The 2020 Slink Fire burns part of the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, Mono County. Photo © Jeff Sullivan Photography
Fire damage in the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, Mono County. CDFW Photo
CDA and CDFW prepare a helicopter for aerial seeding. California Deer Association Deer photo
CDA using tractor for mechanical seeding. California Deer Association photo
A helicopter shortly after takeoff, on its way to aerial seeding. California Deer Association Photo
The eight largest fires in California history have consumed more than 4 million acres and burned more than 7,000 structures. And because all those fires happened just within the last five years, the state of California recently approved spending hundreds of millions of dollars through its Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan (PDF).
For the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), that means being able to significantly expand the scope of wildfire resiliency projects such as fuel reduction and forest health projects, as well as to restore habitat on CDFW lands that have burned recently. In northern Mono County, where the 2017 Slinkard Fire and 2020 Slink Fire together burned nearly 40 percent of the 11,700-acre Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, CDFW is working hard with project partners to implement restoration and fuel reduction projects. That work includes seeding a mix of shrubs and grasses, planting nursery-grown bitterbrush, reforestation of Jeffrey pine and white fir, mowing fuel breaks and removal of invasive species.
“For the last century, fire suppression and climate change have led to larger fires that burn hotter and can leave the landscape more vulnerable to invasive nonnative plants, making natural recovery more challenging,” said Senior Environmental Scientist Aaron Johnson. He explained that the work being done at the wildlife area has two purposes: to improve habitat for mule deer, and expedite recovery of the desired natural communities, thus mitigating the potential transition to non-native annual grasses that contributes to the severity of fires.
“Cheatgrass does very well in the post-fire burned landscape, and once established, it increases the frequency and severity of wildfires on the landscape,” Johnson said. “Parts of Slinkard have burned enough times that there’s nothing but cheatgrass, and even the smallest lightning strike that might have historically burned a single tree can now lead to thousands of acres burned.”
California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan guides the work done by Johnson and Graham Meese, a new CDFW employee hired specifically for this purpose. Part of Meese’s job involves coordinating with groups and agencies outside CDFW that bring specific expertise such as fuel reduction or seeding.
“By building partnerships, we’re able to effectively increase the scale of work that we’re able to do,” Meese said. “I could spend all year seeding one meadow by myself, but with the state funding CDFW has received, we’re able to contract with nonprofits like the California Deer Association (CDA) to get landscape scale projects done.”
CDA has directed the aerial seeding on more than 2,000 acres within the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, while also conducting site surveys and the removal of hazardous burned trees. “The amount of work that CDA has completed in such a short period of time is impressive,” he said, adding that CDA staff and contractors will significantly increase CDFW’s capacity to tackle such projects over the next several years.
CDA describes itself as a wildlife conservation organization whose goal is improving the state’s deer herds and other wildlife. They have roughly 12,000 members – 10 of whom spent about a week last November repairing damage from the Slink Fire.
“We’re starting to see where repetitive fires burning within the same footprints are causing changes in vegetation and promoting invasives,” said CDA Communications Manager Cherise MacDougall. The CDA also sees changes in climate and the makeup of California as reasons to step in and help nature recover after a fire roars through. “In many of our areas, many wildlife species are in distress. It doesn’t matter if it’s yellow-legged frog, sage-grouse, spotted owl, mule deer or blacktail – it’s important our organization works for all of them,” she said. “We look at ourselves as being a part of the environment. We have a role in stewardship so we can’t just throw our hands in the air and walk away. We’re in a different position than we were before 40 million people lived in California.”
On the Slinkard/Little Antelope site, mechanical seeding involving tractors was conducted where access was possible. In areas of the property that are too steep for tractors to operate, aerial seeding was employed. Johnson is hoping that weather, a variety of approaches and repeated treatments over the three-year term of the project will contribute to its success.
“We are sort of at the whim of the weather. We waited until we saw precipitation in the forecast (last November) and we lucked out. We managed to get the seed down right before the first winter storm and a lot of it got buried under snow, so I think we’re likely to get good germination,” said Johnson.
The work being done at the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife area is just one of many wildfire resiliency projects CDFW is implementing across the state, aimed at improving the ecological resiliency of its wildlife areas, ecological reserves and the surrounding communities from potential wildfires. Managing wildfire resilience requires a landscape-scale perspective that is made possible by developing partnerships with other organizations, such as CDA, that share a common goal.
By CDFW Information Officer Tim Daly