The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 13, No. 4, December 7, 2020
California’s 2020 wildfire season has broken records in terms of scale, duration, and intensity. And while we are still evaluating the actual ecological effects of this year’s major Sierra Nevada fires, it is clear that the combined impacts of fatalities, prolonged smoke exposure, evacuations, structure loss, impacts to forestlands, and more have been devastating for our region’s communities and ecosystems.
Image left: Photo by Stuart Palley, USFS
These impacts have made it clearer than ever that California’s conventional approach to wildfire and forest management will require bold revision to ensure that our state and our region become resilient to inevitable future fire seasons in a warmer, drier climate. That’s why this fall, SFL joined a diverse group of partners in calling on the State of California to invest $2 billion in critical forest and wildfire resiliency programs in 2021.
State funding for forest restoration has become increasingly important in recent years. Despite false claims from the Trump Administration to the contrary, since 2019 California’s investments in forest health-related programs have actually outpaced federal investments despite the federal government owning a majority of the state’s forestlands. This influx of state funds is due in part to the success of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), which is funded by the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program and supports California’s effort to stop climate change.
Our wildfire funding recommendations are divided between three stages: (1) An emergency supplemental appropriation of $500 million in January 2021 to help reduce the risk of wildfire before the 2021 wildfire season; $1.5 billion for forest health, fire prevention, community preparedness, and structure hardening activities in the state’s overall 2021-2022 budget; and (3) A statewide bond proposal to finance additional forest health and fire prevention activities on the 2022 ballot.
In late November, SFL joined 19 diverse organizations in a letter urging Governor Newsom to propose a $500 million supplemental appropriation in January 2021, to bolster state and local wildfire hazard reduction efforts prior to the 2021 fire season. The letter outlines a holistic three-pronged approach to reducing fire impacts:
1. Increase the use of beneficial fire in our fire-adapted forests: These recommendations support landscape-scale restoration strategies which restore resiliency to forests that are adapted to frequent-fires but have been degraded by fire suppression and other land management practices. Programs that support these actions include CAL FIRE’s Forest Health and Fire Prevention programs, and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy Watershed Improvement Program. Additionally, we support increasing the pace and scale of prescribed fire in California by expanding the University of California Fire Advisors Program, creating a collaborative tribal burning program at the California Natural Resource Agency, expanding CAL FIRE’s prescribed fire program, and more.
2. Make communities and structures less vulnerable to wildfire: 2020 included six of the top twenty most destructive wildfires in California history. Research shows that exposure and sensitivity to wildfire are both major factors that influence whether structures can even survive a wildfire (see page 14 in the PDF link above). Our recommendations support state programs that increase home hardening, defensible space, and fire prevention activities intended to reduce structure loss.
3. Improve emergency planning to increase community-scale resilience to wildfires: Thoughtful emergency planning activities have proved critical for helping keep people out of harm’s way during recent wildfire events. Our proposal would enhance efforts by CAL FIRE and the California Office of Emergency Service to support wildfire planning and infrastructure investments at the community scale.
Funding for investments outlined above would come from the GGRF and that state’s General Fund. Although we acknowledge that the state is in a difficult economic situation due to the COVID-19 recession, the 2020 wildfire season has shown us that investments in forest resilience cannot wait any longer. The state allocated $2.17 billion to fire suppression in 2020, which we feel must be matched by adequate funds for fire prevention and forest health (these totaled slightly over $200,000) if we are to ever build the systems necessary to live sustainably in California’s fire-adapted landscape. Additionally, although low revenues from the May Cap-and-Trade auction inflicted temporary harm on the GGRF, this funding source has since rebounded and will soon continue to fund critical programs. Furthermore, we expect many of these investments to spur job growth, and to help with California’s economic recovery.
Moving forward, the conversation around the 2021 budget will begin in early January with the announcement of Governor Newsom’s proposed budget on January 10th. We plan to continue advocating for programs that benefit forests and communities in the Sierra Nevada throughout 2021. Wildfire is a natural and essential part of California’s landscape. Making these much-needed investments now will help prepare us for future fire seasons like the one that we just experienced.
The pandemic, 2020 wildfires, and the election—this year we have lived through an unprecedented amount of turmoil and change, and all with direct impacts to forests in the Sierra Nevada. Early in the year, precautions adopted to protect fire fighters and land management practitioners from the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of prescribed fires, limits on the management of ignitions for resource benefit, and a general slow-down in other restoration treatments. As the Forest Service overcame the challenges of completing restoration actions while being “COVID-safe," the 2020 wildfire season placed extreme demands on people and resources as they sought to limit damage and contain fires. Finally, snow and rain in the Sierra Nevada have put a wrap on the fire season for this year, and we find ourselves in a post-election drama like none seen before. Yet this too will resolve and 2021 will bring a Biden/Harris administration. So, what might this new administration bring to forest conservation in the Sierra Nevada and California?
The Biden/Harris Team has assembled a group of advisors to assist in planning for the transition. Robert Bonnie, who previously served as Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the US Department of Agriculture and oversaw the Forest Service during the Obama administration, is now leading the team focused on US Department of Agriculture. Meryl Harrell, previously Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to Robert Bonnie, is also on the transition team. Together with Leslie Jones, who served as Deputy Undersecretary for the Forest Service under Obama, they produced a transition memo that frames recommendations for the agency in terms of responses needed to address climate change. Among the top five recommendations is one that addresses forest lands and links ecologically-sound forest management and prescribed fire to critically needed action, stating:
Prioritize federal investment to address wildfire by establishing a Wildfire Commission, co-chaired by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior and a Democratic and Republican governor, to offer recommendations to increase the pace and scale of ecologically-sound forest restoration on federal, state, tribal and private forest lands, modernize firefighting response in the US, address development in the wildland-urban interface, and increase the use of prescribed fire. [emphasis added] (Day 100).
This recommendation along with legislation introduced in 2019 by Senator Harris to improve wildfire planning and protection for communities (S.2882; press release) and in 2020 by Senator Wyden to increase capacity to implement prescribed fire (press release) offer a strong foundation for our work protecting communities and promoting prescribed fire in 2021.
The ability of the Biden/Harris Administration to make significant progress on forest conservation depends, in large part, on an effective working relationship with Congress. The dynamic between Congress and any given Administration in recent years has been fraught and not especially conducive to problem solving. On a recent positive note, there is some indication that a Republican dominated Senate will support President-elect cabinet appointments. Whether there is hope for more significant change on this front depends in large part on the results of the run-off election for Senate seats on Georgia slated for January 2021 and the internal politics of the Republican Party.
As forest collaboratives across California continue to plan, implement, and monitor projects to achieve resilient forests, a recent effort by the South Fork American River (SOFAR) cohesive strategy group provides an example of how varying interests have made an intentional effort to resolve controversies, in this case related to the management of red fir forests.
Red fir forests make up a large portion of the forest area in the upper headwaters of the SOFAR watershed and many other watersheds on the Eldorado National Forest. Differing views on whether and how to implement projects in areas of red fir prompted SOFAR stakeholders to develop and document agreed upon management goals and objectives for red fir forests within the collaborative area. The strategy does not replace forest planning nor does it serve as a SOFAR policy document, rather it provides guidance for articulating current and desired conditions in red fir forest types in the SOFAR area, and serves as a framework for moving red fir projects forward with stakeholder consensus. SFL worked closely with Eldorado NF staff and other SOFAR stakeholders to draft and finalize the SOFAR Red Fir Strategy, which is available via the SOFAR website here.
Image above: Red fir forest, El Dorado National Forest; by Neva Snell (c) California Academy of Sciences
Following the 2020 North Complex Fire, in early November we were fortunate to get an early view of the post-fire landscape through a series of flight trips with our conservation partners at EcoFlight. The flights provided a rare chance to view the effects of a recent fire from above, which is a helpful perspective for understanding the true extent and impacts of a modern megafire. We were joined by fire scientist Scott Stephens of UC Berkeley, who served as a tour guide for reporters from several state and national media outlets.
The North Complex—now the 6th largest and 5th most destructive wildfire in California history—burned a total of 318,930 acres on the Plumas National Forest between August and October 2020. The fire was ignited during the unusual dry lightning siege that sparked hundreds of wildfires on August 17th. The Claremont and Bear Fires, both of which started in the Middle Fork Feather River canyon, merged to form the North Complex on September 5th. A dry northeast wind event caused the fire to expand rapidly to the southwest on September 8th and 9th, burning over 180,000 acres in less than 24 hours and tragically destroying the small town of Berry Creek. The wind-driven event on September 9th burned primarily at high severity as it moved through a mix of Forest Service lands and industrial timber lands, several rural communities and west to the edge of Lake Oroville.
The flight trips, which left from Oroville, proved to be a comprehensive tour of the good, bad, and very bad impacts of a modern megafire. The flight began with striking views of the September 9th high severity event above Lake Oroville as well as views of structures destroyed near Berry Creek. The extent of the destruction visible from the air, as well as the distant view of the Oroville Dam, was a sobering reminder of how vulnerable our communities are to natural disasters during a time of changing climate. At higher elevations, however, the flight provided excellent views of areas that had burned at low or moderate severity, reducing fuels and likely providing ecological benefits from the fire. Fuels treatments near Bucks Lake and Meadow Valley helped influence fire effects in these areas and also helped fire crews to safely suppress the fire emerging from the Feather River Canyon. These areas also burned during milder weather conditions, which helped influence the fire effects as well.
During the flight, we recorded video footage which we plan to make public in a future newsletter. As we recover and take stock of the 2020 fire season, these flight trips are an invaluable educational opportunity for understanding wildfires in our modern era. We want to send a big thank you to EcoFlight for making the trips possible.
Above: (L) Structures burned near Berry Creek; (R): Mixed-severity fire in Granite Basin
Below: Mixed-severity fire near Buck's Lake (the forests in the background are unburned)
In late-September, SFL was excited to co-host a socially-distanced workshop for prescribed fire on private lands, with University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) near Nevada City. The workshop, which focused on burn unit preparation, was hosted through the Yuba-Bear Burn Cooperative, which is a prescribed burn association for private landowners in the Yuba and Bear Watersheds that SFL helped found in 2019.
Planning and preparing forestlands for prescribed fire can be one of the most challenging and time consuming stages of using prescribed fire on private lands. Many areas of the Yuba and Bear watersheds have not seen fire or any other treatment in over 100 years, and require considerable pre-treatment if a low-intensity prescribed fire is desired. The workshop was held at Lone Bobcat Woods, a privately owned area of low-elevation mixed conifer forest above the South Yuba River gorge that is protected by a conservation easement with Bear-Yuba Land Trust. Landowners Janaia Donaldson and Robin Malgren have been working for over a year to plan an 18-acre prescribed burn on their land, which they plan to implement during winter 2020/2021. The workshop provided an opportunity for the landowners to share valuable insights from their experience pre-treating their land. Jared Childress, Prescribed Burn Association Coordinator with UCCE, led the workshop and brought valuable insight from years of conducting community-led prescribed burns in California’s Coast Range.
In all, the workshop helped train 24 participants, who were spread between three separate small groups in order to allow for social distancing due to the COVID pandemic. In-person events have been few and far between in 2020, but through a combination of limited group size, mask wearing, and pre-planning, we were able to put on a safe, informative event.
For more information about the Yuba-Bear Burn Cooperative, please reach out to Jamie Ervin, Fire Restoration Advocate, at email@example.com.
Here's some things for you to watch, read, and listen to while you are at home during the pandemic. We hope you are all staying well and wish you and your loved ones good health during these trying times.
Whitebark pine has been proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. You can learn more about this species in the December, 2014 issue of The Sierra Voice.
Listen to this report (or read the transcript) from Daniel Duane in Wired: "The West's Infernos are Melting Our Sense of How Fire Works."
Watch "The Pyrocene: How Humanity Created a Fire Age," a recorded Zoom lecture by the world's foremost fire historian Stephen Pyne.
Watch "The Legacy of Harold Biswell, Prescribed Fire Mitigation in SoCal." This film features a prescribed fire workshop taught by Dr. Biswell in 1983. Biswell had been advocating for bringing back fire to the landscape for decades before this film was made, and this is nearly 40 years old.
Visit iNaturalist's site for the Sagehen Creek Field Station. Over 1,000 plants and animals, including invertebrates have been uploaded to the site. If you have some time and expertise, confirmations are needed for some of the ID's. Get involved, and help advance our knowledge of one of our treasured wild spaces.
"As wildfires explode in the West, Forest Service can’t afford prevention efforts" – LA TimesThroughout California, Oregon and other Western states, the Forest Service has a growing backlog of millions of acres of forest management projects that are ready to go, requiring only funding and manpower to complete. By staff writer Anna M. Phillips. Read it here.
"Meet the Wildfire Superspreaders" -- National Geographic. Learn what scientists are discovering about embers. By Jeremy Berlin. Read it here.
Sierra Forest Legacy is now on Twitter. Follow us at @LegacySierra for updates on forest conservation and fire restoration in the Sierra, as it happens.
It is a common practice to look to the past to understand the future. Miller and Safford do just that, in this recent review, as they try to understand if plant diversity after a wildfire is related or dependent on the historical fire regime of the area. Their hypothesis is that plants have adapted over thousands of years to the fire regime of a specific geography. Adaptations for one fire regime may not be suitable for a different fire regime. For instance, plant species that produce seeds that are able to survive low intensity fire may not be able to persist following high intensity fire. Today the fire regimes of many forested landscapes in the Sierra Nevada are significantly disrupted or altered from historical regimes. Fire suppression has caused these ecosystems to miss many fire-disturbance events that would have occurred historically. When wildfires do occur, they can be more extreme and extensive compared to historical patterns. Miller and Safford are most interested in understanding how altered fire regimes might affect plant diversity, and how these cause-effect relationships can inform management actions aimed at restoring and maintaining plant diversity in forests where fire is a significant ecological disturbance process.
They evaluated 32 studies from conifer forests with fire regime groups I, III, and IV (see box for definitions), which generally reflects the range of fire regime groups found in Western conifer forests. For each study (and fire regime group), they evaluated the relationship between plant diversity and fire severity. Figure 1 (below) illustrates the range of response patterns of plant diversity to fire severity described in the paper.
Figure 1 below: Types of relationships between fire severity and plant diversity described in the papers reviewed in the analysis (Miller and Safford 2020).
Their findings within each fire regime group were variable; plant diversity trends within a fire regime group were both positive and negative, but more often increases in plant diversity were detected following fire. In general, different responses were noted for fire regimes groups dominated by high severity fire (group IV) versus those dominated by low severity fire (group I).
High-severity fire generally resulted in greater increases in diversity in ecosystems historically dominated by high-severity fire (e.g., FRG IV) compared to those historically dominated by low-severity fire (e.g., FRG I). Based on these findings and other results, they conclude that plant diversity following wildfire depends on, to some degree, the historical fire regime of the ecosystem.
In their discussion, Miller and Safford review the literature on plant adaptations to fire to explore how they vary between the fire regimes/ecosystems examined. Generally, they found that specific adaptions to survive or rapidly recruit after severe fire were not abundant in forests dominated by low severity fire (group I). This is in contrast to plant species associated with fire regimes dominated by high severity fire that include a variety of adaptions such as heat releasing the seeds from cones (serotiny), and fire weakening seed coats to enhance germination.This point about the lack of adaptions to survive high severity fire in forests that did not evolve with it is especially important today, as patches of high severity fire become larger.This means that plant species in areas historically dominated by low severity fire will largely depend on dispersal from outside of the area affected by high severity fire, given few species have adaptations to survive high severity fire. Seed dispersal is generally by wind or powered by another organism. The distance transported for both mechanisms have biophysical limitations that could result in seeds never dispersing or not dispersing for a very, very long time into the central portion of forest burned by high severity fire. This altered landscape could result in significant changes to plant diversity.
If you have been lucky enough to camp out under the stars on a moonless night in late spring, under the giant sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada, and after a recent rainstorm--you may also have been lucky enough to see the ground studded with a bioluminescent glow emanating from one of the region’s most fascinating endemic species, millipedes in the genus Motyxia. Glowing a brilliant greenish-blue in the damp leaf litter on the forest floor, these invertebrates are not found anywhere else in the world.
Image left: Motyxia sequoia Photographed by Eden, Janine, and Jim (c) Creative Commons 2.0
The nine species, and eleven subspecies in the genus Motyxia, are native and endemic only to California. While primarily found in the southern Sierra Nevada, the northernmost species, M. pior, occurs as far north as Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park. To the south, M. monica is known from the southern end of Kern County, but a disjunct occurrence is documented near Los Angeles in the Santa Monica mountains in Southern California. In 2013, a species previously known from only one collection in the San Luis Obispo region in 1967, was re-discovered. It too is bioluminescent, and was recently reclassified as Motyxia bistipita, and is considered a geographical outlier of the species primarily known from lower elevations in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Burrowing underground during the day, Motyxia emerge at night to feed on decaying vegetation in the leaves. While associated with sequoia groves, they are also found in the duff of live oaks and are sometimes seen climbing both oak and sequoia trees. While emerging from the ground, a chemical reaction in the exoskeleton takes place, producing the luminescent glow. The entire exoskeleton, including the legs and antennae, emit light. The chemistry of this process is not fully understood to date, but it is not homologous to other light emitting invertebrates in North America, such as lightning bugs. The light emitting photoprotein responsible for luminescence in Motyxia appears to be most similar to the bioluminescent jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, or crystal jelly, native to the west coast of North America.
Adult Sierra luminescent millipedes are approximately 3 to 4 cm in length, and 4.5 to 8 mm wide (the females are larger than the males), with 20 body segments. They have 60 pairs of legs. They are typically tan to orange-pink in color, although M. pior (found in Sequoia National Park) ranges in color from dark gray to greenish-yellow to bright orange. Like many other millipedes, they also glow under ultraviolet light.
Juveniles are able to bioluminesce immediately after hatching. Initially after hatching the juveniles have just three pairs of legs and are about 2 cm long. With each successful molt as they grow, they acquire additional legs.
Experts believe that Motyxia evolved to glow in the dark as a means to warn predators that the millipede carries a formidable weapon: poison cyanide, which they can squirt at predators. They are blind, so the glow doesn’t help them find each other as is the case with fireflies and some other glowing invertebrates. Experiments conducted by entomologist Paul Marek and colleagues published in the journal Current Biology in 2011 compared predation rates in the field, using live millipedes as well as clay model millipedes. Half of the living millipedes had their luminescence concealed with paint, while half of the clay models were painted with chemoluminescent paint. In both instances, millipedes that did not glow in the dark were significantly more likely to experience predation—four times more likely in the case of the living millipedes. Predation occurred primarily from rodents, especially the southern grasshopper mouse. The term that biologists use to describe a warning system that evolves to discourage predators, such as coloration or in this case, bioluminescence, is aposematism.
There is also variation in the amount of light emitted by different species. The species that glows the brightest is M. sequoiae, found in the headwaters of the middle fork of the Tule River in Tulare County. Species at the highest elevations have been found to have a brighter glow, and larger cyanide glands, making them more toxic than those found at lower elevations with less glow and smaller cyanide glands.
While threats have not been identified for this endemic species, several can be inferred from current conditions: increased temperatures, drought, and uncharacteristic fire; the impact of predation by introduced turkeys, which scratch continuously in forest duff in the same habitats occupied by Motyxia; and possibly even over collecting for research purposes.
Watch this video of entomologist Paul Marek and colleagues discussing how they went about determining the adaptive value of bioluminescence in Motyxia species.
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