Opportunities from the Ashes: Pursuing Multiple Benefit Community and Landscape Resilience Following

Year: 2020
Presenter/s: Virginia Mahacek
Symposium Session: 2020 - 08 Pre-Disaster: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Topics covered: beavers, climate change, floodplain, lessons learned, outside PNW, riparian, risk and resilience, and sediment transport


Recent catastrophic wildfires have caused devastating human impacts including deaths, injuries, health risk exposures, and emotional trauma. These are compelling motives well beyond the watershed and ecosystem benefits we will focus on herein.
Over the last decade, annual wildfire property losses across the United States ranged from $0.5 billion to as much as $24 billion in 2018. California has by far the highest number of properties at risk from wildfire of any state, estimated to be approximately 2.1 million properties. The ten most costly catastrophic wildfires (based on property loss) in our nation’s history all occurred in California, with six of the top ten occurring in 2017 and 2018.

Annual Federal fire suppression spending (by USFS and DOI agencies) has risen sharply to around $3.1 billion in 2018, even as acreages burned and damages incurred also increased. California’s state spending on fire suppression soared to $947 million in 2017/18. On top of the enormous costs in property losses and fire suppression, destructive wildfires have required emergency response, clean-up and recovery support on a scale previously associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. As of November 2019, the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund cumulative obligations for California’s 2017 and 2018 Wildfires exceeded $2 billion. The State’s contribution is nearly another billion.

This presentation explores how the increasing economic burden of response, property damage, and recovery after catastrophic wildfire, along with a growing demand for resilient landscapes as a means of wildfire hazard reduction, are becoming drivers of watershed management. Recovery activities, resilience planning and funding trends will be described, with examples from the 2017 Sonoma Complex Fires and other recent California wildfires.

Despite decades of scientifically-driven technical advances and substantial investment on salmonids, the degradation of watersheds and river systems continues to outpace fish population recovery and ecosystem sustainability. While the science and practice of river restoration has progressed beyond site-scale treatment, effective implementation remains challenged by complex and compartmentalized mandates and funding limitations, while suffering uneven public support and political will. We consider how demand for wildfire hazard reduction using multi-benefit approaches is an emerging driver on forest and water resource management decisions, particularly in light of climate change and population growth pressure.

Viewing river restoration through the lens of catastrophic wildfire provides a means to: 1) expand beyond traditional goals and outcome metrics; 2) engage at scale across jurisdictions and ownerships; 3) diversify stakeholders; 4) improve upland material and process contributions to aquatic ecosystems; and, 5) access additional resources and expertise for innovative solutions. Opportunities to restore natural and working uplands, riparian corridors, and wetlands with State investments on air quality, human health, carbon sequestration, and water supply security are growing. FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program (PDM) support for watershed planning as well as implementation of a range of treatments is expanding. Finally, river restoration planning that fails to consider the hydrologic, sediment, and wood loads from either catastrophic fire or wildfire hazard reduction treatments may overlook pertinent context as well as opportunity.