MCCWPP – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 topics

DEFINING WILDLAND-URBAN INTERFACE BOUNDARIES IN MENDOCINO COUNTY
WILDFIRE SEVERITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE
THE “HUNDRED YEAR PLAN”
COMMUNITY PROJECTS

DEFINING WILDLAND-URBAN INTERFACE BOUNDARIES IN MENDOCINO COUNTY

“Our whole county is a WUI!” So responded county residents when meeting facilitators described the term “Wildland-Urban Interface” and asked attendees to name their communities. Indeed, they were very close to the truth, and with this in mind, we will attempt to define the WUI situation in our county’s various areas.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 provides that, in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, communities themselves may define the sizes and boundaries of their Wildland-Urban Interface areas. This means that, based on their local topography, weather, wildland fuels, and other factors, they may determine an appropriate distance away from their population centers within which vegetation reduction projects should be undertaken to protect their communities.

Defining such boundaries in Mendocino County is a difficult task, for this reason. The majority of Mendocino County’s residents live not in the Interface per se but rather in the Wildland-Urban Intermix, in homes and small communities scattered throughout thick wildland fuels, with no clearly distinguishable boundaries. This situation resulted in part from a lack of decisive planning relative to wildfire danger in early settlement days, as was noted in the CAL FIRE Executive Summary at the beginning of Chapter 3. It resulted also from the strong desire of many Mendocino County residents to live in privacy, surrounded by the untouched beauty of pines, tanoaks, manzanitas, scotch broom, and other vegetation that happens to be highly flammable.

At this time, however, the county’s communities may be preliminarily divided into the two types of WUIs: Interface and Intermix.

Interface Communities. These larger population centers, which are cities containing just under one-third of the county’s residents, have

discernable urban-interface boundaries:

  • Willits, in Planning Zone 1
  • Ukiah, in Planning Zone 2
  • Fort Bragg, in Planning Zone 4

We wish to identify the WUI boundaries of these communities as extending five (5) miles beyond the borders of their city limits.

Intermix Communities. These smaller population centers, most of which are located along a portion of one of the county’s major roads, have little or no distinct interface boundary, and most are immediately surrounded by wildland fuels:

  • Leggett and Piercy, small towns located in thick forests along the Eel River
  • Branscomb, to the west of Laytonville, a lumber mill town in thick forest
  • Brooktrails, with 4,000 persons living mostly on heavily wooded hillsides
  • The coastal towns of Gualala, Point Arena, Manchester, Irish Beach, Elk, Albion, Little River, Caspar, Cleone, Westport, and Rockport, located on the coast and intermixed with abundant trees and other vegetation
  • Redwood Valley, Calpella, Hopland, Laytonville, Covelo, Yorkville, Boonville, Philo, and Navarro, small population centers in the flatlands, surrounded immediately by light flashy fuels such as oak woodlands with tall grasses
  • Potter Valley in the eastern-most valley of the county, primarily an agricultural town surrounded by cultivated fields intermixed with trees and native brush.

We wish to designate a WUI boundary of five (5) miles around the Intermix communities listed above and all self-identified communities.

Wildfire Severity and Climate Change

Wildfires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. They clear out heavy accumulations of underbrush, stimulate plant re-growth and release nutrients into the soil. Historically, Mendocino County forests burned every two to twenty years with many fires being ignited by Native Americans. These frequent, low intensity fires promoted open, low density tree stands that kept fires at the surface of the forest floor when they burned. Today, the building of housing developments within our forest lands and the need to protect valuable resources has led to decades of fire suppression.  When fire is suppressed, woody debris accumulates on the forest floor and small trees and shrubs become dense, contributing to high fuel loads (vegetative material available for combustion).  The result is an increased risk of high intensity fires that have greater potential to move from the forest floor into the tree canopy where it can easily spread and become more difficult to control.

Wildfire risk may be further compounded by climate change. Climate change research suggests that wildfire risk could increase with predicted warmer temperatures and more frequent, severe droughts which create extremely dry forest conditions that are more conducive to ignition and spread. The wildfire “season” may become longer as conditions become drier and hotter for a longer period of time. Some trees may become stressed due to drought and will die or succumb to disease and pests such as the bark beetle which has killed thousands of pine trees in and around Mendocino County as a result of the recent drought. An increase in dead, standing trees may contribute to high fuel loads. The potential for long, dry forest conditions coupled with commonly high fuel loads may result in more frequent, high intensity wildfires that are likely to have adverse impacts to forest lands, carbon sequestration, suppression costs and risks to life and property.

THE “HUNDRED YEAR PLAN”

To preface the locally generated list of projects, it should be observed that a strong theme emerged from our public meetings.  Mendocino County has a large number of rural unincorporated communities and “subdivisions” that developed historically around lumber camps, fishing and farming communities. These communities and subdivisions would be planned very differently today, but many have existed for a century with established residential communities. Often these older communities have only one road in and out and are surrounded by the wildland interface.

Because of the fires during the summer of 2015 in neighboring Lake County, citizens are concerned with improving their roads with vegetation reduction efforts, development of turn-outs to facilitate entry of fire fighters and the egress of evacuating residents, improving signage, and, where possible, development of a second way out. But that, on its own, will not mitigate overall fire risk throughout the State.

The California landscape is a highly fire-adapted one, as are all the native species within it.  If we can develop a statewide plan with specifics of need for each county, try to check off a few elements each year, model a fire adapted landscape and engage the support of residents in terms of their own defensible space, we should be able to reduce risk throughout the state to a level that individuals living in the WUI or Intermix communities can maintain on their own. This effort would reduce firefighting costs, damage to public and private property and infrastructure and would require much less maintenance. California native communities have traditionally maintained the landscape with fire and found little to fear from it. We envision a day when all California communities will return to that condition.

We know that Mendocino County does not face this problem alone. We will advocate with State fire officials and planners for a “Hundred Year Plan”. We envision a long-term, stable investment at the state level in strategic thinning of forest lands throughout the state to return California forest lands to their natural, fire resistant condition and pre fire suppression stocking levels. The problem was more than a century in the making and it may take nearly as long to remedy, but we feel strongly that this should be a high priority use of SRA funds generated by fees.

Goat Fire 2000 – Area in red thinned in 1990, fire left the crown and went to the ground.

View the list of local project here