A prescribed burn in action—this is the site of the burn that SFI visited on our hike. The burn was completed with the help of Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association, Briceland, Telegraph Ridge, Honeydew and Shelter Cove Volunteer Fire Depts., CalFire, Prometheus Fire Consulting, UCCE, NCAQMD, and many others. photo by Matt Cocking

By Anna Rogers, Sanctuary Forest

This year we experienced what it’s like to live in the shadow of a gigafire—a fire that burns over a million acres. What began as many small lightning-sparked wildfires rapidly grew into the massive August Complex fire—now the largest fire in modern California history. And it was right in our backyard.

Sanctuary Forest owns just over 800 acres of land in the headwaters of the Mattole River watershed. At the southernmost edge of the Pacific Northwest coastal temperate forest zone, the Mattole River watershed shows clear signs of climate change at work. Longer dry seasons and winters with below-average rainfall have left this watershed marked by a regular occurrence of disconnected and dried-up pools and salmon populations at the brink of extinction. In addition, past logging practices combined with fire prevention—as opposed to indigenous cultural burning practices—have resulted in a continuous forest structure with excessive fuels primed to burn with great intensity. The key to surviving and guiding our forests and watersheds through this emerging hot, gigafire era seems to be a multi-faceted approach of action: fuels reduction and forest restoration, groundwater recharge, improved public infrastructure and ecological awareness, and a revival of cultural burning.

Sanctuary Forest is dedicated to stewarding the lands we own to protect natural and cultural resources. In 2016 a forest-thinning project took place at our 40-acre Whitethorn Grove property intended to reduce fuel loads, create a more fire-resilient landscape, and accelerate the return to old-growth conditions. In early 2020, Sanctuary Forest completed our first Beaver Dam Analog Project in Lost River, a tributary of the Mattole River. This project imitates the practices of beavers by creating small check-dams in the creek in order to slow and spread the water, reconnecting the stream to historical floodplains and increasing groundwater storage. In a September 2020 article published by National Geographic, a study showed that in addition to well-known ecological benefits like filtering pollutants, contributing to carbon sequestration, and improving fish habitat, beaver ponds and the resulting wetlands can actually slow and even stop the spread of wildfire.

Prescribed burning is an important tool that, when used properly, can significantly reduce the dangers of a wildfire during the dry season while simultaneously improving forest health and fire resilience. Sanctuary Forest conducted a public workshop in 2019, titled “Burning Around Your Home,” that visited the site of a prescribed burn implemented in 2018 near Shelter Cove. The hike focused on key components of prescribed fire planning, ecological benefits of fire, using prescribed fire to enhance defensible space, and fire as a part of grassland restoration. Participants had a chance to view the plant and animal responses to the prescribed burn, and to speak with the landowners and prescribed burn professionals. Sanctuary Forest is excited to get involved with the Southern Humboldt Chapter of the Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association (HCPBA), and we look forward to learning how we can spread more awareness of the benefits of prescribed fire within our community.

Forest management efforts can help minimize the impacts of fires; however, we should be ready for fires when they inevitably occur here. Sanctuary Forest is helping to prepare our community in many ways with the aforementioned restoration efforts, and members have also recently become engaged in an emergency water storage project on our Whitethorn Junction property. Over 350,000 gallons of water storage will be available for fire protection and drought resiliency purposes. Walker Wise, SFI Water Program Coordinator, states that the project will “be centrally located and have good access for multiple fire trucks,” and the project “should be operational by spring of 2022.” Some of this water would also be available to our Storage & Forbearance Program participants in the event of a water emergency.

With the trend of longer, hotter fire seasons expected to continue, large wildfires will increasingly involve our communities. Sanctuary Forest remains committed to collaborative preparation for when those fires arrive and to working across our watershed toward a more fire resilient landscape.

For more information: sanctuaryforest.org.