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What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?

Deborah Eppstein, Craig Harrison & Marylee Guinon, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

Amid another extreme fire season, concerned Sonoma County residents wonder why their Board of Supervisors is fervently working to exempt new development on unsafe roads from Cal Fire safety standards.

Residents as well as the following advocacy groups submitted opposition letters: Bennett Valley Residents for Safe Development, Forests Unlimited, General Plan Update Environmental Coalition, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Council and Wine and Water Watch.

For the fourth time this year, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) has refused to certify Sonoma County’s Fire Safe Ordinance, as it does not meet safety standards. Subsequently, on November 4, the BOF unanimously adopted a moratorium on considering county certifications, having wasted untold hours and public dollars during 2020 evaluating Sonoma County’s flawed ordinances.

Cal Fire standards require new development to provide concurrent emergency vehicle access and egress of residents during a wildfire. We question why our Supervisors refuse to protect firefighters and the public in the wildland urban interface.

• What motives could justify knowingly sacrificing lives and property? Is it to promote unfettered housing and commercial development in high fire hazard locations?

• Does the County strive to eliminate all constraints to new development thereby preserving its micro-management of the approval process? Given the Supervisors have put off the General Plan indefinitely, perhaps the County lacks the strategic framework and fortitude to lead with policy?

• Or were the Supervisors woefully misinformed by County Counsel concerning the Ordinance’s lack of standards, which failed to meet Cal Fire standards?

An October 23 BOF letter (p. 2) stated BOF staff “have significant concerns” that Sonoma County’s standards do not “allow concurrent civilian evacuation.” It emphasized (p. 8) the County’s failure to cooperate, refusing even to respond to direct questions: “Sonoma County has had repeated opportunities to identify and provide citations for these standards. Sonoma County repeatedly declines to do so.”

Sonoma County finally acknowledged this fiasco and removed its request for certification from the November BOF agenda.
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Posted on Categories Forests, Local Organizations, WaterTags , , , ,

West County environmentalists recognized

Camille Escovedo, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

Sonoma County Conservation Council’s “Environmentalist of the Year” award to Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann

The Sonoma County Conservation Council bestowed this year’s Ernestine I. Smith “Environmentalist of the Year” award upon three local luminaries of the environmental justice movement at its holiday networking and environmental awards ceremony Friday, co-hosted with the Sonoma Group of the Sierra Club.

The council named Maya Khosla, Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann as its three “forest champions.” Khosla is a wildlife biologist, filmmaker and poet laureate of Sonoma County whose recent Legacy Project sought to address the 2017 Tubbs Fire and regeneration with poetry in open spaces, as stated by her website. Meanwhile, the careers of Coates and Poehlmann draw them deep into the West County forests and often the courtroom, maneuvering the legal system to prevent logging projects that jeopardize regional watersheds and forests.

“Not all grassroots organizers are really good at the technical bureaucracy of multi-page permits, understanding the fine details, but these two men have been really, really good at both of those, and try to do as much as possible within the regulatory framework,” according to Wendy Krupnick, council secretary and a member of the annual event’s organizing committee. “But occasionally, when that does not work, the only avenue left is a lawsuit.”

She said the Sonoma County Conservation Council (SCCC) receives nominations from the broader environmental justice community for review by a subcommittee of primarily members of the SCCC’s board of directors. The awardees receive a certification from the California state legislature honoring their contributions to environmental advocacy, Krupnick said.
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Posted on Categories ForestsTags , , ,

Despite what the logging industry says, cutting down trees isn’t stopping catastrophic wildfires

Tony Schick and Jes Burns, OPB

For decades, Oregon’s timber industry has promoted the idea that private, logged lands are less prone to wildfires. The problem? Science doesn’t support that.

As thousands of Oregon homes burned to rubble last month, the state’s politicians joined the timber industry in blaming worsening wildfires on the lack of logging.

Echoing a longstanding belief in the state that public forests are the problem, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents eastern Oregon, equated the federal government’s management to that of “a slum lord.” And Democratic Gov. Kate Brown on “Face the Nation” accused Republicans in the state Legislature of blocking measures, proposed by a wildfire council, that would have increased logging on public lands.

In the decades since government restrictions reduced logging on federal lands, the timber industry has promoted the idea that private lands are less prone to wildfires, saying that forests thick with trees fuel bigger, more destructive blazes. An analysis by OPB and ProPublica shows last month’s fires burned as intensely on private forests with large-scale logging operations as they did, on average, on federal lands that cut fewer trees.

In fact, private lands that were clear-cut in the past five years, with thousands of trees removed at once, burned slightly hotter than federal lands, on average. On public lands, areas that were logged within the past five years burned with the same intensity as those that hadn’t been cut, according to the analysis.

“The belief people have is that somehow or another we can thin our way to low-intensity fire that will be easy to suppress, easy to contain, easy to control. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist who pioneered research on how homes catch fire.

The timber industry has sought to frame logging as the alternative to catastrophic wildfires through advertising, legislative lobbying and attempts to undermine research that has shown forests burn more severely under industrial management, according to documents obtained by OPB, The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica.

Read more at: https://www.opb.org/article/2020/10/31/logging-wildfire-forest-management/

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Op-Ed: Wildfire safety starts with communities, not cutting forests

Shaye Wolf, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Another harrowing fire season and devastating losses of lives and homes sound an urgent alarm that California’s wildfire policy — focused on logging forests in the backcountry — isn’t working. Tragedy after escalating tragedy demands that we change course.

The good news is that a road map exists for fire policy that truly protects communities. Step one: Make houses and communities more fire-safe. Step two: Stop building new developments in fire-prone areas. Step three: Take strong action to fight climate change.

For years, state and federal wildfire policies have promoted logging of our forests. Under overly broad terms like forest management,thinning and fuels reduction, these policies do the bidding of the timber industry and entrenched agencies that are invested in cutting down trees. Yet, as more money has poured into logging, we’ve witnessed the unprecedented loss of lives and homes.

The reality is that no amount of logging can stop fires. In fact, it can even make fires burn hotter and faster. The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise spread most rapidly through areas that had been heavily logged, and we’re seeing the same patterns in this year’s fires.

A study covering three decades and 1,500 fires, co-authored by one of my colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity, found that the most heavily logged areas experience the most intense fire. That isn’t surprising given that cutting down trees creates more exposed, hotter, drier conditions and promotes the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses.

Moreover, many of California’s fires — including half of this year’s burned acreage — have occurred not in forests, but in chaparral, grasslands and oak savanna. For at-risk communities across much of the state, logging is completely irrelevant to the fire threat.
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Posted on Categories Forests, HabitatsTags , , , ,

Sonoma County parklands a mosaic of ash and unburned islands after Glass fire

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

From a distance, wildfire ash almost looks like snow peaking out from stands of barren trees and pockets of green canopy on the ridges and slopes encompassing 8,800 acres of parkland in the Mayacamas Mountains straddling the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

The Glass fire burned through the majority of these treasured preserved lands, moving throughout all of Hood Mountain Regional Park and roughly 90% of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, leaving pockets of green islands within the burn scars.

Stewards of these lands say the next several months will involve urgent work to prevent traumatic erosion to the land, stop large sediment deposits from clogging creeks, and tamping down invasive weeds so that native plants have a chance to grow back and thrive.

Though it could be months before the public is allowed to return to the trails and the stunning panoramic view of the valley from Gunsight Rock, the outlook is far from grim for the flora and creatures adapted to fire.

“It’s not a tragedy when a park burns,” said Melanie Parker, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/sonoma-county-parklands-a-mosaic-of-ash-and-unburned-islands-after-glass-fi/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , , , , ,

Op-Ed: Don’t believe self-serving messengers. Logging will not prevent destructive wildfires

Chad Hanson, LOS ANGELES TIMES

My community of Big Bear City, in the mountains east of Los Angeles, had a tense week recently. For a few nerve-racking days, the El Dorado fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres in and around the San Bernardino National Forest, threatened to move our way.

The fire had seen little movement in the previous days, despite the fact that it was burning in dense forests with many dead trees and downed logs. Weather conditions had been cool and calm. Then things changed, and quickly. The weather shifted to hot, dry and windy. Right away, the El Dorado fire began spreading much more rapidly, toward Big Bear. We were notified to prepare for potential evacuation. Several days later, temperatures cooled again, winds died down and fire activity calmed.

Scenarios like this are playing out across the western United States, especially in California and Oregon. Many homes have been lost and, tragically, at least 30 lives too. Numerous communities have been forced to evacuate, displacing thousands of families. People are scared and looking for answers.

Meanwhile, as wildfires continue in parts of the West that don’t often burn, a troubling new form of climate change denial has crept into the public dialogue, and it is only increasing the threats to public safety.

The logging industry — and the Republican and Democratic politicians whose reelection campaigns it finances — are busy telling the press and the public that they should focus on “forest management” in remote wildlands, rather than on climate change and community wildfire preparedness. Joining this chorus is a group of agency and university scientists funded by the Trump administration.

Logging bills are now being promoted in Congress, ostensibly as solutions. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced a bill last month that would severely erode environmental laws to increase commercial logging in our national forests. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would triple funding to subsidize logging on federal forestlands.
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Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , , ,

Science Says: Climate change, people stoke California fires

Seth Borenstein, AP NEWS

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.

“ Fuel moisture drives the fire business,” said University of Alberta fire scientist Mike Flannigan. “Fuel moisture is being influenced by climate change.”

In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, said University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years.

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FILE – In this Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 file photo, flames from the River Fire crest a ridge in Salinas, Calif. In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, says University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.
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They know how to prevent megafires. Why won’t anybody listen?

Elizabeth Weil, PROPUBLICA

This is a story about frustration, about watching the West burn when you fully understand why it’s burning — and understand why it did not need to be this bad.

What a week. Rough for all Californians. Exhausting for the firefighters on the front lines. Heart-shattering for those who lost homes and loved ones. But a special “Truman Show” kind of hell for the cadre of men and women who’ve not just watched California burn, fire ax in hand, for the past two or three or five decades, but who’ve also fully understood the fire policy that created the landscape that is now up in flames.

“What’s it like?” Tim Ingalsbee repeated back to me, wearily, when I asked him what it was like to watch California this past week. In 1980, Ingalsbee started working as a wildland firefighter. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in environmental sociology. And in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line, he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

So what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

Read more at https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen?utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=feature

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Sorax, the Ghost of Salmon Past, speaks at the Board of Supervisors in 2012 on the passing of the VESCO ordinance

I am a ghost of Coho Salmons past, once born and raised in Dutch Bill Creek below Occidental. My last reported sighting there was in the 1960’s. I speak for all salmon and wildlife species not able to attend your meetings.


Do you realize that as public servants and supposed stewards of the Russian River that it is the only river in California to have three listed Salmonid species: Coho, Chinook and Steelhead? That is three distinct species of unique, ancient animals. Shall I remind you that humans, all 6 billion of you, compromise only one distinct species, which at this point ought to be renamed “Homo consumous.”

We as salmon, as recently in our evolution as 150 years ago, used to live in peace with the humans of this land, and we co-evolved with the harbor seals and sea lions and our natal forested creeks. The abundance of our families was so great that your early pioneering families remarked “that we were so numerous” they could “walk on our backs.” This all changed with your arrival. In the last 100 years, or during the time of those 3rd, 4th & 5th generation families who so proudly and loudly exclaim in your newspapers to be stewards of the land, it was they who cleared this land of over 95% of its old growth forests, 95% of its riparian forests, drained 95% of its wetlands.

I ask you where are my friends the Grizzly, the Elk, the Antelope, the Marbled Murrelet? My Coho ancestors used to number 500,000 in California rivers and now our runs number less than 5,000, to as low as 1,000 individuals! We are nearing the brink of functional extinction simultaneously with such gloating of stewardship.

It is critical for all of you to recognize that, compared to the past, this land is actually in a highly degraded state. You all need to own up to the fact that your ancestors are indisputably responsible for the overwhelming genocide of the Pomo and Miwok peoples, the silvacide of the great forests, the soilacide (as your activities have eroded and compacted the once rich fertility) and the salmonicide (as I stand before you at the tail end of our existence). If you have the vision and courage, this can change, you can turn this around if you act in earnest now.

This erosion ordinance you pass today with its especially inadequate riparian setbacks is a feeble first step and leaves me with fear for my children, but a critical move in the right direction if you decide to take more steps and begin walking towards a future vision of ecological watershed integrity.

Remember, I am a fish of the forest. Without trees, my breeding streams fill with sediment, dry up due to lack of groundwater recharge and what water remains becomes lethally hot for my young. Every aspect of your development paradigm must be questioned and reevaluated with restorative criteria. You must question your roads, parking lots, housing, industrial, agricultural, logging and mining practices. We the salmon are dying from the cumulative impacts of your collective inabilities to think like a watershed. If we go extinct and fade from memory, so will you!

In closing, since my spawning gravels are so embedded with silt from the denuded, compacted hillsides, I want to offer each of you, as servants of the public trust, an egg of mine that hopefully will help your thoughts to incubate on taking the recovery of Totem Salmon seriously and birthing a new vision of a shared watershed commons for the sake of all our relations.

Thank you,

The Sorax, aka Brock Dolman, Director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.

Source: https://oaec.org/our-work/projects-and-partnerships/water-institute/

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California’s looming wildfire threat requires a cleaner, more resilient electrical grid

Ted Lamm & Ethan Elkind, CALMATTERS

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to deal with a changing climate with its web of decades-old poles and wires.

As California communities confront the reality of emerging from coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, another inevitable crisis that also requires aggressive preventative action looms: wildfire season.

In the face of this persistent threat, we need aggressive integration of clean energy technologies to power a reliable and resilient electricity grid for our homes, health care systems, transportation networks and supply chains.

Californians are familiar with the ways that climate change is increasing our wildfire risk, with six of the top 10 most destructive fires in state history occurring in the past three years. California’s electrical grid stands in the middle of this increasingly complex predicament.

At least three of those fires were triggered by utility equipment, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which took 85 lives in the process of destroying 18,000 structures and the town of Paradise. 2019 brought widespread public safety power shut-offs and far less destructive fires throughout the state, but at the cost of new outage-related risks for vulnerable communities and residents – a trade-off we may be making for the next 10 years or more.

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to weather this changing climate. Today’s grid features a web of decades- and century-old poles and wires, even as the state obtains a record level of energy from cutting-edge solar and wind technology.
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