Amid the ruins of last summer's CZU Lightning Complex fire, a fire still burns in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its smoke and flames may not be visible, but it's deep underground, in the root systems of charred redwoods.
The fire would normally be extinguished by winter rains. This year, with 27 inches less rainfall than normal, there wasn't enough water to finally douse it, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's CZU Unit Division Forester Rich Sampson said.
"It's like a peat fire. When you see a 60-foot redwood, think of a root system that can go out 30 to 40 feet on each side and down deep," he said.
But just because the flames are underground doesn't mean they're not dangerous: Fallen needles and leaves have created a new duff layer, and if there is just enough oxygen, dry weather and wind, the surface will catch fire. Then, burning material carried by the wind can ignite trees, shrubs and grasses, he said.
Such a fire has already broken out. In San Mateo County's Butano State Park, fire moved from the redwoods' underground root systems to the surface, scorching 6 acres on April 2, he said. This year's continued drought is an ominous sign to Sampson and other local fire officials. Last year's dry weather, combined with lightning, caused the 86,509-acre CZU conflagration in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
"We're going to see fires like this in the summer," Sampson said of large wildfires similar to the CZU fire.
Cal Fire has already seen five fires in San Mateo County between March 31 and April 5, the majority caused by people burning piles of vegetation or trash. In one case, a controlled burn of grass thatch spread 100 feet to the adjacent timberland before firefighters could extinguish it, he said. The larger, 15-acre North Butano Fire occurred on Jan. 18 when the Bay Area should have been in the midst of its rainy season. Statewide, Cal Fire has logged 2,887 acres burned and 845 incidents, according to its website.
Now some land managers, local agencies and the state of California are seeking to stay a step ahead through their plans to manage vegetation. On April 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $536 million funding plan to help improve California's wildfire resilience with support from the state Legislature. The funding is welcome news to agencies, but even as they await the additional funding, they are already taking proactive measures.
Sampson said fire agencies are currently stepping up patrols. Wildfire cameras enable the agency to check areas quickly and remotely. Cal Fire is also adding staffing: In March, Newsom authorized $80.74 million in emergency funds for 1,399 additional firefighters with Cal Fire to help with fuels management and fire fighting. Some of those seasonal firefighters have already been hired; they usually don't start work until August.
Along Highway 35 in La Honda, Cal Fire and the San Mateo County Public Works Department have been cutting back vegetation to create shaded fuel breaks, areas where the understory growth has been thinned out or removed to keep fires from spreading into the tree canopy.
In San Mateo County, work will begin this summer in Huddart and Wunderlich county parks to thin forest floor vegetation, remove dead trees and take out small trees up to 8 inches in diameter. Crews will also clear tall, dense brush along the parks' boundaries, fire roads and residential roads to maintain routes for evacuation, emergency response and fire-fighting.
The work is being done through a partnership of the San Mateo Resource Conservation District and San Mateo County Parks and funded by Cal Fire as part of the California Climate Investments Program, according to a statement from the county parks.
The program will treat 218 acres in Huddart and 184 acres in Wunderlich over the next three years. Both sites are located where forest land abuts residences, the so-called wildland-urban interface, the parks department and conservation district said in a joint statement.
"These projects are vital to protecting our local forests. The 2020 CZU fires showed us that fire knows no borders. Forest management at Wunderlich and Huddart county parks will improve the health of these forest ecosystems, enhance their resistance to catastrophic fire, and help our communities be safer," said Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, in the statement.
Improving forest health can also help store an estimated 13,500 metric tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, the San Mateo County Parks noted.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has already been working on wildland fire safety, Leigh Ann Gessner, Midpen spokesperson, said in an email.
It has removed eucalyptus on a critical evacuation route along Page Mill Road in partnership with the city of Palo Alto and the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council. It also created a new, shaded fuel break in Coal Creek Preserve along 2.5 miles of existing roads and trails. Upcoming projects include a proposed ecological restoration project for wildland fire protection and fuels management at Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. The district will hold a public presentation on the project at the April 28 board meeting, she said.
When fire weather strikes, the district will close some preserves and take other precautions to prevent fires being sparked, she said.
Staff members are also considering a new policy for closing preserves during periods of extremely poor air quality when levels of smoke and other particulates are harmful, such as what the region experienced last summer during the CZU fire, but that plan isn't finalized, she added.
Long term, Midpen's newly developed Wildland Fire Resiliency Program would expand its vegetation management to reduce wildland fire risk and increase fire suppression. The board will consider certifying the program's Environmental Impact Report at a public meeting on May 12 at 5 p.m.
The plan "will enable Midpen to increase its fuel reduction work by over 600%. Additional funding will be critical with the cost of our increased work plan projected to be approximately $36 million over 10 years," Gessner said.
Funding from the state would also be welcome to jump-start a project goal of the multiple-agency Los Gatos Creek Watershed Collaborative, said Seth Shalet, executive director of the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council, a member of the collaborative. The collaborative is hoping for a forest health grant, one of California's targeted initiatives. The project would treat more than 900 acres to reduce fire hazards as part of a multiple-year program, he said.
The FireSafe Council is also just starting to work through a backlog of vegetation-management projects that were pushed back due to COVID-19 challenges, Shalet said. Planned projects for this year include work along critical escape routes, including along upper Highway 9 in Saratoga and in northern Santa Clara County along Highway 35 and the Alpine Road area. The work would start near the Skyline Ridge Equestrian Parking Lot entrance and north along Highway 35 through Russian Ridge until the funds run out, he said.
The council mainly works on less complex projects that involve the public and public education, focusing on defensible space to address what he calls "home-ignition zones." People can clean up their properties to keep them safer from fire should it break out.
Gessner agreed that public awareness is key to preventing wildfires.
"With the dry conditions this year, we all need to do our part and stay vigilant. According to Cal Fire, 95% of wildland fires in California are sparked by people," she said.