USA – As a registered forester, I have spent decades observing trees in Novato, where I live. This year I’m seeing something unprecedented: large areas of trees displaying unusual colors and looking unhealthy.
As president of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, I know these dramatic new conditions underscore Marin’s need to get better prepared for wildfires.
In June, I asked other experts to join me to look at vegetation health in the Indian Valley Preserve. We found bay and madrone trees abnormally changing color, losing leaves and struggling. In other areas of Marin, vegetation is stressed and dying, displaying colors and behavior never seen before. Moisture in Mount Tamalpais’ chaparral is dramatically below normal and will drop even further as we enter the height of fire season. These transformations are all around us.
According to landscape advisor Steven Swain, “Marin forests are changing before our very eyes.”
Marin is not alone. Western forests are drought stressed and losing vigor, mutating from green to yellow to brown. This leads to vegetation becoming drier than normal, increased dead wood and leaf loss — adding to ground fuel. These conditions exponentially increase the risks of extreme wildfires.
Why is this happening? California has experienced a series of extreme droughts starting in 1976-1977 followed by more during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. We are now in the worst drought in 140 years, with Marin receiving less than 40% of its average annual rainfall last season following a dry winter.
These droughts, along with increasing temperatures, lower humidity and decades of fire suppression, have led to enormous, unprecedented wildfires, with faster rates of spread that are much more difficult to control. The last five years has witnessed the most extreme wildfires (along with thousands of other fires) in California’s history:
• 2017: Tubbs Fire, destroying parts of the North Bay, killing 22 people
• 2018: Mendocino Complex Fire (459,123 acres) and Camp Fire, destroying the town of Paradise and killing 85 people (153,336 acres)
• 2020: A record 4 million acres burned, including the August Complex Fire (more than 1 million acres) along with Glass, Woodward, Walbridge and Creek fires
• 2021: The Dixie (963,276 acres) and Caldor (219,267 acres) fires are still burning
Given today’s unprecedented fuel conditions, fire modeling systems cannot keep up. We have entered a new paradigm, which underscores the critical importance of preparing for wildfires. What can be done?
Vegetation management is one of the most effective tools to prepare for wildfires: it slows the spread, buys time to complete evacuations and gives firefighters a better chance. Examples of successful vegetation management projects include:
• Caldor Fire: Flame lengths dropped from 150 feet to 15 feet when the front entered a treated forest landscape in South Lake Tahoe
• Creek Fire: When fire reached treated landscape (near Shaver Lake in Fresno County), the flames rapidly changed behavior, reducing their intensity
• San Rafael Hill: A recent fire was stopped when it reached a shaded fuel break that MWPA supported
Approved by voters in 2020, the wildfire authority and its 17 member agencies are working on more than 100 vegetation management projects. They include countywide evacuation route clearing and strategic goat grazing. MWPA sponsored more than 5,000 curbside pickups from its “chipper day” program. It has conducted more than 23,000 home inspections to show homeowners how to create defensible space and harden their homes.
One Tam (a partnership of Mount Tam stakeholders) has taken the innovative step of applying for an emergency grant from NASA to monitor Marin’s forest health. County Fire Chief Jason Weber commends this approach: “New information will allow us to better target areas more susceptible to wildfires and assess the adequacy of our mitigation efforts.”
The most critical element of our countywide approach is homeowners creating defensible space and hardening their homes. These steps work. Please visit firesafemarin.org to learn more about what you can do.
Our new paradigm requires all of us to prepare for wildfires.
Bruce Goines is president of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority board, a member of the Novato Fire District board and a licensed forester. MWPA Board Director Julie McMillan contributed to this article.