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Calif. Group Tackles Wildfires With Reforestation Efforts

The Yosemite-Stanislaus Solutions group, composed of entities from environmental and industry interests, has dedicated itself to developing a healthier forest through fuel reduction and reforestation projects.

Forest full of fuel.
The Rim Fire torched more than 250,000 acres in California’s Stanislaus National Forest in 2013, ranking as the fifth-largest wildfire in the state at that time. It’s since dropped out of the top 10.

That tells you the intensity of the wildfire season in California, as each year fires push the boundaries of wildfire catastrophe. Among the causes are drought and an excessive fuel load caused by decades of fire suppression.

Some local groups have arisen among the ashes to take matters into their own hands and help mitigate the effects of the neglect of the forest and the increasingly dry conditions. Among the most visible groups is the Yosemite-Stanislaus Solutions (YSS) group, which calls itself a collaborative group of “a highly diverse coalition of interests,” with the common goal of maintaining healthy forests and watersheds, and fire-safe communities.

The YSS group has helped garner more than $25 million worth of state grants for wildfire mitigation projects for the Stanislaus National Forest and millions more in federal grants to national forest wildfire projects.

“Mainly what we’re dealing with is fuel reduction,” said Brian Wayland, chair of the YSS leadership team. “We don’t fight fires or light fires, we try to secure funds and offer support and try to work with the county, which has the ability to [work with] the Forest Service to get areas prepped for treatments.”

The group, composed of some 35 representatives from different entities, including industry groups and environmental groups, aims to be proactive in reducing fuel loads prior to a wildfire but also responds after the fact with reforestation efforts.

“We look at everything from fuel reduction to prescribed fire to doing more fuel breaks around communities around what you might call a well-thought-out, balanced strategy to deal with overgrown, dense forest and drought conditions,” said John Buckley, part of the YSS leadership team.

Those conditions have resulted, partly, from 100-plus years of fire suppression efforts that have left the forests fuel-choked and, with current warming conditions and drought, ready to explode. And thus, clearing the forest of that fuel is of the utmost importance to mitigate wildfire catastrophe.

As an example, back during the period between 1890 and 1915, scientists noted inventories of trees at about 25 to 60 trees per acre in mixed conifer forest areas. Today, that number is anywhere from 200 to more than 250 per acre.

“So the goal is to get forests that are not overstocked so when the bark beetles erupt during drought and there’s only so much water for so many trees, to open up the forests,” Buckley said. “We’ve only touched the surface on how much needs to be done, but we need to open up forest stands in many of the areas and create openings.”

Efforts so far have included contracting for services that support commercial thinning, biomass treatments, collecting submerged material to be chipped and sent to cogeneration plants, shredding brush fields, and prescribing burns during the coolest, safest times of the year.

The effort, Buckley said, helps the Forest Service do what it lacks the funds and capacity to do, and makes the local communities safer from wildfires and aids in drought mitigation as well. “So YSS is focused on trying to be proactive in green forest areas to reduce fire risk, and also trying to look at post-restoration to other kinds of treatments, even road improvements in those areas that have burned.”