Living With Wildfire:
California Reimagined

Californians can learn to survive wildfire in a warming world. It will mean big changes in how we think and live. Here are stories of people leading the way in communities across the state.
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Town Unites Against Federal Mismanagement to Save Forest

7 min
Kelly Sheen, Clarence Rose, Alex Cousins and Bob Morris in the Weaverville Community Forest. Even residents who have different ideas about how to use and manage the forest have come together in agreement that local control is better than leaving the federal government in charge. (Hung T. Vu/KQED)

The forest once tore this town apart.

In the northwest corner of California, the Trinity Alps tumble down to Weaverville, a community of around 3,600 people. Below the subalpine mountains, the basin has a more Mediterranean climate, and summers are dry as a bone. Most of Trinity County is federal land, including two national forests. Their complex landscape of oak woodland is thick with manzanita brush, mixed with chaparral and dense, creeping pines.

Tensions over clear-cut logging and the fate of spotted owls once turned the county into a battleground, sharpening a sprawling argument to a fine point in the 1990s.

You either wanted to exploit the forest or protect it.

Things have changed.

As trees across the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests have become drought-stressed and overcrowded, basically all but asking to burn, it’s the forest that has brought people back together. Now, a locally driven partnership forged to make a small community forest healthier is kindling a wider push for resilience and reducing fire risk across the entire county. Community members say a key strategy will be preventing what are often high-intensity wildfires by implementing lower-intensity prescribed burns to eradicate chip-dry tinder and grasses.

“There will be fire on this entire landscape. Do we want it to be controlled or do we want it to be out of control?” said Alex Cousins, a lifelong county resident. “We need to leave these forests ready to accept fire.”

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After Prescribed Burn, Wildfire 'Just Laid Down'

Preparing for fire has already helped suppress one near Weaverville.

Forested slopes bear the scars of five wildfires, which threatened the community over the last two decades. In August 2014, a spark from a boat that had come off its trailer hit Highway 299 and lifted into the tree crowns. The resulting flames, which turned into the Oregon Fire, raced across the tight canopy, forcing evacuations and threatening the high school.

Nine months before, however, federal and local partners removed some trees and thinned brush in an area called Five Cent Gulch. They then lit a prescribed fire to burn away remaining brush, logs, snags and forest debris. So when the Oregon Fire came along to threaten the area, the lack of heavy fuel on the land slowed it down, enabling crews and tanker planes to catch up and gain control.

Dylan Sheedy, a 'burn boss' with The Watershed Center in Trinity County, torches piles of manzanita brusch cleared from private land in Hayfork, California.
(Molly Peterson/KQED)

“The fire ran head on into this thinned and burned unit, and the fire just laid down,” said Nick Goulette, who directs the Watershed Center, a local land stewardship group. “My home was evacuated as a part of that fire, so I was very thankful.”

Five Cent Gulch is located within the Weaverville Community Forest, made up of some 13,000 acres governed by one of the first federal master stewardship agreements in the country. Authorized by Congress in 2003, these arrangements permit communities and other interested parties to support and fund restoration projects on forest land.

“We’re seeing more and more collaboratives not only be formed but also be effective in terms of trying to deal with forest health issues,” said Al Olson, who directs ecosystem services for the U.S. Forest Service across California.

Reducing fire risk through active management has been a goal of the community forest since its inception, says Kelly Sheen, executive director of the Trinity County Resource Conservation District.

Not managing it is not an effective tool for managing the forest,” Sheen said.

Reducing fuels by thinning the understory, removing trees to open up canopy, and burning what’s left on the ground is the strategy that scientists and policymakers say California forests need. Last year, Cal Fire announced it intended to triple the amount of land it treats in order to reduce risk. The U.S. Forest Service says its goal in 2019 is to treat 250,000 acres by either reducing and rearranging vegetation or with prescribed burns.

In Weaverville, working with the federal government to utilize more fire on the Trinity County landscape has been a huge shift.

A Common Foe

During the 1980s and ‘90s, the heat of the Timber Wars poured into every public space in the area, says Bob Morris, a 45-year Trinity County resident and environmentalist. In a small town, there's no place to hide.

“It was terrible,” Morris said. “Death threats were common. People were arming themselves.”

It got so bad, parents told their children not to walk in front of windows at night. Morris’ neighbor, a logger named Clarence Rose, became, literally, his enemy, and Rose felt the same way about him.

Then, a common foe emerged.

What got people talking again was what Morris calls the “dysfunctionality” of federal forest management.

“Environmentalists saw it, industry saw it, and that was our first unifying ‘we have something in common,’ that was the first thing that we saw.”

The Trinity River Lumber Mill, the last mill open in the county, has been modified since the 'Timber Wars' of the 1990s to handle small- to medium-sized logs, the kind that are cut through ecologically responsible thinning. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

Morris and Rose shared a growing concern about decisions made by the U.S. Forest Service in Shasta -Trinity. Then, in 1999, the Bureau of Land Management lost control of a prescribed fire, which accidentally destroyed 23 homes in Lewiston. Around the same time, BLM proposed a land swap with a private timber company of nearly 1,000 acres near Weaverville, a trade that would have likely clear-cut trees out of some of the best views in town.

That proposal galvanized local concern for the forest. After years of negotiations, those BLM acres became the first patch of the Weaverville Community Forest. Ever since, the former enemies, environmentalist Bob Morris and ex-logger Clarence Rose, have served as two of the land’s informal stewards.

“Once you find areas of agreement, you can make huge progress," said Morris. “Dissimilar interests finding common ground and working together, it’s been huge, a huge change after 40 years of polarization.”

From the start, the community has stuck to certain values: fire reduction, preserving views and recreational access, and responsible timber harvesting.

“I’m proud of it, actually,” Morris said.

And he and the other stewards hope their community forest is only the beginning.

Ecologically Responsible Thinning

In his boyhood, Kelly Sheen says, the forest was just a playground, the place where he ate from invasive blackberry plants and roamed off undermaintained trails.

“I took it for granted,” Sheen said.

Now, as chief local steward for the Weaverville Community Forest, he has mapped its every inch. Timber sales and restoration projects have improved the forest’s health, and there’s a new understanding of the benefits that prescribed burns can bring to the ecology of the land.

Larger and more deadly blazes like the Carr Fire only amplify the risk of a catastrophe.

“People have started thinking about things on a much more holistic level and across the landscape,” Sheen said.

Seeing the community forest as a success, he and other stewards take part in the Trinity County Collaborative, a group formed to expand the application of local values to a wider swath of forest whose health is mixed, at best.

In California, some forest stands are five times as dense as in the past. Oaks and conifers increasingly compete for nutrients and water, while invasive beetles threaten pines.

Fire scientists generally agree on what might help forest lands in Trinity County and Northern California. But while “brush-crushing” and removal of some trees make sense, these practices alone don't make a forest healthier. That’s why locals here say adding fire back to the landscape has to be the linchpin of any restoration strategy.

In the Weaverville Community Forest, three timber sales have yielded funds, called “retained receipts,” that have helped pay for restoration initiatives, including the one at Five Cent Gulch. Several members of the Trinity County Collaborative say this model could work across Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests, as well as throughout the county.

Advocates like Sheen, Goulette and Morris, who represent different factions and priorities on forest issues, are united in distinguishing ecologically responsible thinning from the logging practices of the past.

“All of this isn’t just based on what we want, it’s based on science,” said Alex Cousins, another collaborative member.

Cousins used to have Sheen’s job running the Weaverville Community Forest. Now he sells timber for the Trinity River Lumber Company, the last of what was once 14 mills in the county and the area's largest private employer.

A sustainable, restoration-focused local economy is a collaborative goal, too, Cousins says. “We’ve got all of our eggs in this basket,” he said. “We want to see these forests managed, we want to see this mill as a part of that, not as a sole reason for that. And we’re tired of living in smoke.”

In Trinity County, the choice to use the forest or protect it no longer seems binary. Among forest stewards, the idea now is to do a bit of both.

Federal Underfunding

For all the change in local values, the federal government still controls most of the county's land, and federal budgets still don’t reflect the vision that's taken root in Weaverville.

Data compiled by the nonprofit news organization Climate Central shows that across California, the U.S. Forest Service spends more than five times as much on suppressing fires as it does on prescribed burns and preparing for fire’s inevitable return.

As a result, most fires on federal land are still uncontrolled, and they're often high-intensity. Planned burns are used on only about a tenth as much land as the U.S. Forest Service says it wants to actively manage for fire risk each year. Meanwhile, in that same time period, wildfires have burned 10 times as many acres in California's federal forests as were treated in prescribed fires, according to an analysis of the Climate Central data by KQED.

That’s why people here aren’t waiting for the federal government or state authorities. Or, for that matter, the local fire department. The Watershed Center’s Nick Goulette says those agencies and institutions won’t save us. If a community wants to protect its values and its land, the message from Weaverville is clear.

“We assume it’s someone else’s responsibility at our peril,” Goulette says. “We have to save ourselves.”

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