Berkeley Talks transcript: Jessica Morse on how we can live with fire
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
[Music fades out]
David Ackerly: Good afternoon. It’s an enormous pleasure to see you all here. This is our first time in person for a hall lecture since 2019, and we’re still saying it’s the first time, the… Yeah, yeah.
I’m David Ackerly, dean of Rausser College of Natural Resources, which of course includes our longstanding forestry program and there are many alumni, faculty, current students, and other friends of the program in the audience. And it’s lovely to see you all back. I want to especially mark that this program has always been held at homecoming when campus is filled with competing events. And we’re usually over in Clark Kerr. So here we are in Mulford Hall holding the hall lecture. Yes, it’s so nice to be here and I’m sure almost everyone here knows about the corridor ahead of here, but certainly if you don’t, when you wander out of here walking down that corridor and looking at all the wood samples on the wall, this building is one of campus… A treat on this campus to wander along this first floor. And if you haven’t done that, please do.
I’m very pleased to be here with all of you. Looking forward to our talk from Deputy Secretary Jessica Morse. And before I introduce her, I’d like to give you some background on the S.J. Hall Lecture series and its namesake Sherwood J. Hall. Upon acquiring his BS in forestry from New York State University, Syracuse in 1920, Hall entered the forestry profession as a consultant in the south for the James D. Lacey Company. And in 1931 formed Forest Managers, Inc., where he both managed forests and advised other forest land owners. One of his clients was JC Penny, who he aided in sculpting barren land into a forest at home for a retirement center. He played a major role in the development of industrial forestry in the South before moving to the west in 1948, where he was one of the first to recognize the potential of the West Coast’s young growth timber stands.
OK, this is a spontaneous departure from my script. Those of you who know of our prescribed burn… Sorry, the godfather of prescribed burning in California. Biswell moved from the south in 1946 to the West, bringing the tradition of prescribed burning from the South to the West. So that actually is an interesting connection to today’s lecture because I’m sure we’ll hear more about that. Maybe not a coincidence.
Going back to our story about Sherwood Hall. Hall and two partners acquired a 27,000 acre cutover Redwood Forest, establishing the Gualala Redwoods Company. The company quickly emerged as a leader in the industrial management of young growth, redwood land practicing sustained yield forestry. Upon his death in 1968, Sherwood’s widow, Mrs. Desi Hall moved to create the Forest Economics Foundation to advance the understanding and practice of sound economic principles among forestry students. Later that year, she established the S.J. Hall Lectureship in Industrial Forest and the S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics, both here at UC Berkeley. Matthew Potts, who’s with us here today is the current S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics.
Hall felt strongly that economic understanding is basic to effective forestry and to a strong nation. And it’s in keeping with that sentiment that we hold this annual lecture, Berkeley will be able to hold this annual event and continue to support our world, the renowned programs in forest management and economics in perpetuity. Thanks to the generosity of Desi Hall. This afternoon, I would like to welcome and recognize members of the Hall family. Thank you for being here again. They have made it their tradition to participate in this annual event. Desi’s daughter, Susan Hall is here with us this evening as well as Kenneth and Patty Hall. And David and his wife Terry. And Kenneth and David are Desi’s grandsons. The Hall family are faithful participants and it has become a wonderful tradition to see them every fall.
A few more announcements following the lecture I enjoy, invite you all to please join us at Morgan Hall Lounge for reception. That’s the next building over that direction. And we’ll be on hand to point you on the right way to go. Following the reception, a private dinner will be held for the California Alumni Forester members and guests at the faculty club. And following Jessica’s presentation, there will be a Q&A session. During the QA&, Rachel will pass a microphone to audience members. Raise your hands please and also wait until the microphone reaches you as we’re recording the event. And we want to your questions to be loud and clear. And at this point it is my obligatory request for you to silence your cell phones.
Our speaker this afternoon is Jessica Morse, Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildland Resilience at the California Natural Resources Agency. Jessica is coordinating California’s approach to wildfire resilience, including increasing the pace and scale of forestry for reforestation and vegetation treatment. Jessica was the architect of the Governor’s $1.5 billion Wildfire Resilience Strategy and developed a joint forest stewardship strategy between California and the US Forest Service that was signed in 2020. Prior to joining the Newsom administration, Jessica spent nearly 10 years in national security working for the Defense Department, State Department and the US Agency for International Development. Her assignments included a year and a half in Baghdad, Iraq, as well as tours in India, Myanmar, and the US Pacific Command.
Throughout her career, she has designed and executed innovative strategies across agencies and governments, including a strategy using renewable energy technology transfer as a catalyst for U.S. defense engagement with India. Jessica is a fifth generation northern California. She and her family still own their original homestead forest land in the Sierra Foothills. She holds a master’s of public affairs from Princeton University and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Principia College. And in 28 she ran for US Congress in California’s fourth congressional district. I don’t think we’re finished hearing from Jessica going forward in this state. So please join me in welcoming Deputy Secretary Jessica Morse.
Jessica Morse: Thank you so much. We got this? Yeah. It is such a pleasure to be here at Berkeley. Thank you to the Hall family for hosting this evening and it is so nice to see all of you in person. I can’t tell you how much we lean on the alumni from Berkeley’s forestry program who are staffing and leading CAL FIRE. We have them at state parks. They are really driving a lot of these initiatives as well as your current professors and students are helping inform us constantly. I have Dr. Stephens on speed dial anytime I say, “Wait, what just happened?” And so it’s been really helpful to have the incredible science base of Berkeley’s forestry program helping drive and inform the practices that we’re now trying to scale throughout the state.
So I want to start our story talking about the modern era of wildfire. What I’m going to do today is walk us through how we got where we are and then some of the strategies California’s implementing in terms of tackling the fire crisis that we’re seeing, and then some of the lessons and strategies that we’re using, what’s working, what still needs to get improved, so that we can really have this long future and start thinking in terms of the length of forests rather than budget cycles. And so we’re really working to create and continue the legacy that all of you have been driving here in California with Berkeley’s forestry program for generations.
So the story for me starts November 8th, 2018, almost four years ago to the day the campfire broke out in Paradise. I think all of us have some story of knowing where we were that day. It was a game-changer in terms of the deadliest, most devastating fire we’ve seen in California history. I went up there a couple days later to go help out and volunteer with the relief efforts. And what I saw was striking. We had 54,000 people displaced in the blink of an eye. Most of the people, even a couple days after the fire were still meandering around in pajama bottoms and slippers because they had fled from their homes from this fire that was moving so quickly.
Many people landed in parking lots like the Walmart parking lot that was famous on the news, which I have a photo of here in these kind of tent cities, but in air pollution that was 600 PMI, worse than any air quality on the planet and which has incredibly serious health ramifications for people. And so we had devastating losses. The structure of how people were lost was incredibly devastating. A lot of people trapped on roads trying to escape the fire. And when I got up there, there were still a thousand people on the missing persons list. There was no sense of what the scale was.
And there was this kind of collective trauma because everybody I encountered had barely escaped. There was a woman, I was volunteering at one of the relief centers and a woman came up trying to get some clothes. She was still in pajamas. And I think it was the first time that she had finally started to feel that the adrenaline was finally wearing off. And she started telling me her story and she said that she had gotten the call… She saw that there was the fire, gotten the alert and zipped over to her kids’ preschool while most of the parents weren’t there. So she, two other parents and the teachers loaded up the entire preschool into a couple of SUVs including her own and just were throwing toddlers into the cars and they escaped over orchards with these toddlers. And her car was totaled by the time they got out. And she just started to cry. And I hugged her. She just started melting. And the trauma of it and how close of a call they had was coming through.
And it was a level of trauma in people that I had not seen firsthand since I had been in an active war zone in Iraq. And I thought, “This is my community. These are our neighbors. This is our state. How is this happening? And how did it get this bad and what do we do about it?” And so I dedicated then my time and energy as well as many of you have, too, trying to solve and answer that question. And so I joined the Newsom administration and with the governor on day one, he declared an emergency on these fires so that we could start investing in the prevention work. And so that’s what I’m going to tell you a lot about today is how we’ve transformed and transitioned in California to the scale we’re at today.
But before I get in there, I want to answer that first question. How did it get this bad? Because a lot of us grew up in California, and I don’t remember fires like Paradise. The first big fire that it was really striking in my memory was the King Fire. And that was only because I was backpacking and had to evacuate by foot. Made it out. My dad drove four hours and picked me- up at Ebbetts Pass. But it was incredibly… These mega fires were not the norm and they weren’t the norm in California. And there’s always this political debate about, “Is it climate change or is it forest health? And we know that it’s both.” It’s both of those factors coming together, having a compounding, a catalytic effect on each other that has led to these explosive mega fires today.
We know that fire is a natural part of California’s ecology, and we know that these catastrophic mega fires at the scale we’re seeing them are not. Tribes and California Native American tribes for millennia actively managed with cultural burning. There’s some interesting studies. I think Dr. Stephens is part of them. I’m just going to point to him every couple minutes, anytime I’m citing my sources. And so, one of these studies that it was estimating that back in the little ice age, we saw between four to 12 million acres burning in California every year, but at a fraction of the emissions from what we got out of the 2018 fires, which was roughly a million acres burnt.
And so what that tells us is that the severity and the intensity of that fire was historically much lower than what we are seeing today. And so when we are not adapted, our ecologies are not well adapted to these catastrophic fires that are burning up into the crowns, burning hot deep into the soil, devastating the watershed, they’re much better adapted. Most of our ecologies are adapted to having some interval of low intensity fire coming through and helping germinate the soil, germinate seeds and put a little char on the topsoil, improve those watersheds and clear out that underbrush.
And so the challenge we have is that we then had a compounding series of decisions that led us to a state of the unhealthy forest that we have today. You had the Gold Rush era, which clear cut the forest. Before that you had colonization, which eliminated cultural burning. Gold Rush era Comstock Lode clear cut most of the Sierra Nevada, what grew back were homogenous trees that were overly dense. Again, Dr. Stephens has a paper out that was highlighting that it’s… I’m going to estimate your actual quotes here, but that we now have about 400 stems per acre, 400 trees per acre in the Sierra, whereas historically they’re more adapted to about 40 trees per acre. And so that density is what came back after the Gold Rush era.
And then enter politics. So in the aftermath of all of that clear cutting and devastation of our natural lands, we have the conservation movement which established this radical concept called public land. Congress hated the concept of public land. And so while the Forest Service was established to be able to help police that, Congress decided, “We’re not going to fund that forest service and give them tools to actually enforce and protect public land.” And so Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot had an idea that when they were establishing the Forest Service, they would frame it as a fire suppression entity.
And so then in 1910, you have The Big Burn, 3 million acres burn, and in about two days across the West, wipes out whole towns across three states into British Columbia, and it was the most devastating fire that had been seen. And so the West is then terrified of wildfire. And so Congress is responsive to that fear. And so in 1910, they said, “OK, the Forest Service, you can have funding, but as a fire suppression entity.”And so the Forest Service was given this mandate to put out and suppress fires. And so that’s where you get the 10:00 AM policy, fires out by the next day at 10:00 AM and Smokey the bear who I’m on the fence whether he’s our friend.
And so when you get these strategies of fire suppression, which lasted well into the seventies, so even though Pinchot knew the ecology of forestry, that even though scientists of the day understood that fire was needed, they made a political trade-off to be able to get them to the next stage and traded off the ecology for the politics. And for me, and for all of us in the state, that’s a really important lesson that we are really committed to making sure that we are not trading off the ecology with the politics of the day, but we want to actually have an impact that’s going to last the next a hundred years and not create sort of an incremental problem that really builds up into catastrophe.
So then we end up with these 400 stem per acre Sierra forests that haven’t seen fire in a long time, then enter climate change. And that’s where you get these overly dense forests that are now competing for scarcer water. They’re experiencing much more extreme conditions. Do you guys remember in 2020 when we clocked in 130 degrees in Death Valley? Well, a few days after that heat wave, we had the Creek Fire. And one thing I should mention before we show you pictures of that, we had the tree mortality hit from that once in a millennia drought, that’s still ongoing. From 2012 to 2015, it triggered the death of 169 million trees throughout the Sierra. And these trees were too dense, couldn’t compete with each other, and so you get massive die off.
This is a picture down near Shaver Lake, and so you had dead standing trees. Well, those dead standing trees by 2020 started falling over. They became ground fuel. CAL FIRE’s models for ground fuel estimate around three inch diameter wood. These trees that were dying were 30 inch diameter trees on the ground. And then you have a massive heat wave that comes across and dries them out just like a giant kiln. And you actually kiln dried wood, professionally dried is like 10, 12% fuel moisture? Right before the Creek Fire broke out. And then we had this again this summer where you had 6% fuel moisture in this large heavy diameter wood.
And so as Dr. Stephens explained to me, what happened was a phenomenon called standing combustion where you had a huge footprint of that fire, tens of thousands of acres of an active flame throughout rather than your standard practice or standard models of having a smoldering middle and a flaming front. And so you had a heat signature on this fire that was off the chart. And so it created such high extreme heat that it created its own weather system, which is the pyrocumulus behind me that’s 50,000 feet in the air. And we saw that again with the McKinney Fire this year, a 40,000-foot pyrocumulus.
Once a fire is creating its own weather system, the fire dynamics are unprecedented. So what happens is that goes up, that column collapses, it puts out hurricane forced winds in a diameter in every direction. That’s how you got people trapped, which is this picture right here is the National Guard rescuing people from Huntington Lake in the Creek Fire that summer. And so you have this combination of this overly dense forest meeting extreme climate conditions, which then the trees cannot withstand and then it builds up and compounds into these catastrophic mega fires that are just unprecedented and it creates dynamic situations on the ground for firefighters.
McKinney Fire this summer and the Creek Fire, they’re both circles. Usually a fire looks more like a fan if you look at the footprint of the fire. The McKinney Fire and some of these that are getting these pyrocumulus, they’re just a circle. So the fire goes like this all of a sudden in every direction. One of the firefighters on the ground in the Creek Fire told me he knew the column was collapsing when limbs started falling from the sky that had been sucked up into that cloud. So you start getting an incredibly difficult dynamic. What that means is it’s burning at such an extreme severity that it’s also then devastating our watersheds.
And that’s what we saw in 2020 was these high severity fires are taking out our natural infrastructure because you guys know the Sierra generates like 60% of the water and the mountain itself actually does most of the water storage. The mountains are actually much more effective reservoirs than anything we can build. And so what’s been happening though is that we’re seeing more and more of these high watersheds, upper watersheds getting essentially nuked by these fires and it’s changing the dynamics. So this is a picture of the Dixie Fire from 2020, which burnt a million acres, almost a million acres. It’s the largest single fire footprint, not a complex fire, that we’ve had in the state. And that was all in the Feather River Watershed, which is the headwaters of the State Water Project, which a vast majority of our water comes from.
And so I went up there a little bit after the Dixie Fire was out and they had just gotten 11 inches of rain up there, which doused the Dixie Fire last year in 2021. And the soil was dry because the fire had burned so hot, it caused hydrophobic soil, which means it kind of turns it to clay. And so you can’t then… The water wasn’t penetrating underneath that soil. And so it was just running off causing silt, runoff, but also incredibly devastating for our watersheds and our natural infrastructure functionings.
So what we’re seeing are compounding impacts on not only our natural ecosystems, but obviously the population impacts are devastating. During the 2020 fires, we had 250,000 people displaced at the same time. We had smoke blanketing most of the state at one point, and it lasted in many communities for over a month. You guys live here, so you see the red sky and it looks very dramatic. And what we’re finding with fire science is that, and smoke science coming out of Stanford, is that they’re highlighting, maybe I shouldn’t mention Stanford here, sorry, team. My bad. Was a different school. And what they’re seeing is that there’s incredible health ramifications from even limited exposure to PM 2.5, the wildfire smoke. So you’re seeing increased rates of stroke, heart attack, childhood asthma, and really long-term health consequences from getting exposed to this.
And so really the ramifications of people getting displaced, people having fire… How many of you guys have had fire evacuees in your home at some point? I have. I had folks for three weeks in the Caldor Fire last year and it was… We’re grateful everybody was safe and they were fine, but it gets a little crammed when you’re like go from living alone to five people and the same square footage. I think all of us are seeing this disruption from this fire. So now that I’ve made you all really kind of… Well, let me make you a little more depressed and then I’ll lighten the mood here.
So this is just to give you a sense of how much the impact is on the watersheds. So what you have behind me is a chart showing the annual acres burned in the Sierra since I think the twenties. And it’s in a hundred thousand acres intervals. And then 2020 and 2021, it shot up to a million acres and 1.5 million acres. So 60% of our water’s coming from the Sierra Nevada. And you’re seeing a scale of fire that is unprecedented, at high severity, which is incredibly devastating to our drought safety in the state as well and our water supply.
But here’s a little hope for you. I was just down in Mexico and was taking a look at some of their forests down here. And this is a forest in Baja California, and this forest is at a much hotter climate condition. It’s experiencing drier dries and hotter hots, and it is still a healthy Jeffrey pine forest and it is because it was never clear cut. It has been managed with natural fire throughout its longevity and therefore it’s able to withstand hotter climate conditions because it’s more resilient because it’s at that lower density. And so therefore the trees that are there are able to get the right amount of nutrients and water that they need and they’re not overly competitive.
So there’s actually a path forward in California for getting to climate resilience. We can actually arrest these compounding climate cycles that we’re seeing through active management, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So day one of the Newsom administration, the governor declared an emergency on fire and really leaned in personally. He gave us a task of getting… We suspended CEQA for just a hot minute. We put it back, don’t worry. To be able to get some emergency projects in place throughout the state. We ramped up our acres from an average of 15,000 acres back in 2015 to now a hundred thousand acres a year since 2019, which is a huge ramp up. I’ll talk about that more later.
We also signed an agreement with the forest service because 57% of the wildland in California is federally owned. And 3% is owned by the state and 40% is private. So we couldn’t do this without federal partners. So we signed that short shared stewardship agreement with US Forest Service back in 2020, which gave us a commitment together to try to manage a million acres a year in the state to try to get our forests back in shape so that they can actually accept natural fire again. And then we developed out of that a joint task force with our federal and local partners and tribal partners to be able to then implement a strategy to be able to actually execute and get to that million acres and achieve real fire resilience.
And we put money behind it for the first time. And so as you can see in 2018, that was the first time we’d had dedicated funding for fire resilience. And I’ll define that a little better in a minute, but last year we got 1.5 billion, and I’m happy to announce this year we got 1.2 billion over the next two years. So we have 2.8, or 1.3 billion. So we have total, the total is 2.8 billion over three years to invest in wildfire resilience projects. And we’ve changed a lot of our state practices to get those projects out quickly. So the funding we got last year has already launched over a thousand projects throughout the state some of which are here even in Berkeley and East Bay Regional Parks, to be able to get that wildfire resilience on the ground into communities. And we saw it have an impact this fire season.
So I’m going to talk about the layers of resilience and where that money is going and what we’re seeing it doing. And so stick around, I think you all have about five hours, right? OK, no problem.
When we talk about wildfire resilience, when we’re investing in resilience, there’s really three fronts we invest in and you need all three at once to actually achieve resilience. These aren’t trade-offs, one or the other. So we invest inside of communities, so that’s things like defensible space, home hardening, we invest around communities. Those are your strategic fuel breaks that give firefighters the tactical advantage on the ground during a fire. And then we invest across landscapes. So that’s reforestation after fire, thinning out landscapes, returning with prescribed and cultural burns to be able to try to restore that natural fire interval throughout our wildlands in California.
So I’m going to talk about the investments we’re making across all three of those fronts. And then I’m also going to talk about some of the structural changes we’re making so that we can scale up and make sure that we have the right scientific feedback across these areas.
So landscapes, prescribed fire is going to be your best friend. But we have to do by hand what a hundred years of fire should have done before we can reintroduce natural fire in a lot of areas. But what’s exciting, a fun announcement I just found from CAL FIRE today, in the last 45 days, they have done more prescribed fire than we had done between 2014 and 2017 in the state because we had such a good burn window and we’re prepared to do it. And so we’ve just I think it’s over 12,000 acres burned just in the last 45 days, of controlled prescribed burns throughout California. It was really exciting. CAL FIRE’s really leaning in on it.
So across these landscapes we’re investing across thinning forests, prescribed fire, grazing, different tactics. But the challenge we had with, “OK, we want to dedicate money to thinning and restoring forests” is how do you get it out the door? The former CAL FIRE chief told me when I said, “All right, I think we’re going to lean in to try to get a billion dollars out of the state and they want to give it all to CAL FIRE.” He said, “If you give that all to fire, the best thing I can do with it is load an airplane and dump it on a fire.” And so I said, “You need more staff, huh?” And so there was these real challenges of you can have the funding, but how do you get it out the door quickly and efficiently because you don’t have the contracting staff and you don’t have the right team in place at that scale to be able to ramp up so quickly.
And so what we did is we looked at everyone that CAL FIRE had been funding since 2018, which included state parks, conservancies, Department of Fish and Wildlife who were capable of doing this work, and we gave them their own direct appropriation. So in this landscape area, we said, “OK, state parks, Department of Fish and Wildlife, here’s your money to get 3 million acres of state land in good shape to be able to help restore fire.” And they worked quickly. Fish and Wildlife got grazing out on a lot of their properties within weeks of getting this funding. State parks launched a whole new prescribed burn program with this funding, which is now going park to park, including Calaveras Big Trees just last week.
We also though have private landowners and turns out that about 40% of our forested land is privately-owned. 26% of our forest land is owned by small family forested landowners, many of whom are land rich, cash poor, and it’s very expensive when somebody says, “Oh, just pay $50,000 to thin your forest land.” And you don’t get anything financially back on that. These absentee landowners are like, “What? How do I do that? Who do I call? What do I do?” And so CAL FIRE has a program called the California Forest Improvement Program that specifically works with small forested landowners. So we took that program from $2 million to $50 million to be able to start getting them direct support to get these little tiny patches of small forested land in good shape.
We have funding for large industrial land owners to incentivize them, it’s called the Forest Legacy Program, to create good incentives for the really sustainable sort of gold star stewardship and a commitment to ensure that it will not convert from forest land to anything else and so that it’ll stay forest land. And so we have funding that supports that larger industrial land to grow larger trees, deep longer rotations, selective forestry, to be more effective.
We also have funding on the landscape front for tribes. This was the first time that California Native American tribes had gotten a direct grant program just for them. They had always been available to tribes, but they were frustrated. They came to us and they said, “We’re frustrated having you compete with the Nature Conservancy or Berkeley to get these projects off the ground.” And so we created a very flexible fund of $20 million for California Native American tribes to get the types of projects going that are really tribally-driven, tribally-led, and also provide the technical support so they don’t have to have the grant writing capacity to be able to access those dollars.
And so we have a myriad of programs across this landscape scale front to be able to get us, regardless of your land ownership type, to be able to get the contiguous approach we need. I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but wildfires don’t just stop at the border when they’re like, “Oh, that’s federal land. I better go around.” And so we wanted to make sure that we had funding in place across these fronts.
And what’s exciting is that our federal partners then brought in dollars too. Since 2015, we had given the US Forest Service alone %118 million in grants from your state taxes, which meant your taxes were having… You were having to pay both your state and your federal taxes to get the same acre treated. And so what we wanted to do was to make sure that our federal partners were showing up as well. And so we were really excited that the infrastructure bill was able to deliver huge scaled up funding. And so this was the first time that the Forest Service, this last budget cycle, first time we didn’t give any grants to the Forest Service because they had their own funding.
So we see real results though from this landscape scale work. This is a project that was done by the Sierra Nevada conservancy outside of Quincy. When the North Complex Fire hit it in 2020, it burned at high severity as you can see until it hit the fuel reduction area and the area that had been treated. And then it burned low intensity under the forest and remained green. We also saw that with the Caldor Fire in 2020. The Caples burn, which was a prescribed burn that everyone had used as the example of prescribed burns can get out of hand. And the Caples burn was 3000 acres outside of Kirkwood that had been done a few years before, and it burned at low severity as a prescribed fire, but it had gotten outside of its prescription, so it was supposed to be a thousand acres. It was actually ended up being 3000 acres and they had to call in the cavalry to put it out. And so everyone was like, “Prescribed fire, look out.”
But in the Caldor Fire, that 3000 acres that had burned at low severity with that prescribed burn, when the Caldor Fire, which was burning at incredible high intensity, you saw that fire jumping 500-foot cliffs. The Caldor Fire and the Dixie Fire were the first fires to burn up and over the largest fuel break arguably you have in the world called the Granite Crest of the Sierra Nevada. And it burned up and over the Sierras for the first time, which is just extreme fire behavior. Firefighters were clocking in 200-foot flame lengths. I even heard a rumor of a 500-foot flame length. That’s not confirmed, so I don’t want to share that rumor. But we were seeing extreme fire behavior there. And when it hit the Caples’ burn area, what was burning at high severity, then burned underneath the forest on the ground, and that is a 3000 acre patch of green in a sea of black from that fire.
So we know that these landscaped scale treatments work and make a huge impact in protecting our watersheds and our ecology and our communities because it lowers the intensity of those fires. And so this is just an example of some of the types of work we have prescribed grazing. That’s Calaveras Big Trees. There was just a fire, they were prepping it up just to prescribe fire there this last week. And that’s the conservation court down in Santa Monica. So throughout the state you have, whether you’re working at chaparral, grasslands, oak woodlands, we’re really working to get our wildlands in better shape so that we can restore natural fire.
And then the other thing that we’ve done in the wake of the Dixie Fire in particular was kind of a wake-up call for us, of these lands are not going to reforest themselves. And so the Wildfire Resilience Task Force has a reforestation working group. They made recommendations about what we needed to invest in to actually really 10X our reforestation capacity and work in California. That included, they need people to climb trees to go collect cones, and they needed better seed collection and then more nursery capacity. In the budget that just passed, we have a hundred million dollars for specifically for reforestation to target those upper watersheds and to invest in the reforestation infrastructure to be able to ensure that we have the seedlings, the right seed diversity so that when we have these million acre fires, hopefully not more of them, but for these huge fire scars that we have in the upper watersheds, that we have the capacity and the tools to go in and actively reforest.
So that’s the landscape area on that three-prong front. The next area is that wildland urban interface. What do we do around communities? And so these are strategic fuel breaks. And when we’re talking about strategic fuel breaks, sometimes you’re thinking of CAL FIRE going with a bulldozer, but what we’re talking about is actually before a fire where you’re actually restoring a thin patch of forest land, long thin strips that give firefighters a tactical advantage in a firefight. There’s a lot of misperceptions that somehow a fuel break is a pre-ordained fire containment line. It’s not. It is designed to be a staging area for firefighters to be able to approach a fire. It’s an area where people can evacuate during a fire. They’re often along roadsides.
And so what we’ve been doing by putting in these fuel breaks is allowing communities to escape. And because of some of those fuel breaks, we were so grateful that 2020, 2021, even though we had 4 million acres burn in one fire season, we had no fatalities and people were able to escape and evacuate from and really intense fires like Greenville in time in part because we had fuel reduction in place for them. Even fires like the Creek Fire we had fuel reduction and fuel breaks in place, which created evacuation routes during those fires and helping us learn those lessons from Paradise.
And the Caldor Fire is a really startling example of fuel breaks in action. The green areas you see up here are all fuel breaks and fuel reduction projects that had been put in the Tahoe Basin in the previous 10 years. This was done by Tahoe Conservancy, state parks, CAL FIRE, the Conservation Corps, our Forest Service partners as well. And this is a map of Christmas Valley. And so the brown is the Caldor Fire coming in. The red and yellow are the highest severities of that fire coming in. And as you can see, it was coming in at high severity right into these neighborhoods in Myers. And what we saw is that the fuel reduction, these fuel breaks here, which are only like 600 feet wide and thin strips of forest that the flame lengths went from 150 feet, so 15 story building down to 15 feet when they hit those fuel breaks and firefighters were able to hold them off.
And I was up there with Chief Porter, Berkeley alumni when they were just lifted the evacuation orders. And so we saw the community coming back into this neighborhood which was saved by those fuel reduction projects. It was just a very moving moment where one of the neighbors came in and saw… Or she came… The community member came back in, she saw the fire scar all the way up to her home and she said to Chief Porter, she said, “Did you guys back burn from my house?” And he said, “No, that was the fire.” But because that fuel break was behind her home, the firefighters were able to hold it. I saw the divots in the ground where embers were falling and they were just able to dig them to just dig a little donut on them and put them out. And so that fuel reduction there, save those communities.
And we incredibly in that Caldor Fire had zero losses in the Tahoe Basin when the day one of the Caldor Fire projections, you know when a fire breaks out, the Fire Intelligence Center gives out projections of how big it’s going to burn and what it’s going to do without suppression. And so day one of the Caldor Fire was off the charts. It showed that it was going to burn all of Placerville all the way down to the city of Folsom in the Sacramento Valley. It was going to burn up and over the Sierra through the entire Tahoe basin and not stop until Reno. And yet no homes were lost in the Tahoe basin. It didn’t get to Placerville, the town of Pollock Pines was standing and it was because of the strategic fuel breaks that had been put in place in the previous years that had made a huge difference in the firefighter’s capacity to be able to hold off and keep those communities safe.
So these fuel breaks give a huge tactical advantage on the ground. CAL FIRE’s committed to ensure that it is maintaining constantly a network of at least 500 fuel breaks. It has probably about a thousand that are on its annual list and it’s committed to doing maintenance or expanding 500 fuel breaks a year, which is an amazing commitment. And they’re hitting it. They’re hitting that target of doing that maintenance work. You don’t want to just do one and done. And so their units are really committed to making sure that they are staying on top of those.
And then this is just a couple more examples. This is a fire that hope that you probably never heard of this summer. The Oak fire, it broke out in the Colfax area and that fire was spotting a mile in advance. Is a mile in advance spotting bad?
Scott Stephens: It’s bad.
Jessica Morse: It’s bad, yes. So you heard it from Dr. Stephens. It was really scary when that fire broke out this summer. And to get that scale of spotting in a wind-driven fire, the spot started landing right into the American River fuel break. That was one of the projects the governor had declared on day one of his administration to put in that, had gotten put in really fast time. And the fire, they weren’t able to get to that fire spot in that fuel break. Firefighters were so focused on the main fire that they weren’t able to go do attacks on the spots that were starting to creep up. But because they kept landing in areas that had fuel reduction, they actually put themselves out, which is really remarkable and really exciting. And so that’s why you never heard of the Oak Fire this summer, which we’re really glad about.
And another fun fact about that, the American River fuel break, CAL FIRE designed it with the California Native Plant Society. And so when they do their maintenance on it, they’re doing prescribed burns at a temperature that is germinating morning glory and milkweed. And so now that fuel break is monarch butterfly habitat and save the town of Colfax.
And then this is another example. Last year when we got that funding, we got an emergency appropriation of that 1.5 billion. That first tranche came in April. And we really challenged all of our state conservancies, everybody getting this money, to move as fast as they could. And we had… Usually it takes about a year in state government to get from getting funding to actually seeing projects on the ground. We had the Coastal Conservancy had their projects on the ground within four weeks. They did these expedited grant timelines. Same with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Four weeks we had contracting relief, so we didn’t have to go through your typical state contracting processes. So we had all of these legislative fixes that allowed us to be much faster at our pace on this.
So this was the Alisal fire. So they got the funding in April, the project was done by July. In September, the Alisal Fire broke out outside of Santa Barbara. It was burning in this wildlife preserve coming down on like historic buildings. And then also if it was gaining momentum, it was going to go down to Santa Barbara. And so you can see the line of where the conservancy had done grazing work and there had been a field of wild mustard on the other side of this fence here that had not been treated. And as soon as it hit the treatment, it went out.
So you saw that these fuel reduction treatments were making an impact. This summer I saw the Electra Fire. Do you guys remember the Electra Fire? It broke out on 4th of July. It got a little bit of news because there were folks, it was in Calaveras, Amador County. There was some folks who had been down at the river near where it broke out and they got trapped in a power facility for a little bit and were able to get them out. The Electra Fire was also going to be a really bad one this summer, but it also hit a fuel reduction project on day one. I didn’t put a photo in, but it’s rolling oak woodlands and you can see the fire burned black underneath the trees, but the trees were green and then it went out when it hit a road and it saved all the communities around it and didn’t turn into this massive fire.
And so we were really excited to see these fuel reduction efforts giving a tactical advantage and helping firefighters keep these fires to a lower containment level so that then we can do actual prescribed burning when we have the time.
So this is just a scale to just show you how much we’ve scaled up and leaned in the last couple years. So this is how many acres that we’ve treated just with CAL FIRE alone over the last few years. This number’s going to probably go up here in the next couple months because we’ll be getting in the other departments on top of it. So this is just CAL FIRE’s work, and you saw that in 2015, they were barely scraping 20,000 acres a year treated and really ramped up in 2018, 2019 with 64,000. And then when we started leaning in with these new policies, we ramped up to a hundred thousand acres a year.
And I don’t know, any super forest nerds in here who’ve heard of the Forest Carbon Plan? Any hands? Forest. OK, Keith, I know you’ve heard of it. We have in the forest carbon plan, that’s where that target of 500,000 acres treated a year comes in and they broke that target down. They said, “OK, half of that is going to be probably the industrial timberland owners and the state will take up half of that, the other half. And CAL FIRE’s going to have a target of a hundred thousand acres that they have to hit by 2030.” And there’s a little note in there that says, “We know that the hundred thousand acres a year target for fire to hit is just illustrative and that they likely won’t hit it, but we wanted to create a goal to work towards.” And that was by 2030 and they hit it by 2020 and it was just an incredible effort by all of the CAL FIRE units and all of our partners.
Because this also includes the CAL FIRE Grant program. So you guys get credit in here too as grantees like in the Science Forest. And so you’re seeing this work really ramp up as we scaled up the funding and we’re going to see that scale up even more and hopefully have more of these beneficial effects. Again, we’ve got interventions across that whole landscape to lower the intensity of that fire, get back to natural fire intervals. We’ve got fuel breaks around communities to give firefighters that tactical advantage during a fire. And the last area are interventions inside of communities. What do you do when you have something like we saw in Boulder, Colorado last year where you have a hundred mile an hour winds, wind-driven fires really intense coming down on communities, you’ve done your fuel reduction and the fires still moving?
So to try to make communities less prone to ignition, we’re investing in defensible space and home hardening. This is a lot of what homeowners can do themselves because the studies after Paradise showed that homes burn from the inside out in a wildfire. It’s embers getting in the vents of the attics, it’s plants right next to the home igniting and then creating a heat signature that then bursts the window and then flames get in. And so the question is how do you then harden homes? We saw in Paradise, homes built after 2008, which means that they’re built to what we call Chapter 7A building codes. So those are homes that are hardened to a standard where you have that defensible space and these home hardening tactics already built in. They had a 50% survival rate during the campfire, whereas homes built before 2008 had a 10% survival rate.
So we saw even just home hardening alone made a difference. But it’s important to note it does not stand alone. If you only do home hardening but without fuel reduction or you harden your home but your neighbors don’t, you’re in trouble. That’s where we’ve seen things like the Kmart cinder block Kmart burnt down. And so there’s a certain point of which heat wins. But what we’ve seen is this home hardening and defensible space makes a big difference.
We also just updated defensible space standards to the latest science. So we included a new zone zero. How many of you guys do defensible space around your home? Around here? All right, Bob and Amy. All right. And so we’ve got… That’s where you’re keeping your vegetation thinning. And so with the fire marshal’s office, we worked with the UC Cooperative Extension to help establish new regulations that are rolling out as we speak, that create this zone zero, which is a non-flammable zone immediately around your home. Because what we saw in the Marshall Fire in Colorado is that some early estimates were seeing that fences, wooden fences were actually one of the main carriers of the fire through that neighborhood that had that extreme loss in Boulder, Colorado. So even just replacing five feet of your fence from wood to metal makes a huge difference on your home. And so we’re looking at that zone zero to reduce that heat signature around the homes.
And so we’ve got a lot of programs. We’ve got programs with FEMA and the Fire Marshal’s office that are helping lower-income homeowners do that defensible space. And we’ve got programs that are with the UC extension, the UC fire advisors throughout the state that are helping work with Firewise communities and Fire Safe Councils to get this work done.
The last real areas that I want to talk through are then the foundations of what we’re doing to be able to then expedite the work across those three fronts. I didn’t mention this before, but we have 22 different departments deployed that are implementing this work throughout California, and they all have a piece to play. And our goal is to make sure that we’re not just putting good programs on paper or having funding lined up, but it is actually getting out the door. So we changed our grant guidelines, we changed contracting practices. We also really made some major investments in regulatory reform. Who here has heard of CEQA? Who here loves CEQA and thinks it’s their favorite thing to hang out with all the time and they want to go through CEQA process?
We love CEQA in that it helps protect the environment, right? California’s environmental regulations are well adapted and designed to be able to protect the environment from people. They’re not well adapted to having people help protect the environment from climate change. And so what we started thinking through is rather than… And Dr. Gilles gets a lot of credit for this innovation. So rather than just saying, “We’re just going to have emergency exemptions, exempt CEQA, we’ll think about it later,” we created this urgency mode. The fire wasn’t bearing down. You don’t need the nimbleness that you have of when there’s an actual fire, but you do need the nimbleness of climate change is on us and we need to act now.
You need to be able to act within weeks rather than years, but you don’t have to act within hours. And so you have space for thorough environmental review, but you don’t have space for the bureaucracy. And so the Board of Forestry established the California Vegetation Treatment Programmatic Environmental Impact Review. Who wants to say it with me? And we call it the CalVTP for short. And it’s a 20 million acre environmental review that essentially does a pre-CEQA analysis across all of the high fire risk non-federal land in California. So anywhere that a fire project could trigger CEQA. And so we rolled that out. It allows you to then just do the substantive environmental mitigations and your boots on the ground analysis, which takes about a month. And then you’re SQA compliant, congratulations.
But to make it a little bit easier for folks, because we didn’t want them to have to try to figure this all out on their own. We got professional environmental consultants who helped write this environmental program to actually help us roll it out to do the environmental analysis work with CAL FIRE, state parks, project proponents, and get that done. And then, I know you’re all excited about regulatory reform, to be even more efficient because great, you got your CEQA done quickly, but you still could trigger Fish and Wildlife permits, State Water Board permits and still get caught in environmental permitting process. And so the Board of Forestry worked with all of those other departments to actually get in into our… To get all the mitigations that Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Water Boards, even the Coastal Commission require to get their environmental mitigations into the single environmental review.
So Fish and Wildlife said, “Well, great, we’re just going to put our environmental mitigations in, in a way that means that if you follow these steps, you won’t trigger one of our permits.” So now when you’re using the CalVTP, it’s very hard to trigger a fish and wildlife permit because you’re putting the environmental protections in as you go that they would need that. That means you don’t have to trigger one of their permits. State Water Boards created a statewide permit with automatic enrollment into this CALVTP so that their permit is just automatically in there. You don’t have to do additional paperwork. Congratulations you are in because they’re environmental protections were already in there. And we funded their staff so that you don’t need to have an additional fee to help them fund their staff.
And so it’s fairly creative in terms of how we’re doing environmental permitting. But what we’ve seen is we’ve now got a million acres worth of projects approved under the CalVTP and throughout the state, and they’re moving quickly. It’s taken that SQA review timeline down from two years to about a month, and we’re really excited to see that rolling out.
Another thing that we’re doing is investing in regional collaboratives. This is a map of the jurisdictions in San Diego County. What you need to take away from this is there’s a lot, and it’s a mosaic, and that’s the way it is in any county in California. And so with all of these dollars coming in through all these different departments, we anchored them in something we call the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program, which establishes these regional collaboratives so that when they have pipelines of projects done, they can get a block grant from CAL FIRE and just get them done, and they don’t have to spend all of their time reapplying and reapplying for grants. This also allowed us to get our funds out the door more quickly across all those various departments.
So San Diego County is a good example. They had a list of projects already ready and already with their environmental approval done so that when we said, “All right, we’ve got funding from fire, from state parks, from the San Diego Conservancy and this Department of Conservation,” they were ready with their collaboratives to say, “Put money here,” and they had their projects ready to go, and were able just to roll them out through this one collaborative, creating a cohesive anchor in the community, even though our money’s a little bit dispersed.
And so this is just a visualization of how that works. The Sierra Nevada’s a good example where you’ve got core, big regions in the state, and then it filters down to local collaboratives and you have some infrastructure above them. And Dr. Battles has been helping us establish toolkits so that these regions are establishing better coordinated scientific foundations, metrics and consistency so that when we get these regional strategies, they’re really top tier and it’s very easy then for the state and the feds and private philanthropy to put all their money in the same place.
Another big problem is the how do we really ramp up the economy and make sure we get the science right? And so one of the areas that we have our challenges are with slash piles. The Forest Service estimated that there’s 44, 40,000 slash piles like this in the Tahoe Basin alone, just as a… I don’t know if you can see the scale. That’s me standing next to that slash pile. And so the question is what do we do with this? We’ve had to dedicate full fire engine crews to slash piles during fires like the Caldor Fire so that they don’t complicate things. We want those fire engine crews focused on public safety, not on making sure we don’t have a Roman candle go up in the forest.
And so really helping drive the work that is happening here is we really need to be driving the wood economy. That’s everything from sawmills to mass timber to biodiesel and even there was a company who just came in the other day who’s converting that forest waste into jet fuel. And so how do we create economies that then have a demand for the wood that’s generated when we’re thinning forests and also the wood that’s generated in post-fire salvage? And Dr. Sanchez here at UC Berkeley, I feel like Berkeley’s actually running our program, maybe it sounds like, has been leading the effort at the Joint Institute for Wood Products Innovation at the Board of Forestry to be able to help us identify what are the best technologies that are available and what are the hurdles to those technologies. And his work helped us identify several key areas that we needed to tackle where state investment could make a big difference.
We’re trying to be technology-agnostic, but trying to ensure that there’s access to capital funding, that there is a steady supply chain for that material and that there’s additional technical capacity in these communities. This is everything from like mass timber, which replaces steel and concrete. That’s a micro mill. That’s a guy turning it into like a oil product. Sure a scientist knows more. But what we’re seeing is there’s a lot of innovation in this space. And so it’s a question of how do we jumpstart both the innovative and the traditional wood products to really scale up? Because our mills are operating at capacity right now. California consumes about 7 billion board feet of lumber a year. Our mill capacity produces about 2 billion board feet of lumber a year, and the rest of it just keeps rotting in the forest while we import from further away areas. So it’s much more efficient for us to be able to find ways to fully use the woody material that we have right here, makes communities safer, generates green economies, and lowers our overall carbon footprint because we’re not importing wood from less sustainably harvested areas.
Another thing we’re investing in is the workforce development. So that’s everything from the Conservation Corps, community colleges and really investing in career paths, which we’ve been working with Berkeley on, is how do you really get kids in at the Conservation Corps level where they’re fuels crews on the ground, get them scholarships, get them into community colleges, get them to Berkeley, train them as RPFs and problem solved. And so we’re really trying to get folks in at every level to be operating engineers, to be driving that heavy machinery, to be professional foresters, to be scientists, and really creating and germinating a whole new generation in this space.
Another area is the science and making sure that we are having adaptive management and so that we are investing in science so that we don’t look back a hundred years from now and say, “Whoops.” We want to be able to look at what we’re doing and recognize that we are putting our fuel breaks in the right spot, that we’re being as strategic as we can with it. And so we’re in a really solid scientific foundation and science informed policy so that we’re planning for the future climate conditions as opposed to this is how it’s always been and so therefore this is how it’ll always be. There’s a lot of changes that we’ve been looking at in terms of how do you restock forest properly? What’s the right reforestation structure given climate change? What are the right forest types?
And so we’re doing a lot of experiments and studies across the forest. And so we did a couple things with this investment to make a big difference here. And one is the Forest Inventory assessment plots throughout the state, thousands of little plots that get checked every 10 years. We’ve ramped that up to check it every five years so that we’re actually seeing the change in more real time. We also are investing in remote sensing and LiDAR. So we just got 30 million acres of the state covered with LiDAR in partnership with USGS in these post-fire areas. And then another good example is this project, which is a partnership with Google, google.org where they are helping us take the models that we have and make them project planning tools for everybody to be able to design more scientifically-accurate projects.
So as you see that the investments we’re making in the state are having a huge impact. There’s a lot of areas where we need to keep growing. We have changed state business practices, we have changed our regulatory approach. We are trying to keep this grounded on science-based information so that we can be adaptive as we go. And really working to invest in a long-term future in California. But the good news is even though the climate crisis is getting worse, our interventions are getting better and our interventions are such that we can actually get nature back to a space where it can handle the climate that’s coming for it.
So just grateful for all of the incredible thought leaders even in this room and at the school that Berkeley’s producing and grateful for the partnership and excited just keep working with you so that a hundred years from now they will look back at us and say, “You did it right.” So thank you.
David Ackerly: I think there’s… Is this on? Yes. I think there’s hope. That’s absolutely extraordinary. I can say as someone who I think of myself as being close to this whole area, I learned so much there that I have not heard and that… So I’m going to ask a first question while you all think about your questions.
So Jessica, I think you know there was actually several questions received in advance that I’m combining several of them into one that first of all, you’re speaking to an audience who first is ready and trained and ready to soak up all this information and appreciate it. So we have two problems. One is just public outreach. There’s questions about public outreach in general, public misperceptions about everything we’re doing. But combined with that, how do you make no news news? And that’s of course a serious question because I think we’re all… Even I’m sitting here going, “Oh, we got lucky this year in the fire season.” But what you told us is that we didn’t get lucky. We were prepared and a lot of fires didn’t become stories. So what’s your strategy outside an audience like this to make this a story, what the state is doing?
Jessica Morse: Yeah, I don’t know that government is always well adapted to commercial scale communication, but what’s pretty amazing is that CAL FIRE has developed a much more broader comms team. One of the goals is to try to make sure that this news is local, that the local communities are seeing the impact and the results really directly. So there’s been a lot of outreach to local communities. The challenge has been how do you get this to be part of the national narrative and an interest in it because we’re against the headwinds of misperception, these misperceptions that are like, “Oh, this fire jump, that fuel break, therefore fuel breaks don’t work.” And you’re like, “No, the fuel break wasn’t supposed to stop a 500-foot flame length going a hundred miles an hour. It was supposed to allow people to evacuate from that fire.” And so there’s that misperception that is really hard.
I think it’s a little bit analogous to climate denialism where there’s this weird cohort in the forestry space that makes life a little bit difficult, where there is this completely fringe narrative that is not the consensus view that has a few… A small cohort where they publish their own papers. And so then therefore the media’s like, “Ah, this is a peer-reviewed science.” And that’s what happened with climate denialism and climate denialism, they had a couple key people at Princeton that then kept getting quoted and then they’re like, “Oh, well, there’s both sides to this story of whether or not climate change is happening.” And so there’s really clear science in terms of what is happening in the forest, and yet you have things like the New York Times publishing op-eds and papers that are saying, “Just let nature can correct itself,” or that fuel breaks are wind tunnels and cause fires to be more intense. And you’re like…
And so that’s a little bit of a frustrating headwind because that narrative is really simple and it’s really appealing and people want to hear, “Oh, well, nature just correct itself.” But what they’re missing in here is that there is a hundred years of people really disrupting nature’s capacity to correct itself. And so people need to step up and help get nature back on track in this climate era. And so that’s a little bit of a headwind, but I’ve been finding that the science community’s been really helping. They’ve been putting out some myth busting, there’s a myth busting table that they put out that’s like false narrative, true fact, and just trying to make it much more simple for the media and things like Berkeley did, taking a media up to Blodgett Forest is really helpful. Getting media in the field is really helpful.
And I think the challenge that scientists have is speaking in absolutes because science isn’t absolute, and so how do you speak with accuracy and nuance in an era of soundbites where people want things really black and white? And so that’s been the challenge in this space. And so I think we’ve been really working to try to have people just see the results. The Caldor Fire was really good example of those three fronts of resilience in action, and we took a lot of media up to see it, but that’s a challenge that it’s going to be all hands on deck and we need universities to help us lean in on retaining that, on helping correct that misinformation.
David Ackerly: Raise your hand.
Audience 1: So you talked mostly about work in ecosystems that are adapted to frequent low intensity fire. Is that where most, pretty much all the work is taking place? Or do you also have management plans in other ecosystems?
Jessica Morse: No, I really appreciate it. So when you look at fire return interval maps of California, and feel free Dr. Stephens or Dr. Battles or somebody to throw something at me if I’m a little off here. But what I’ve learned is that even when you’re talking about chaparral ecosystems, which have a different fire return interval, some put it at 60-year fire return interval, there is still a fire adaptation for those ecosystems because California is a Mediterranean climate. So even historically, at some point, every part of it is designed to burn. It’s what’s the heat of that fire and how frequent should it be?
So even chaparral and shrublands that aren’t adapted to fire, and the problem we’ve been having in the state is those balances are way off. You’re seeing in Southern California, shrublands they’re burning every 15 years in a return interval that’s maybe 60. And in the Sierra, which should have an interval of 15 years, you’re seeing fires coming every hundred years. And so the fire return intervals are off, which means the ecologies are off, which means then when they burn, you’re getting vegetation type change conversion. You’re seeing things like you’re seeing the native chaparral converting to invasive grasses or the native pine forest converting to chaparral. And so you’re seeing that vegetation go off balance.
So to answer your question though, what work are we doing in some of those less fire adapted ecosystems where it’s like a prescribed fire is not your immediate answer? A lot of that is actually trying to keep fire off of those landscapes. So for example, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and LA Rivers Conservancy, they got funding in the wildfire budget and they did arson awareness programs. So they have an arson watch. In 2021, they got a huge catch of illegal fireworks, of somebody setting off illegal fireworks on a road in a town that had tons of vegetation around it. They’ve also been doing a lot of vegetation clearing a lot… Right around the highway and around the roads because a lot of those human caused ignitions in those areas where you have a longer fire return interval, a lot of that are road starts or right around roads. And so doing that road hardening has been really helpful in protecting those ecologies so that you get back to the right fire return interval.
Audience 2: Yes, thank you. And I’d like to go to your last point talking about the slash piles and things. How do we move the PUC and other organizations to recognize that we have to have infrastructure to process low value products, be it slash or small trees or other things? Those of us that have been involved have listened to this issue for 10 years, and it’s always natural gas and nuclear and everything else is cheaper. And somehow, if we’re going to reach our goal of half a million acres a year, even a hundred thousand acres a year, I think you’re going to have to deal with the biomass issue.
Jessica Morse: Yeah, that biomass energy has been a really tough issue in the state. And what we’ve been seeing is that it doesn’t pencil out compared to solar. It is a base load energy, but it’s the technology that exists right now. It is the technology that is present to be able to consume a lot of that woody material. And so we’ve been given some… Like we just extended the… I’m not going to get the terminology so feel free to cringe, but basically the deals that different biomass facilities had with utilities, those were set to expire and the rates that they had locked in, because you have to subsidize biomass for it to be efficient. It’s cheaper than a wildfire. But you have a lot of folks who don’t like combustion because of the potential emissions from that. And so there’s a very serious real debate happening about how do you find this balance between helping meet…
It’s less emissions than a wildfire, right? But when you’re talking about when it gets compared on a grid to solar or other cleaner energies, it is more expensive and it’s not as clean. And so how do you balance that out? And so we’ve gotten allowances to be able to extend the infrastructure that we have right now so that we can use the flash piles, but the question is it a bridge and what is it a bridge to? And so these future technologies that are coming in, for example, biomass to liquid natural gas is pencils out much better in terms of costs equivalent. It then offsets a fossil fuel directly and could be more efficient. Or biofuel to jet fuel. Again, it offsets a fossil fuel because that’s already so much more expensive. Your jet fuel prices are much more expensive, and so that biogas to jet fuel comparison is better.
That’s kind of a big way of answering your question a little bit circuitously here, but the debate is real. The policy right now is to make sure that we keep the facilities we have open and moving forward because it is the technology that’s present and really lean in and invest in that bridge. So we have a program called the Climate Catalyst Fund, which is doing low-interest loans to businesses in this space that will… It includes biomass facilities, but it also includes sawmills or mass timber or more innovative wood products that will allow people to then not have to go to a commercial bank and explain this really weird industry and instead it fills the role that rural banks would’ve filled in this space.
The other thing we’re trying to do there to try to advance the technology coming forward is invest in feedstock supply confidence, because that’s actually the biggest deterrent to all these new technologies, whether you’re creating pellets or plywood, that coming in and having any type of manufacturing facility in the state is really hard in the forest space because it’s really hard to then say, “I know that I’m going to get my wood from this place for the next 10 years” because the state’s funding all of our… We don’t own our land, we don’t own most of this land that we’re funding projects on. So the state can’t just say, “Here’s a 10-year supply agreement.” And all of these fund, these funds are coming on grant cycles.
So we did two things. We extended the appropriation life so that the grants and the project cycles are longer. So we took it from two years to having to re-up to seven years so that those projects can now sell seven year supply agreement on the woody material coming off, help create some predictability in the market. The other thing we’re doing are creating these feedstock brokers, so these little non-profit entities in different areas of the state, like Tuolumne County for example, has one where they are then going around to all the small projects, aggregating the feedstock and then selling 10 year supply agreements off of it. So that if you wanted to start a sawmill or a jet fuel company from biomass in California, you would then be able to buy that supply agreement and know that you are going to get that consistent feedstock material that you need to be able to justify the equipment that you’re buying.
David Ackerly: I think we have time for one more.
Audience 3: Hi. So given that California has had a deep history of Native American genocide, I guess I’m wondering how has this… In the future, how are Native Americans being emphasized, especially a lot of unrecognized tribes being put into focus for solutions of the future?
Jessica Morse: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think that that’s one of the important foundations in the entire wildfire space is that tribes knew what to do and they were doing it right. And so how do you get that historic, that cultural ecological knowledge, that traditional ecological knowledge back into main policy? And then also how do you really empower tribes to have the agency to do their prescribed burning, to do cultural burns, to have these partnerships?
So there’s a lot that the state’s been doing in terms of helping restore land and create shared stewardship and shared management agreements on state parks, for example. We just had one with Native American tribes, but we also have huge partnerships with tribes. So there was big cultural burning programs are happening. That was part of the reason, especially around the unfederally recognized tribes in California. That’s why we wanted our own grant program to make sure that one of the things California does is we don’t sort of stop at the federal recognition, that our funding and resources and partnerships extend to all of the tribes in the state.
But there’s been a lot of innovation happening in this space and a lot of just sitting down with tribes, working it through, figuring out how we move forward together. I think one of the more innovative things we’re doing in the forest space is actually on the Jackson Demonstration Forest. We have a tribal chairman on the management group there, and he has a brilliant innovation that we’re going to implement, which is establishing a Native American council for that forest that a percentage of the revenue coming off the forest goes to that council to then be able to actually have the resources to put projects that they are directing and designing back on the forest.
And so it’s not just… A lot of what we’re trying to do is making sure that we’re not doing tribal stuff just in name only, but that we’re actually getting funds, resources, and support for tribes that may not have the capacity to engage with the state, that we have people that can then help them write the MOUs or we fund their staff. One of the things we’re doing in this grant program is designing it so that it can be available to help fund the staff at the tribe to help do the projects so that you don’t just have to be a big tribe to be able to engage in California, that we’re trying to make it so that we have a lot stronger foundation. Because we’re not going to get it right unless we bring back that traditional ecological knowledge. There are just millennia of knowledge of how these ecologies work with a great deal of nuance. And so we’ve been really leaning in and working with tribal partners and just so grateful for the expertise.
For example, we have Don Hankin is on the board of the joint force task force, and he has been really helping us lead the efforts around anchoring it in and getting that cultural burning back on the landscape and back for tribes.
David Ackerly: That is a perfect place to… OK, yes, there is. Absolutely. You have the right to make a [inaudible].
Audience 4: Ms. Morse, I just want to say from someone who knows little about what you were saying, you blew my mind. So thank you very much for a really nice, very informative talk.
Jessica Morse: Thank you.
David Ackerly: And another, again, thank you to the Hall family for being here again this year, to see you again is so wonderful. And I will second that: an enormous thanks, Jessica, for extraordinary talk. I have a feeling you could have answered every additional question anyone in this audience could have thrown at you, but your chances are not over. So as you leave the building, go to the left at the front entrance, turn left up to Morgan Hall for a reception there for anyone who would like to join us. And then for the CAF members who are here about 6:10 p.m. or 6:15 p.m., we’ll invite you to head towards the faculty club for dinner. So thank you all for joining us this afternoon.
Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.