Photo Credit: Watershed Center crew member upslope of a brush pile created as part of a fuel management project on the Trinity National Forest.
In California, where the Watershed Center’s local work has been centered for the past two decades, we’re experiencing a year of firsts—winter never showed up to shut down our stewardship crews for the season, and now half way into June, we’ve been shut down due to the USDA Forest Service Region 5’s Project Activity Level* fire risk seven times. Compare that to a typical season where you might have one or two “shut down days” in the whole month of June, and it’s pretty clear that the extended fire season our climate adaptation plan references is here. Now we have to learn how to get work done in spite of it.
Like the Watershed Center, many FAC practitioners are implementing fuel breaks, plantation thinning and other landscape treatments as part of their integrated FAC strategy. So how do you adapt your implementation strategies to cope with record drought and an extended fire season? Luckily, we’re no strangers to adapting to complex systems. Learning to navigate public lands management in a way that creates local community benefits and creates a culture of stewardship has taught us to be nimble. Accepting change, openly communicating and problem solving with partners (like the USDA Forest Service), and committing to outcomes rather than rigid outputs are a few of the strategies that have been critical to sustaining our program. That said, it’s pretty easy to list off some broad strategies, but at the operational level it is no small task to deal with shut down days and the additional equipment, fire watch and care required to implement a project when conditions are extreme. Not only does it cost more, but the logistics of reorganizing a crew’s schedule and workflow can cut down on production, and be taxing on personnel.
So what advice do our crew leaders have for those of you coping with difficult implementation conditions?
- Invest in cross-training your workforce. If your crews have a range of skills you’ll be able to use them to implement a more diverse program of work. We’ve seen the added benefits of cross-training when the same crews who mark, cut, pile and burn an area participate in all of those aspects of a project. You learn to build a good pile when you know you have to come back and burn it later!
- Secure a diverse program of work with projects that you can do at different times and under different conditions. If you’ve cross-trained your workforce, this becomes a lot more feasible. Once you have diversified the skills of your crew and the kind of work you can secure, your program becomes a lot more resilient in the face of growing restrictions. For example, our crews will be working on trail maintenance and noxious weed management as part of their implementation season this year.
- Build enough flexibility into your contracts and agreements to cover costs associated with additional fire requirements. Once you’ve trained your workforce and secured flexible project types, make sure the contracts or agreements you’ve developed include the additional costs that extreme fire conditions may incur. Check on equipment requirements like water pumps, and build those costs into your budget.
- Keep lines of communication open. Talk about conditions with your crews, make sure they understand the risks and are taking proper precautions, and make sure that their observations and experience are communicated to the land manager. Communication also helps keep expectations realistic. Tradeoffs are inevitable, and with a more diverse program of work often comes a reduction in production rate.
- Make sure you have safety, response and escape protocols and plans in place in case a fire does break out. Most of our implementation projects are pretty remote, on the fringes of the community. It is critical that our crews have radios and can contact our USDA Forest Service partners and other emergency personnel if needed. Ensuring that our crews know what to do in an emergency, and that they can communicate with response personnel provides for their personal safety and lets us all rest easier knowing there is a plan in place if an incident does develop.
California is certainly experiencing extreme conditions this year, but regardless of where you are climate change and other pressures are requiring land managers to adjust the ways they implement projects. What tips or lessons do you have to share with people working on stewardship implementation as part of their FAC strategy?
*Project Activity Level (PAL) is a decision support tool designed to help fire and timber resource managers in USDA Forest Service Region 5 establish the level of industrial precaution for the following day. This tool utilizes outputs from the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS). You can learn more about PAL here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r5/fire-aviation/management/?cid=stelprdb5372656
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