by Alison Lerch and Katie Lighthall
When it comes to reducing wildfire risk, Mark Egbert and the El Dorado County Resource Conservation District (RCD) sit at the core of a strong collaborative effort to implement the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The collaborative is known as the South Fork American River Cohesive Strategy and focuses on the resilience of landscapes and communities in the South Fork American River Watershed.
As one of the fastest growing counties in California, El Dorado County continues to experience an uptick in new development into the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Not a surprise, as over 60% of the county is covered by the Eldorado National Forest, providing a wide range of desired recreational opportunities and natural areas. Wildfire has been a frequent visitor to the area, gaining in complexity over the years thanks to long-term drought, climate change, uncharacteristic stand structures and fuel loading, insects and disease. Communities, infrastructure, private timber, recreation, wine production and other agricultural uses, water, power, at-risk species and a high frequency of human fire starts are all reasons why this watershed is a high priority.
El Dorado RCD lies within the South Fork American River Watershed.
At least once a decade, parts of this 410,000 acre landscape burn (the 2014 King Fire, 2004 Freds Fire, 1992 Cleveland Fire, 1981 Wrights Fire, 1973 Pilliken Fire and now the 2021 Caldor Fire). The need for landscape scale, cross-boundary treatments and the co-management of risk is imperative.
The El Dorado RCD plays a vital role in the efforts of the South Fork American River (SOFAR) Cohesive Strategy. Mark Egbert, the District Manager, says their role is unique in that they act as convener, grant fiduciary, project designer and implementer, NEPA coordinator, educator and the voice of private landowners. Through these avenues, they work with landowners, local governments, federal and state partners to assess, plan and carry out timely and effective cross-boundary projects that improve conditions before, during and after a fire.
Mark currently works with over 2,000 landowners to build trusting relationships and provide education about the importance of defensible space and risk-based land management.
At the agency level, the RCD has built confidence and trust among federal and state partners that allows the RCD to complete the environmental processes under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and present the findings to the US Forest Service.
When asked about prescribed fire, Mark points to successful projects in El Dorado County that follow CAL FIRE’s Vegetation Management Program (VMP) where private landowners enter into long-term management agreements to implement prescribed fire on a recurring schedule. The Sly Park Vegetation Management Unit is the oldest VMP in California and has grown from under 100 acres of prescribed fire per year to over 6,000 acres in the last 20 years.
Mark believes their success stems from not only from the collaborative work at the local level but also the support for implementation at the state level. The State of California’s leadership is taking bold steps to invest in fuels reduction, prescribed fire and landowner education. In addition to large investments in fuels reduction and fire prevention education, Governor Newsom signed SB 332 into law earlier this month that offers a gross negligence standard of liability for suppression costs if incurred due to a prescribed fire. The Governor also established a $20 million liability fund for damages resulting from a prescribed fire. Combined, these two mechanisms reduce the liability challenges of implementing prescribed fire on private lands across California.
“It’s been an evolution of the RCD by increasing capacity to complete projects and of leadership that’s providing the means to take these actions,” Mark says. “It’s also the coordination of strategic priorities across all leadership – the Forest Service, CAL FIRE, the natural resources agencies, El Dorado County, all the way down to landowners coming together and consolidating those priorities, and coming up with plan of action that we can deliver on.” How do they find this alignment and put projects on the ground? Through any and all tools in the toolbox for success – the Good Neighbor Authority, Stewardship Agreements, Interagency Agreements and Direct Contract Allocations.
Partners in the Fire Adapted 50: Sierra Nevada Conservancy Phase (Sly Park) project.
One such effort is the Fire Adapted 50: Sierra Nevada Conservancy Phase (Sly Park) project. This wildfire fuels reduction project is to be completed through Fire Adapted 50, an innovative all-lands approach to increasing forest ecosystem fire resiliency and fire adapted communities along the WUI of the U.S. Highway 50 corridor. In addition, this project occurs within the South Fork American River Cohesive Strategy area, a priority landscape management unit. The project has leveraged a collaboration between long-time partners to implement ecologically sound forest restoration work on a large-landscape scale. Approximately 1,474 acres have been treated so far, using mastication and hand-thinning methods. Funding for the project comes from CAL FIRE and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
Sly Park treatment – before and after.
The RCD also sees El Dorado County as a valuable partner as this level of leadership amplifies the voice of the community and landowners. Their needs and priorities, such as the threat of catastrophic wildfire, are reflected in the elected officials. Ultimately, the performance of the RCD and the South Fork American River Cohesive Strategy collaborative effort will be measured by what they’ve done to protect communities.
Even with the success they’ve enjoyed to date, they still run into some challenges. The biggest challenge, Mark says, is the continuity of investment to sustain the viability of the initial landscape projects through long-term maintenance agreements. This means there must be alignment of current partner resources because grant funding will not always be available for long-term community protection. Maintenance of these projects is a critical component. Although the RCD doesn’t have resources, they do have a role in bringing together those entities that have them – the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, PGE, the US Forest Service, CAL FIRE, Sierra Pacific Industries – for maintenance across large, multi-jurisdictional landscapes through collaborative arrangements. In this way, they are reducing their dependence on grant funding while sustaining landscape resiliency and community protection.
While they continue to pursue landscape resiliency, Mark’s other concern lies within the community itself. The Cohesive Strategy calls for an increase in fire adaption and community resilience which includes a robust wildfire prevention and education program with consistent messaging and communication. While the RCD is committed to educating its partner landowners, Mark’s hoping that Governor Newsom’s new commitment to funding will help increase these efforts and more at the community level to make additional progress towards becoming fire adapted.
Despite some challenges, the El Dorado County RCD has been extremely successful at overcoming barriers, coordinating efforts and implementing key components of the Cohesive Strategy to make meaningful progress towards resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities in its own work with landowners and as part of the larger South Fork American River Cohesive Strategy project. At the end of the day, Mark points to building trust and relationships as they key to his success which allows him to shape the perception about what it means to live with wildland fire in rural California.
To learn more about the work Mark Egbert is doing at the El Dorado RCD, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: El Dorado RCD