After decades of suppression, agencies are returning fire to Sierra Nevada habitat.
By Emily Underwood
A view from the North Fork American River Shaded Fuel Break Project near Colfax, California. Photo: Emily Underwood
On an unseasonably warm day in a mostly rainless February, just a few miles away from the Gold Rush-era town of Colfax, retired fire battalion chief Chris Paulus pulls a lighter out of his pocket, kneels down, and flicks it against a bed of dry oak leaves. The leaves instantly catch fire, and orange flames soon lick across a small patch of forest floor.
Like much of the Sierra Nevada, more than a century of fire suppression has left this forest choked with dry, dead fuels and highly flammable plants like invasive Scotch broom. But the ravine where we’re standing is light-filled and open, because much of the vegetation that would normally be piled up against older, larger trees has been cleared away or burned.
Paulus and crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the National Guard, and California Conservation Corps have painstakingly cleared much of the brush from this gully, part of an 830-acre shaded fuel break running parallel to the North Fork American River outside the city of Colfax. The purpose of the project is not to stop wildfire, but to change its behavior, slowing its progression or nudging it in one direction or another, Paulus says. Ideally, it will provide fire crews with a safer position from which to fight wildfires, and a buffer zone for Colfax, Hwy 80, and the energy and water infrastructure of more than half a million Pacific Gas & Electric Company customers.
After serving as a battalion chief in CAL FIRE’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit in northern California, Paulus retired in 2016, only to be rehired by the Placer County Resource Conservation District to lead this $2.5 million project. For Paulus, the North American River Shaded Fuel Break Project is the magnum opus of his long career, and the reason he came back from retirement to work as a contractor. Although he tried to negotiate the conditions of his return — no cell phone, no email, no uniform — he only got a few of those things, he jokes. Still, “this is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” he says.
The project is one of 35 vegetation treatment projects that Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized in 2019. Determined to act quickly in the wake of the deadly Camp and Wine Country fires, Newsom gave CAL FIRE 45 days to come up with projects that included clearing dead trees and brush and doing prescribed burns on 90,000 acres of land across California. To expedite the process, Newsom declared a state of emergency, exempting the projects from environmental regulations including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires public agencies to conduct a thorough, public review of the potential environmental impacts of projects.
That move “created a lot of animosity” in many environmental organizations, who felt that the governor’s order created a dangerous precedent for projects to be completed without due consideration for plants and wildlife, says Nick Jensen, lead conservation scientist for the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). But Paulus, a longtime member of CNPS and self-taught botanist, sees his own project as an opportunity to demonstrate that a fuel break can not only reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires to communities, but restore biological richness and resilience to long mismanaged forests. Denise Della Santina, a conservation ecologist who volunteers for the Redbud Chapter of CNPS, describes Paulus as an important “bridge” between CNPS and CAL FIRE, who is “sensitive to the natural resources.”
In the gully, Paulus watches his fire with an expression of calm satisfaction, confident that it won’t blaze out of control. As the fire spreads to one foot, then two feet across, however, Jeanne Wilson, president of the CNPS Redbud Chapter, gets nervous. Unable to contain her anxiety, she soon leaps onto the fire and starts stomping out the flames.
“Jeanne, you’re ruining my demonstration,” Paulus admonishes, gently extinguishing the rest of the flames with his boot. He brushes away some burned leaves, then shows how the soil beneath is still damp and cool, webbed through with roots and fungal filaments.
Charcoal from low-intensity fires can improve soil, making it more porous and providing habitat for billions of microorganisms, Paulus says. But the extremely hot, intense fires which are on the rise in California often reduce soil to a fine ash that easily erodes and blows away, and has none of this soil’s healthy, crumbly structure.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the long-term effects of such severe fire on forests, but some research suggests that it can reduce important indicators of soil fertility such as microbial respiration and organic carbon content for decades, says Hugh Safford, a forest ecologist at the United States Department of Agriculture-Forest Service and University of California-Davis. For Paulus, the point of the shaded fuel break is not only to protect communities, but to prevent fires that burn so hot that they “kill everything and crack the rocks.”
Prior to Euro-American settlement, wildfires swept through the Sierra Nevada’s mid-elevation forests every 10 to 20 years on average, Safford says. Based on tree ring records, historical observations, and studies of forests in northwestern Mexico, which have a similar climate and species to California forests but have undergone much less logging and fire suppression–Safford and colleagues have calculated that forests like the one in Colfax are three to four times as crowded as they used to be, on average. Logging practices that replaced large, old trees with dense stands of younger trees exacerbated the problem: today, Sierra Nevada forests average 150 to 200 trees per acre, whereas past forests averaged around 50 to 60, Safford says. Full of big, old-growth pine trees interspersed with denser forest patches, shrubs and meadows, these were the Sierra Nevada forests that early settlers marveled at, and soon took to logging, he notes.
We need to return fire back into these systems.
—John Keeley, Fire Ecologist
Overcrowded forests and global warming mean that when wildfires do burn in the Sierra Nevada, they are much bigger and hotter than they once were, Safford says. Between five and 15 percent of wildfires in the Sierra Nevada once burned at “high-severity,” a technical term which means that more than three quarters of the canopy trees are killed. Today, 30 to 40 percent of Sierra Nevada forest fires burn at high-severity. “In some of these fires, like the Rim Fire or the King Fire, patches [in which all trees are killed] are thousands and thousands of acres in size,” Safford says.
Many ecologists believe that it is time to reintroduce fire to the Sierra Nevada. “We need to return fires to those ecosystems, and we need to return them to a frequency that was probably representative of what Native Americans did in local situations and what happened throughout most of the landscape through lightning,” says Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Deliberate burns are only appropriate in some parts of California, however, Keeley emphasizes. In other ecosystems, such as the chaparral of southern California, wildfires are burning far more frequently than they used to, and the landscape needs less frequent wildfire to thrive, not more. (Keeley, along with ecologist Alexandra Syphard, recently co-authored two articles on fire risk in CNPS’s scientific journal, Fremontia, Vol. 47, #2.)
In the forests around Colfax, at an elevation of roughly 2,400 feet, there’s no question that wildfires once burned “surprisingly often” compared to today, Safford says. Some of the fires were natural in origin, ignited by lightning. But many were also set by Native American tribes, who used fire as a land management tool in that area for at least 7,000 years prior to Europeans’ arrival.
Born in Grass Valley, as a boy Paulus became fascinated by the many uses of native plants, especially for food. When he became a wildland firefighter in the 1980s (following the same vocation as his father, uncle, brothers and most recently, his son), he started paying close attention to how and why native plants burn, and learned as much as he could about the indigenous use of fire in land management, delving into studies such as those by UC Davis researcher Kat Anderson, author of Tending the Wild.
Paulus’s plan for the North Fork site draws on indigenous methods of burning to encourage native geophytes, a group of plants that have underground storage organs, such as bulbs. Low-intensity burns timed in the winter, before plants germinate, can create the open clearings and provide nutrients the plants need to thrive, he says.
As Paulus walks over the recently burned ground on the North Fork site, he revels in the tender green shoots starting to poke up, foreshadowing a spring bonanza of wild hyacinths (Dichelostemma multiflorum), fawn lilies (Erythronium sp.), and yellow star tulips (Calochortus monophyllus). Walking beside a crystal clear stream running down the ravine, lined with native grasses and an occasional wavy-leaved soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), Wilson exclaims over each native plant she sees, while simultaneously ripping out invasive Scotch broom by the handful. “She always does that,” Paulus says, approvingly.
Wilson and Paulus first met during the 2015 Lowell Fire, which burned several thousand acres east of Grass Valley. A former UC Davis employee, Wilson had just retired to the area, and was taking a nap when a neighbor knocked on the door to warn her about the fire. After she and her husband evacuated, Wilson attended a meeting help by CAL FIRE in which Paulus was serving as the fire operations chief. His command of the local topography and vegetation, and understanding of how the different types of fuels, both native and nonnative, contributed to the fire’s spread, was impressive, Wilson remembers. After CAL FIRE contained the fire, sparing her house, Wilson asked Paulus to come to her property to look at a stand of dead ponderosa pines that had been decimated by bark beetles. Paulus suggested ways to make the property safer while simultaneously restoring native plants, and the two struck up a friendship.
Paulus admits that the two are an odd match. “We are at opposite sides of the political spectrum,” he says, good-humoredly. But their shared love of native plants forged a warm camaraderie, evident as we pile into Paulus’s truck and drive to a different area of the fuel break. It’s a completely different landscape from the wooded dell we’ve just left — exposed and open, with a glorious view of the North Fork American River canyon. Most of the plants we see are shrub-like and stunted, because they’re growing over California’s state rock, serpentinite. As we walk over chunks of the pale green rock, Wilson points out some low-lying native species: sticky California yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) and tiny purple red maids (Calandrinia menziesii).
It takes science-based organizations like CNPS to make sure that we don’t prescribe a cure that is worse than the disease.
— Nick Jensen, CNPS
“Good eye, Jeanne!” Paulus says, whenever Wilson spots a new treasure.
Serpentine soils have high concentrations of heavy metals and low levels of many essential nutrients. As a result, plants that grow in these soils have developed strange and unusual adaptations, and include many of California’s rare and endangered species. The North Fork project includes multiple plant communities that would historically have burned at different intervals, and thus must be treated differently, says Paulus. There would have been more frequent fires in the ponderosa pine and black oak stands, for example, and a lower frequency of fire in the shrub-covered areas growing in serpentine soil.
On this particular patch of chaparral, Paulus has been careful to protect any sensitive or rare plants, and to create buffer zones around scattered native shrubs while clearing what was once an impenetrable wall of manzanita. But Paulus acknowledges that the execution hasn’t been perfect. The terrain on the left side of the road looks much rawer than the right side, for example. This is because — due to time and budget constraints — his crews had to use a tool called a masticator, a crane-like machine that drops down on vegetation like an immersion blender.
The masticator is a “git-er-done” kind of tool,” Paulus says. “It’s cheap, it’s fast, and the vegetation that’s here today can literally be gone tomorrow.” But mastication is also “controversial, and needs to be further refined to be accepted in the ecological community,” because it can devastate native vegetation and even make an area more vulnerable to wildfire, he says.
Paulus would like to burn or remove the piles of dead brush left behind by the masticator before summer, for example, but that may not be possible before fall. Wrangling work schedules and budgets is the most stressful part of running a fuel management program, he says, adding that California needs a dedicated workforce “that can make careers out of ecosystem restoration.”
The question of who should be doing vegetation treatment in California and how much training and oversight is needed is at the core of controversy about many fuel management projects. In another nearby fuel management project authorized by Gov. Newsom, the Ponderosa Project, Della Santina has worked with a different branch of CAL FIRE, which has inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation working on a site that hosts endangered Stebbins’s morning glory (Calystegia stebbinsii.) Because Della Santina had worked on the site before, she was able to “educate and fine tune the work that they’re doing,” she says, adding that “I think that they’ve done a really good job.” But there’s no guarantee a botanist like her will be involved in all such projects. “It’s about what happens on the ground, and that takes having someone there to see it,” she says.
Such oversight is going to be hard to enforce without legal action, says Frank Landis, the CNPS San Diego chapter conservation chair. Recently, CAL FIRE launched a second round of vegetation treatment projects under the umbrella of a programmatic environmental impact review, or PEIR — a type of review usually reserved for projects such as big housing developments, which are going to be done in many different phases. If the environmental impacts of a project are the same for each of, say, 20 phases, a programmatic EIR analyzes the common environmental impacts of each phase so that they only have to do it once, Landis explains.
That’s a problem, given the diversity of plant habitats in California, says Jensen. Practices such as prescribed burns, which may be beneficial in Sierra Nevada forests in northern California, for example, could be extremely damaging in southern California, where many chaparral species must be free from fire for decades in order to reproduce, he says. “It takes science-based organizations like CNPS to make sure that we don’t prescribe a cure that is worse than the disease,” he says.
Under the current rules, objectors may comment that an issue or required analysis was not conducted for a given project, but if CAL FIRE disagrees, there will be no recourse but to file a lawsuit, Landis says. That gives short shrift to public input and expertise from organizations like CNPS, he and others worry. Unless a lawsuit succeeds in stopping the new PEIR, Landis says, “individual chapters [of CNPS] will have to scrutinize and potentially fight each project individually, at the grassroots level.”
Paulus doesn’t think that lawsuits are a constructive solution for the conflicts that sometimes arise between CAL FIRE and environmental organizations. Instead, he argues that the answer lies in education and better relationships, like the one he’s formed with Wilson. Although in-depth knowledge and awareness of how to protect and restore native ecosystems can require decades of education, Paulus is convinced that a great deal of important information can, and should, be explicitly taught in short periods.
“Chainsaw operators don’t need to be botanists — they just need someone to tell them what to cut,” he says. Paulus gets frustrated by political battles that often stymie cooperation between environmental groups and CAL FIRE, not to mention despairing headlines by major media outlets that declare California “unlivable.” “It’s all fixable — there’s nothing that can’t be fixed,” he says.
Historically, CAL FIRE has had a Marine-like reputation, says Safford. “Bulldozers, planes, they’re putting the darn thing out, whatever it takes.” In recent years, however, the agency has started to think more about the role of fire as a tool for ecological restoration, adding environmental scientists and foresters to their state and local units, he says. Recently, the agency hired Safford’s lab at UC Davis to run a monitoring program that will study the short and long-term effects of prescribed burns carried out by CAL FIRE and other state and federal agencies. “It’s been cool to see the evolution of their thinking on the use of fire as a management tool.”
Of course, even the most effective vegetation management cannot solve California’s wildfire problem. While there’s convincing data that shaded fuel breaks like the North Fork project can provide a strategic advantage for firefighters, allowing them to slow the fire’s speed, reduce its intensity, or change its direction, there’s “no evidence” that a shaded fuel break can stop the kind of massive, wind-driven fire that consumed Paradise in 2018, says Keeley.
To reduce such losses will require directing more resources toward the most combustible part of any landscape: houses. Evidence that trees are not the problem can be seen in aerial photos of neighborhoods that show “piles of ashes with green trees between them,” Paulus says. To keep those enormous concentrations of fuel from producing massive conflagrations, homeowners must also do everything in their power to “harden” homes, including building closed eaved houses where ember cast can’t find as much surface area to land, and keeping roofs clear of dry leaves and debris, says Tiffany Yap, a conservation scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Californians must also rein in the urge to build more homes in places that are likely to burn, adds Stephen Strader, a hazards geographer at Villanova University. In 2018, Strader found that the number of Americans building homes in wildfire-prone areas had increased more than a thousand-fold between 1940 and 2010, a trend that continues unabated. “Unfortunately, especially in places like California, we have not seen any slowdown of people building in these wildfire-prone areas,” Strader says. “Every year, every month, a new subdivision goes up in an area that’s been burned before.”
It may take decades, even centuries, to make California not only safer for people, but restore the biodiversity and richness it had even a century ago. But there’s also a hopeful message in Paulus’s efforts: By interacting with California’s ecosystems, we can restore them.
Paulus drives up a dirt road to the top of a ridge that his crews are clearing and burning. The crews look sweaty and tired, having hacked through another manzanita jungle. As we climb, the air gets smokier, and Paulus points out all the plants marked with fluorescent pink tags, indicating they shouldn’t be damaged.
This little nob, comprised of just a few acres, hosts only a dozen or so native plant species, Paulus says. Based on a CNPS-led plant survey on another nearby site where Paulus has been doing prescribed burns, Mount Howell, he believes it could soon foster at least 130 different native plants, including lilies, orchids and native grasses. As we walk back toward Paulus’s truck, a breeze picks up, making the ponderosa pine needles shimmer and rustling a stand of golden cup oaks. Near the edge of a smoldering burn pile, Paulus points out the emerging green stem of a yellow star tulip. “Little geophytes, just waking up — this is the greatest reward,” he says.
Emily Underwood is the Publications Editor for CNPS.