Today’s wildfires are often larger and more catastrophic than in the past. Decades of fire suppression and an inability to manage forests through controlled burns, thinning, and pest/insect control play a big role in this. For example, where California once had about 40 trees per acre, it now has about 100 trees per acre. Today, on average 7 to 8 million acres of forests and grasslands burn annually, double the figure from three decades ago.
Soaring temperatures, high winds, and widespread lightning strikes (and, in some cases – arson) have sparked wildfires that have charred more than 5.9 million acres in the country this summer, much of it in the American West.Local water managers are being impacted, while federal lawmaker and academia seek ways to improve management of Western forests.
Southern Oregon Irrigation Districts Grapple with Devastating Almeda Fire
This short video captures the horrific intensity of the Almeda fire last week in Southern Oregon as it ravaged Talent Irrigation District’s facilities. The District headquarters and equipment experienced heavy damage and losses, including the fuel tank you’ll see exploding in the video. No one was hurt, but District personnel will have their hands full with operations cleanup for some time. The District office was without power for almost a week, during which time the backup generators were employed. District personnel relied upon cell phones and hand-held radios to direct operations and dispatching.
Neighboring Medford Irrigation District lost power at its Phoenix diversion as the fire tore through the community last week. The fish screens became plugged with debris and the entire west canal was shut down. MID has cleared the canal system and manually cleaned the fish screens to get the canal flowing again.
Rogue Valley irrigation districts are working hard to put diversions back online and running water to producers as the irrigation season comes to an end.
Alliance Supports Emergency Wildlife and Public Safety Act
A key initiative of the Family Farm Alliance in recent years has been to advocate for active forest management that could potentially increase water yield, improve water quality, provide for jobs, and reduce the cost of firefighting while increasing forest resiliency. As part of this effort, the Alliance has urged the federal government to prioritize actions that would implement necessary forest management projects on federal lands. These projects can help reduce the existential threat posed by wildfires, to our headwaters lands and to the water supplies of the West.
Related federal legislative efforts are underway, intended to reduce the threat of wildfire to communities and watersheds. A Senate subcommittee today conducted a hearing on S. 4431, the bipartisan Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, sponsored by Senators Feinstein (D-CA) and Daines (R-MT). This letter of support for S. 4431 – signed by two dozen national, state, and local water entities, including the Family Farm Alliance – was submitted to the subcommittee prior to the hearing.
This bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to complete three landscape-level, collaborative projects proposed by governors to decrease the risk of wildfire. Eligible activities would include mechanical thinning, slash and ladder fuel reduction and controlled burns utilized to improve wildlife habitat, watershed quality and landscape health.
Selected projects would be expedited through a streamlined process to ensure timely analyses so work can be done in an expedited manner. The bill would simplify efforts to reduce fuel loads near USFS trails, roads and transmission lines, for areas less than 3,000 acres in size.
The bill would also create a new grant program to facilitate the removal and transportation of woody biomass to conversion facilities.
Reducing the threat of wildfire to communities and watersheds is a critical issue in the West. The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act would help advance necessary forest management projects in a timely and collaborative manner while preventing catastrophic wildfires.
Past Wildfires Offer Roadmap for Forest Management’s Effects on Water
Meanwhile, new research from the University of California, Merced looks at past wildfires to see how forest management can affect water. In California, forest restoration is often associated with mitigating wildfire risk and improving ecosystem health throughout the Sierra Nevada. But restoration also dramatically affects water use within forests and the amount of runoff that flows downstream.
The Sierra Nevada provides more than 60 percent of California’s water supply and sustains a globally important agricultural region. Quantifying the water-related benefits can be critical in showing the true value and cost-benefit of forest management. But until now, there hasn’t been enough locally relevant data to incentivize restoration projects.
New research from UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI) fills this data gap and provides a method to monetize the water-related benefits of forest thinning.
CLICK HERE for the complete UC Merced press release.
Western wildfire disasters are becoming an annual occurrence and underscore the importance of improving on-the-ground management actions that can lead to improved forest health.