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Yuba County, Calif., Partners on Wildfire Mitigation

A collaboration among the California county and stakeholders like Cal Fire and the regional water agency aims to create a more resilient forest in a project that could be a model for other state fire efforts.

by / October 2, 2020

Yuba County, Calif., is at the forefront of a collaborative effort to develop a more resilient forest that could be a model for the state’s efforts to mitigate its growing wildfire threat. 

A recent grant of $4.5 million to the Yuba Water Agency, which is administering the project, from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) spurred the most recent effort by removing forest fuels using mastication (mulching); hand and machine piling; prescribed fire through pile and understory burning; pest management; and reforestation.

Called the Yuba Foothills Healthy Forest Project, the work targets 5,375 acres above Oroville Dam and includes as partners the Yuba Water Agency, CAL FIRE, Plumas National Forest, and the Yuba Watershed Protection and Fire Safe Council, along with local residents and private landowners.

“It’s a landscape-level project with multiple partners to do forest health treatments on about 5,000 acres of property that impacts that watershed where they have hydroelectric and drinking water sources that they’re trying to protect,” said Christine McMorrow, CAL FIRE resource management communications officer. 

The area above Oroville Dam has escaped a major wildfire recently but is overgrown and therefore ripe for a catastrophe. “It’s in the same condition — dense, overstocked forest — of all these other areas in California that have burned recently,” said Willie Whittlesey, Yuba Water Agency general manager.  

The significance of the project, along with developing a more resilient forest, is getting a diverse group of stakeholders to the table to work on the problem. “The real key to this one is we’ve got a patchwork of owners — timberland owners, landowners, rural residents — and then these little towns of a few hundred people each, and it really takes collaboration to get this work done,” Whittlesey explained.

He said anyone can ask the landowners to go out and clean up their five- or 10-acre parcel, but that’s not effective against the major wildfires we have been seeing. “It really takes all of the landowners in an area making a concerted effort, thinning the forest collectively, to have a positive impact,” Whittlesey said.

A fire above Oroville Dam would not only affect those communities, but would fill the reservoir with debris for years afterward. “The biggest impact would be the woody debris that would flow into the reservoir,” Whittlesey said. “It would be a lot the first year after the fire, but then as the trees died and fell over there’s a continuous input of woody material from the smaller streams upstream.”

The Yuba Foothills Healthy Forest Project began this year, but the efforts of the Yuba Water Agency and partners to develop a more resilient forest began a couple of years ago as part of the agency's Watershed Resilience Program, which supports forest restoration efforts in the region.

The partnerships started when a group called Blue Forest Conservation approached the Yuba Water Agency about efforts to develop more forest resiliency. That prompted an endeavor similar to the latest CAL FIRE project and treated an area of about 7,500 acres. A larger effort called the Yuba Forest Partnership, which includes eight partners, was also created and will affect 275,000 acres in the region.  

“I think people looking in are going, 'We should build something like this, but even bigger,'” Whittlesey said.

Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.

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