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Our County by Lynda Hopkins

Dangerous Forests need our Attention

Jan 31, 2018
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County

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Have you ever been asked what makes the Sonoma County coast so magical? It’s one of my favorite spots on earth.Tranquil and powerful at the same time, the coast provides opportunities for any kind of relaxation you need – a sumptuous dinner in Bodega Bay, taking a hike on the Bill Kortum Trail, camping at one of the many bluff sites, or flying a kite at Doran Beach. If you take a deep breath, you can’t help but feel better on the coast. The vast ocean and towering trees are grounding. The forest, I think, is the magical part of it; my daughters, who believe fairies build houses there, would likely concur. The trees cushion and hug our beloved, rugged coastline, making our tiny part of the world a unique place for all.

Dangerous Forest in West County

There’s a lot of that forest and, unfortunately, it has likely never been in worse shape than it is today. The forest might look robust and strong from afar, but if you look closely you’ll see that acre after acre in the mountains is filled with dead standing timber. Many of these trees fell victim to sudden oak death, pine borer beetles, or drought. To a firefighter, dead standing timber equates to fuel load — fire fodder just waiting to ignite.

More than half of the county’s land – 50.5 percent of it – is either coniferous forest or oak woodland. Much of that land is on the coast, which has historically experienced significant fires roughly once every 30 years. Yet, the coastal range has not experienced a significant wildfire since 1978, when the Creighton Ridge fire consumed 11,000 acres and 64 homes. Since then, the north coast has experienced a decline in forest health and a sharp increase in fuel loading.

To complicate effective forest management, 68 percent of the county’s forest land is privately owned. In fact, the north coast is especially highly parceled; there are a lot of people who own little bits of land. Landowners of these smaller parcels typically lack economy of scale, causing them to struggle with effective land management. Usually, either the costs of regulatory compliance are too high or the physical management of the land is too daunting or too expensive.

Many unincorporated communities stand in harm’s way of a large-scale north coast forest fire.

At risk are the communities of Forestville (population 3,293), Guerneville (4,534), Monte Rio (1,152), Occidental (1,115), Jenner (136), Monte Rio (1,152), Cazadero (420), Graton (1,707), Geyserville (862), The Sea Ranch (1,305) and Annapolis (401).

Based on the devastating impacts of the Tubbs and Nuns Fires, it is clear that fuel loading in our wildlands, combined with the severe weather events, has resulted in fires powerful enough to not only burn into urban centers, but to have enough strength and might to wipe entire communities out. As such, Healdsburg (population 11,827), Cloverdale (8,801), Windsor (27,555) and even Sebastopol (7,678) and western Santa Rosa are also at risk from a large-scale north coast fire. County-wide, approximately 165,000 residents live within the defined wildland-urban interface area.

Over the past decade, government agencies have worked together to identify wildfire risk reduction strategies. Sonoma County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan was approved by the Board of Supervisor in April 2017; a Community Wildfire Prevention Plan was published in 2016 by Fire Safe Sonoma in partnership with Cal Fire. However, due to lack of funding, lack of community mandate and lack of a clearly-empowered lead agency, the risk reduction strategies outlined in both the HMP and CWPP have not been implemented.

The time to act is NOW.

We need to take action to enhance forest health, reduce wildfire risk, and protect our rural communities. We need to work together to reduce fuel load; to implement strategic shaded fuel breaks to create protective buffer zones; to reduce regulatory burdens through a Program Timberland EIR so that landowners can manage their land in ways that helps wildlife and reduces fire risk; to use a mobile biomass-to-electricity project to convert dead-standing trees into green power; and to empower communities by facilitating safety networks, such as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Citizens to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE).

At the County, we’re hoping that State and local partners will step up and help us to fund and launch an initiative to protect our rural communities and enhance forest health.

If you have thoughts or suggestions, feel free to email me at lynda.hopkins@sonoma-county.org.

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