logistics to allow access for essential functions on working lands during the fire evacuations.
- University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) provided oversight and evaluation of temporary livestock sheltering and performed fire damage assessments related to FSA claims. UCCE immediately initiated and are continuing to research several key post-fire public health, agricultural, and ecosystem concerns.
Forest management: Ongoing efforts have begun that support more sustainable local and regional forest management, including:
- Participating in the Governor’s Forest Management Task Force (FMTF), the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), and the North Coast Resource Partnership (NCRP). Our participation will elevate our profile, keep us up-to-date on regulatory, funding, and policy issues, and capitalize on lessons learned elsewhere.
- Engaging independent experts to identify and evaluate organizing options and economic strategies that create and maintain resilient natural and working lands effectively, especially given the high percentage of private forest land ownership in the County.
- Joining collaborative efforts of local, state, tribal and federal agencies with landowners and community groups to train, test, and implement fuel reduction using a wide range of treatment methods.
- The Ag + Open Space District initiated several monitoring, research, and preparedness improvement efforts, including a priority focus on fuels reduction for all properties, that build upon existing grazing operations, and is participating in vegetation management discussions throughout the county. They were awarded a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant to evaluate the response of working and natural lands to the fires, including burn severity correlated to vegetation cover type.
- Sonoma Water has incorporated consideration of fuel load reduction benefits into the multi-benefit ratings within Storm Water Resource Plans that prioritize potential projects for state funding requests.
- Regional Parks has expedited grazing and thinning projects to reduce fuel loads, is collaborating with the Mayacama Golf Club on a fuel break, and pursuing funding to allow: improvements to grazing infrastructure; retrofitting to improve fire protection of facilities and emergency access; and, adding fire management in the stewardship plans for each park.
- The Agricultural Commissioner continues to support invasive species control and management on private lands disturbed by the fires and/or fire-fighting efforts. It is conducting outreach with pest control businesses to ensure compliance with applicable pesticide regulations within the fire areas during rebuilding and vegetation recovery.
- UCCE convened several workshops focused on forest and land management strategies to ensure a resilient rural landscape including discussions on potential prescribed fire and grazing programs and specific fire preparedness for home sites and large working parcels. The UC Master Gardeners are partnering with other agencies to apply fire and drought research to our local setting, offer trainings, and facilitate implementation of resilient landscaping principles as the fire-damaged areas recover.
- UCCE has pursued studies and funding regarding the influence of varied land management practices on burn severity and fire recovery, and conducted surveys about grazing management, fire science, ecosystem services valuations, and the healthy soil initiative.
- Easements and acquisition efforts by Ag + Open Space since the 2017 fires included burned parcels within the WUI that have appropriate ecosystem and fire hazard reduction benefits.
- Under a recently awarded $1,082,969 Cal Fire grant, TPW and FES will undertake a project to assess fuel risks and tree mortality along 83 miles of public right of way in northwest Sonoma County, treat 30 high priority miles, and provide chipper services for fuels reduction by private parties.
Protecting streams and rivers
- The Recovery Office has worked directly with quasi-government and non-profit partners to assist private property owners with containment best management practices (BMPs) to minimize the risk of debris and toxic material runoff to streams and rivers in early 2018. Efforts with erosion and sediment control BMP installations and maintenance have continued as the 2018/19 rainy season approaches.
- Ag + Open Space actively assessed, secured, managed and rehabilitated over 2,000 acres of lands owned in fee that burned. They removed burned structures, infrastructure and hazard trees, replaced burned culverts, and took measures to prevent toxic runoff and protect public safety. They continue to work with easement landowners to support their recovery.
- Ag + Open Space is conducting a countywide evaluation of functional riparian corridors that will support analyses of post-fire landslide and flooding potential, the Vital Lands Initiative, and serve as input to groundwater management and salmonid recovery.
- Burned debris, hazards, and sediment were removed within the Sonoma Water right of way, and the water agency deployed erosion and sediment best management practices, performed stream gaging and water quality sampling during the initial rainy season after the fires.
- A key role in oversight of storm water quality during fire response and recovery has been filled by Permit Sonoma as part of storm water protection programs applied to both rebuilding areas and in burned zones that have not yet started construction. They are closely coordinating with the Regional Boards, receiving and investigating citizen complaints, providing information regarding BMP installation methods to property owners and contractors, and sampling water quality.
- Regional Parks cleared burned debris, hazard trees, repaired damaged infrastructure, enforced safety closures, and installed erosion and sedimentation BMPs in the immediate aftermath of the fires. They have stabilized slopes and promoted revegetation in vulnerable locations.
- In the immediate aftermath of the fires and during rebuilding, TPW removed fire-damaged drainage infrastructure, including culverts, and installed and maintained temporary BMPs to protect against flooding, erosion and sedimentation.
- Sonoma Water, Regional Parks, Ag + Open Space have participated as part of the Watershed Task Force to conduct supplemental, post-fire assessments in key stream corridors prior to the onset of the 2018/19 rainy season. The assessments will establish baseline conditions to help us identify priority locations for storm patrols and sites that need BMP installations or maintenance.
- Regional Parks is pursuing funding for stabilizing and re-vegetation of Hood Mountain sites that burned or were fire and damaged by fire suppression efforts to prevent flooding, erosion, and debris flows that could damage areas downstream.
- TPW, Sonoma Water and other members of the Watershed Task Force are working to assess the technical, permitting, and financial feasibility of reusing some of the hazardous burned trees along public right of ways as beneficial large wood components in aquatic habitat restoration projects.
- Ag + Open Space is actively partnering with other county agencies, non-governmental organizations, resource conservation districts and academic organizations on various research projects and funding requests to evaluate factors affecting fire damages and recovery success.
- Sonoma Water expanded the stream gauge and precipitation monitoring network and led the development of the “One-Rain” web interface. Having access to real-time data improves our ability to assist various jurisdictions as we coordinate storm tracking and monitor potential secondary hazards. Sonoma Water has also applied for HMGP funding for X-Band radar to improve storm and flood forecasting, which can be linked to other improvements in meteorological data networks that help address permitting conditions for vegetation management via prescribed burning. https://sonoma.onerain.com/
- Sonoma Water started pilot programs such as the FireSmart Lake Sonoma project to gather data, conduct outreach and education, and support landowners with fuel reduction and forest management planning and implementation. These programs, in conjunction with the initial fire camera network, the UCCE prescribed fire and grazing workshops, and potential CWPP development to help protect Lake Sonoma, a critical water source watershed.
- Permit Sonoma has applied for HMGP funding to conduct planning studies and update hazard maps, including site specific studies of the Rodgers Creek Fault zone.
- Regional Parks has provided public access and interpretation tours of burned landscapes, including the Nature Heals series for mental health and community learning. They have installed a fire interpretive trail at Shiloh Ranch Regional Park and are facilitating new monitoring, research and post-fire ecological studies at various sites.
- The Agricultural Commissioner has gathered agricultural disaster information about the effects of fire on agricultural production and the resilience of agricultural lands. This information will improve our understanding of the role of various land cover and conditions, and potential recovery and rehabilitation needs working lands damaged by the fires.
- UCCE collaborated with researchers and organized citizen-science projects to verify the safety of backyard garden produce, eggs, and related air-quality during and immediately following the fires. They also quickly developed and distributed several science-based technical guides for landowners and community members potentially affected by the fires.
- The recent Cal Fire grant award for fuels assessment and reduction in northwest Sonoma County will also support FireSafe Sonoma participation to lead landowner engagement, outreach and coordination in those communities.