About the Woods

What to do about the woods?

Many of our readers only need to look out the window to see the incredibly beautiful spring forest; by August we’ll be looking at the skies for tendrils of blue smoke.

What is to be done about the woods?

Pretty much everyone agrees the woods are in a problematic state. For a century and a half we were too good at cutting down trees and putting out fires. As a result, the woods today don’t look much like they used to in most places.

Healthy forests have frequent fires. Tall trees resist fire if there isn’t a great deal of fuel around the base. Some kinds of forest plants, like quakies, really only survive well with occasional fires.

Unfortunately, the build up of fuel makes it pretty much impossible to quickly resolve this problem. Forest fires do too much damage, burn too hot because of the build up. Trees are too small, often crowded too closely together; there are a lot of dead branches low down; flammable bushes like broom and manzanita dominate some hillsides; duff and litter are piled deep in some areas. The fires get too hot, burning down to mineral soil.

Two views

Taking trees out is popular with old school foresters. It has advantages: it removes biomass, and makes money for everyone. It has disadvantages: it doesn’t, on its own, move anyone closer to the solution. Most typical human created forests tend to favor one species or another, and tend to omit or ignore lessor species such as brush.

Critics point out that no logging is without negative effects: the forest floor is torn and crushed, fuel and oil is nearly always spilled, it removes nutrients from the forest, but most damning, it leaves a forest that is reliant on humans. Critics of the logging approach complain that practitioners have a very linear view of the woods: what is of market value, what is protected, what is just in the way. It doesn’t see the functioning forest as more than just trees, as a web of interrelated species, from fungus and muck gnats to bromes and borers. The goal of resource exploitation is simply that, exploitation.

Critics of the critics point out that there really aren’t enough primeval forests left to know what a real forest looks like, and if more people were working in the woods there would be fewer people with time to file frivolous law suites. How else will you clear the fuel if you don’t haul it off to make lumber for houses and pulp for dead-tree newspapers?

It’s a serious problem

Fortunately, there are people working on it. The county has a Fire Safe Plan in place, but it is inadequate. The County Board of Supervisors is paving the way for the County Planning Department and the Sierra County Fire Safe and Watershed Council to work together to weave a Fire Safe Plan into the General Plan.

Such a plan will consider the long view, both protecting communities and restoring the forest to sustainable fuel levels.

Many requirements, such as those of Cal Fire regarding roads, clearances, and building materials, are beyond local people to change, save that they can be made more strict. The Fire Safe plan will include areas known as Wildland Urban Interface Zones, which is, generally speaking, where homes and towns meet the woods.

The Fire Safe Council and the U. S. Forest Service are working on both sides of the Yuba Pass to reduce vegetation and to raise awareness among residents of the need to be proactive. The Forest Service works on public lands, and the Fire Safe Council works with communities and individuals on private lands. The Fire Safe Council and Forest Service have been meeting to try to determine the best designations and the best use of resources.

Not enough…

It isn’t enough to have people working on maps. Communities have to take an active role in becoming fire safe, and folks have to take responsibility for the forests they live in.

Drive the streets of the town you love and imagine the ridge tops red with flames. Walk out your door and wonder what you would do if smoke and flame were blowing up the canyon. What is your plan?

As big government becomes more inefficient and self-absorbed it falls more to us to take care of our own communities, our own homes.

What you can do:

There are many things you can do.

  1. Conduct a fire safe inspection of your home. There are resource materials available, or a Fire Safe and Watershed Council member will come to your home to help you assess the dangers. Make sure you have adequate water to put your house out, even if the power is out.
  2. Take an active part in community planning. "Community" here might mean you and one or two neighbors. Know what you and your neighbors will do if there is a fire. Know where the "vulnerable" places in town are, places where a fire could start, or places that would be likely to burn and spread flame if there were a wildfire.
  3. Give input to the Fire Safe and Watershed Council. The Board is seeking site specific information for each community or group of homes or facilities.
  4. Help plan and execute vegetation clearance. Be understanding when prescribed burns result in temporary smokiness. Get together with your neighbors and contact the Fire Safe council to see about vegetation removal or chipping programs. If you are a landowner, team up with neighbors, the Fire Safe Council and agencies such as the National Resource Conservation Service to see if funding is available for forest restoration work.
  5. Learn what beneficial, fire hardy plants do well in your area and become an expert in their cultivation and propagation; become the neighborhood "know it all" about fire safe landscaping.

This approach, from site specific activities to a community expectation of fire safety, can be the critical first step to protecting homes and communities and returning the forest to a sustainable ecosystem.


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