State of the trees

Local agencies strive for healthy, fire-resistant forest

Chris Haile, Battalion Chief of Cal Fire-Butte County, speaks to a crowd of Butte County residents about the hazard wildfires pose to ridge communities during a recent public presentation.

Chris Haile, Battalion Chief of Cal Fire-Butte County, speaks to a crowd of Butte County residents about the hazard wildfires pose to ridge communities during a recent public presentation.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

The forests surrounding Paradise Lake are truly beautiful—as far as the eye can see, stands of Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine and live oak make up an uninterrupted canopy of pointed tree tops.

However, that continuous canopy represents a big problem for those concerned with the health of the forest, the local watershed and fire safety. During a public presentation jointly hosted by the Paradise Irrigation District, Butte County Fire Safe Council, U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and Butte County Resource Conservation District at Paradise Lake on April 9, representatives from each organization illustrated the health of a narrow strip of untreated forest between Paradise Dam and Magalia Reservoir.

“We have a condition where the tree layer is far overrepresented than other layers in the forest,” said Beth Stewart of U.S. Forest Service. “Trees grow very easily compared to other plants, so without any kind of disturbance like a wildfire, the trees grow and over-shade the rest of the layers. As time goes by, fuel continues to accumulate because the floor isn’t receiving enough sunlight and moisture, so things can’t decay very quickly.”

The end result is a “sterile” forest lacking biological diversity and at high risk for wildfires. Such an interrupted canopy of trees allows for an uninterrupted fire with no fuel break. The strip of forest in question averages about 273 trees per acre, while a “fire resistant” forest should average around 50 trees per acre.

“There is a difference between resiliency and resistant,” said Kelly Miller of the Butte County Resource Conservation District. “Resiliency is if a fire comes through here, how does it recover afterward? Well, we don’t want a fire to come through here in the first place, so we’re looking for a fire-resistant condition.”

Such a condition goes hand-in-hand with a healthy forest—fewer trees per acre allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, resulting in more ground-level vegetation to attract animals such as deer.

Paradise Lake and its surrounding forests.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

If a fire were to strike the forest, it likely would result in erosion and the build-up of sediment in the watershed, which concerns George Barber of the Paradise Irrigation District. With the cooperation of the other agencies on hand, and input from the ridge community, he hopes to develop a management plan to present to a registered professional forester.

“Oftentimes, in my history, doing nothing is not the best alternative,” Barber said. “We’re not forests experts, so we brought in some help to figure out the best thing to do. We haven’t chosen a plan, but we’re trying to get professional and community input to make one.”

Chris Haile, battalion chief of Cal Fire–Butte County, recognizes how the health of the watershed, the forest and fire safety are interconnected, but his focus lies on protecting people who make Paradise and Magalia their home.

“We’re talking about healthy forests, but my main concern is how I take care of the 20,000-plus residents who live on the ridge,” he said. “If I get a fire that starts down in this ravine, how do I get ahead of the game and keep it away from these people’s homes?”

The devastating wildfires of 2008, which destroyed upward of 75 homes, are fresh in the minds of ridge residents. It was an anxious time for homeowners and for Haile, who oversaw the ordered evacuation of 26,000 residents through the one available escape route with the other two roads out of town blocked by flames.

“These lands are the only unburned, untreated lands in the area since the 2008 fire,” he said. “What we have been concentrating on in the few years since have been our evacuation routes, because they were clogged. You had people who were stuck in traffic for hours and hours because nothing was moving.

“If you remember what happened in Victoria, Australia, in 2010, a wildfire burned hundreds of people because they were stuck in traffic. Now, if we have people stuck in traffic, we’ve thinned back the forests on either side of the roads so we wouldn’t have a big head fire come up and consume people in their cars.”

All parties involved are striving for a lush, thriving forest that also won’t ignite during the coming dry seasons. The hope is that next time a wildfire rips through the ridge, the residents—and the trees—will be well prepared.