As California battles a destructive wildfire season, the state’s Resource Conservation Districts can help communities protect themselves.
By Ken Hale, Special for CalMatters
Ken Hale is a retired Cal Fire battalion chief and was chief investigator for Nevada County v. PG&E, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once again, California is forced to confront the twin challenges that a fierce new reality of catastrophic fires presents: Recover and prepare.
Even as our weary firefighters finish the task of extinguishing two of the three largest wildfires in state history, it is time to prepare our communities, our lands, our soils and our habitats for recovery before the damages are compounded. At the same time, we know that the most critical part of fire season has just begun. In view of our collective situation, fire preparations all around the state have taken on an extreme urgency.
As they plan to recover and prepare, communities and landowners across the state will be able to draw upon expertise and assistance from little-known public agencies that are well positioned to help.
California is home to 95 Resource Conservation Districts that serve rural, urban and suburban populations. Their conservation professionals and local experts are committed to helping communities protect themselves against the impacts of climate change, such as the super-charged fires that now strike us with great regularity.
For decades, these Resource Conservation Districts have worked in partnership with landowners, local governments, nonprofit agencies and the public to restore habitat, build healthy soils, enhance water quality and otherwise do the work of conserving California’s natural resources.
In the aftermath of these fires, they are prepared to step in immediately to help.
Resource Conservation Districts have the know-how to help manage public works projects, access state and federal recovery funds, plan erosion-control projects, repair roads and bridges, restore watersheds, create defensible space around properties, and much more.
In California today, no work is more urgent than preparing our lands to minimize the risk of destructive wildfires. By partnering with their local Resource Conservation Districts, communities can access specialists who can provide administrative, technical and scientific assistance in carrying out work to harden landscapes, conduct prescribed burns, responsibly clear hazardous fuels and reforest wildlands that have been charred by fire.
Working toward recovery, the Butte County Resource Conservation District teamed with partners in the Paradise community to help plant 137,000 trees this spring. It is part of a mission, in the terrible wake of the Camp Fire, to regenerate a forest that is resilient to both wildfire and a changing climate.
Working toward preparation, the Sierra and Fall River Resource Conservation Districts are taking excess wood and converting it to biochar, a charcoal-like substance that both nourishes the soil and safely stores carbon. In Ventura County, the Resource Conservation District received a grant last year to work with the local Fire Safety Council to offer free chipping and brush clearing.
About nine Resource Conservation Districts around the state are using grant funds to hire foresters who will assess private land for fire risks and help connect landowners to services that will share in the cost of clearing hazards.
The Feather River Resource Conservation Districts helped to launch a local Plumas Underburn Cooperative, and works with that new entity to host workshops on how to safely and efficiently conduct prescribed fires.
In their fire-preparedness work, California’s Resource Conservation Districts are quietly effective. Since the 1930s, when districts were created to assist farmers and ranchers to voluntarily conserve soil, water and wildlife habitats on their lands, these districts have been known for their ability to leverage resources to efficiently complete projects with minimal overhead at a reasonable cost. They can receive grants and contract directly to complete those projects. In addition, Resource Conservation Districts can develop intergovernmental agreements to carry out work on behalf of other public agencies.
Governed by locally elected or appointed boards, Resource Conservation Districts work with constituents on a voluntary basis. Their non-regulatory structure has enabled them to become trusted, neutral partners that serve as a bridge to connect property owners and the public with state and federal conservation programs.
Another fire season has announced its presence with a furiously incinerating display of devastation. Again, our resilience as a state is being put to the test. The conservation experts at California’s Resource Conservation Districts stand ready to roll up their sleeves and help get the job of hardening all of our communities against the roaring flames of the climate we now exist in.