A gut reaction when faced with fire is to dump water on it. These elements have been pitted against each other as natural enemies since time immemorial — hot opposes cold, up is never down, water is contrary to fire.
On Mother Nature’s scale, however, the sharp distinction between water and fire shrinks in helpfulness: An ineffective watershed can actually serve as fodder to a catastrophic fire. Prometheus’s gift to man is a tricky one, but local and statewide organizations are beginning to band together to address this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, namely that water needs some fire to successfully fight the big fire.
For example, Yosemite National Park’s Mono Meadow played the role of fire buffer in 2017, slowing the spread of flames as a successful fire-water-fire trifecta to the Empire Fire.
“There’s sort of this big hole in the middle of the fire where it didn’t burn,” explained Gabrielle Boisrame, a postdoctoral fellow with the Desert Research Institute, which she attributes directly to a wet meadow.
Mono Meadow is part of a unique-to-California watershed, Boisrame said. The National Park Service has allowed wildfires to burn naturally here for about 40 years, thinning out forests, removing fuels, and sustainably condensing the number of trees.
“The meadow didn’t totally stop the fire, but it slowed it down and the fire had to go around the meadow,” Boisrame wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink. “If the firefighters had wanted to, they likely could have used Mono Meadows as a natural barrier to help contain the fire more, but in this case they made a deliberate choice to let the fire burn deeper into the wilderness area … in order to reduce the fuel load and help maintain this area’s fire-adapted ecosystem.”
Chris Anthony, division chief with Cal Fire, talked about the propensity of firefighters to look for natural barriers to utilize during wildfire — ridge tops, river drainages, roads, treated forests — all dependent upon the fire’s location, surrounding geography, and ultimate safety of the people.
“The  Nuns Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties, there were definitely areas where the fire backed down into the drainages and we used the drainages as control points for the fire,” Anthony said.
If the opportunity to use a riparian area is there, Anthony said firefighters will take it: “We would like to believe that lakes or water courses would have an impact on wildland fire behavior, and under certain circumstances it certainly does.”
But not always. Fire-adapted ecosystems offer helpful natural barriers to wildfire, but not all riparian zones are effectively fire-adapted. The Empire and Nuns fires emerge in stark contrast to the 2007 Angora Fire, when the riparian zone served as the “wick” to the 3,100 acres just east of Fallen Leaf Lake. So says Jeff Brown, reserve manager at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station.
“[The fire] raced up the riparian zone because nobody does anything in the riparian zone,” Brown said. “They really don’t serve the buffer you might think [they] would because there’s so much other stuff in them now.”
Stuff here meaning evergreens moving into stream zones where they historically haven’t been thanks to regular disturbances like low intensity fires. This movement increases fuel loads with vegetation that’s more susceptible to burning than stream staples like aspens and cottonwoods.
If wet meadows and riparian zones were burned regularly through low intensity fires, Brown went on, they’d function just fine, serving their proper natural role as buffer to catastrophic wildfires. This would also help avoid damage to stream vegetation that holds banks in place and provides diverse wildlife habitats. Again, see the Angora Fire.
Truckee is now utilizing this idea of healthy watersheds to battle catastrophic wildfire, an idea that wasn’t always so obvious.
The local U.S. Forest Service branch and the Truckee River Watershed Council used to work adjacently but separately, with the USFS focusing on forest areas and TRWC on wetlands, meadows, and riparian areas. “Philosophical differences” between the two dictated this divide, as TRWC executive director Lisa Wallace described it.
There’s a mutual understanding there now, though.
“We realized … that our efforts were completely intertwined and that the health of the watershed equaled the health of the forest,” said Scott Conway, district ranger of the Truckee Ranger District. “Pretty much every project now, there’s always some conversation with [the TRWC] on what we’re doing and what their goals are.”
The two groups are currently working together on the Ladybug Project, which will address forest health and resilience to wildfire within the 3,000 acres east of Stampede Reservoir.
“Reducing fire fuels for the impacts of high severity fire, reducing sedimentation from roads (so improving roads), and also aspen restoration as well as some meadow restoration,” described Conway. “The watershed council is involved with some or many of those aspects.”
The collaboration could provide a precedent for future fire-preventative forest care. Forest, meet your local watershed.
The companion work of the USFS and the TRWC shows one way the local community is determined to use nature’s own medicine against it: A healthy watershed can serve as a natural buffer to the high intensity blazes that plague California’s lands, but that health only comes with regular burns.
On Fire Explanation
In this edition we are launching our On Fire series, which delves into the issue of wildfire through a spectrum of lenses, including public education, breakdown of the science, graphic depictions, unique personalities, and more. This month, we focus on watershed and fire, and how they affect each other.
Check out the original centerfold painting on p. 24 of our current print edition, depicting the potential effects of catastrophic wildfire in the Basin. We believe this aspect of the discussion provides visual understanding of the issues, gives optimism for lasting effects of watershed work, and tells the story in a compelling way not yet seen.