Forest health and resiliency work at Saddle Mountain

October 28, 2021

Posted in: News Articles

This fall, Ag + Open Space will begin implementation of a 60-acre understory thinning project and two shaded fuel breaks at Saddle Mountain Open Space Preserve. The Preserve was impacted at varying levels of severity by the 2020 Glass Fire, and in some areas where fire intensity was lower, the fire left a large number of dead understory saplings in areas where the forest overstory was relatively untouched. This dead material would serve as a highly combustible “ladder fuel” in the event of a future fire, and could result in fires reaching the crown, or top of the tree canopy, which can lead to devastating impacts to the forest. Without thinning, these dense saplings that act as ladder fuels would also be too much of a hazard for us to be able to hold future prescribed or cultural burns.

The crowded condition of much of the forested areas at Saddle Mountain, as throughout our region, is the result of more than a century of fire suppression coupled with the loss of Indigenous stewardship of these lands through intentional burning and other cultural practices. Periodic disturbance, like prescribed or cultural burns, provides a “re-set” of forest conditions, allowing sun-loving plants an opportunity to establish and flourish, removing some ladder fuels so that fire intensity stays low and so that large, older, resilient trees are able to grow, and supporting a diverse mosaic of vegetation types that in turn supports diverse wildlife. Disturbance is key to maintaining healthy forests that are able to adapt and respond to changing conditions.

The goal of the understory thinning project at Saddle Mountain is to create a break between ladder fuels and the hardwood/oak forest tree stands above them. After cutting back the ladder fuels, these plants are piled for future burning or as potential wildlife habitat. This will be a first step towards re-introducing “good” fire to this stand, with the goal of maintaining a thriving forest that supports diverse native wildlife and vegetation and provides healthy habitat for culturally and ecologically important species like black oak and rare plants like Napa false indigo.

The two shaded fuel breaks follow existing roads on the Preserve and are intended to provide safer access for emergency personnel and strategic, defensible areas for future firefighting activities, as well as appropriately prepped control lines for future prescribed burns. Shaded fuel breaks are not intended to stop a wind-driven fire, but they can support wildfire control efforts. The thinning project and fuel break location supports Cal Fire’s regional plans for strategic fuel treatments to help protect northeast Santa Rosa and the Rincon Valley area.

These projects were developed in consultation with several registered professional foresters, a fuels management specialist, a Tribal representative, local botanists, and Ag + Open Space staff with expertise in fire ecology and forest restoration, as well as dialogue with regional conservation partners and Cal Fire. The design for these projects includes robust protections for sensitive natural and cultural resources, soil health, natural post-fire vegetation regeneration, water quality, wildlife, and forest understory species, and is intended to support maximum biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and forest health on the Preserve. The projects do not involve logging or removing any material off site, nor any use of equipment other than chainsaws off road.

The projects are funded by a grant from the Coastal Conservancy for wildfire resilience projects that are intended to protect forest health and community safety.

We’re very excited for this important work on Saddle Mountain to get underway, and we’ll be sure to share more along the way.