This article was written by guest-author Matt Merrill, founder of Yuba Forest Restoration (YFR), which offers forestry services to the Gold Country region.

Forest stewardship is one thing you can do to enjoy more of your property, protect it from fire, and help native species thrive

The days are getting longer and warmer, and most folks are beginning to spend time enjoying their property again for the first time in months. Evidence of winter is everywhere with leaf litter, broken branches, and needles cast about. By now, the grass is beginning to grow and spring cleaning beckons, we can’t help but think ahead to summer and the dreaded fire season. Although we have all known that we live in one of the most fire prone regions in the state, the Camp Fire of 2018 brought a new level of understanding and urgency to how vulnerable we really are to fire.

Unkept wilderness and forest floor.

This is the current state of many properties in the Sierra Nevada. Note continuous layers of fuel from forest floor to crowns of largest trees. These “ladder fuels” increase the intensity of fires and if this area were to burn, there is a good chance all of these trees (and associated habitat) would be lost.

How did we get so vulnerable to fire?

Fire is a natural component of the Sierra Nevada, and has been shaping these forests for a long time. Many tree species have adapted to fire with thick, fire-resistant bark and foliage. We know that local native people benefited from utilizing fire regularly to manage forests. Historically, frequent low-severity fires helped lessen forest fuel loads and reduce the amount of smaller trees and seedlings. Nowadays, climate change plus over a century of fire suppression has given way to forests that contain hazardous levels of vegetation and are very susceptible to drought, insects, and disease.


How can we build resilience to fire?

Every piece of vegetation is like a straw in the ground, sucking up moisture in the soil. Every tree and shrub requires a certain allotment of water to maintain its vigor. The amount of water available through rainfall or snowpack is set by mother nature, and without allowing fire to burn freely as it did in the past, the number of “straws” have grown considerably. In a typical year, this may not be a huge deal, but when we have a drought similar to what we’ve had, we see large-scale tree mortality. Keep in mind that the insects responsible for mortality are native species such as beetles.

Water scarcity combined with increased competition make it so that trees are not healthy enough to fend off insects and disease as they do in any given year with typical rainfall.

Excess vegetation competes with trees for light and water, and also provides fuel for fires. In turn, unmaintained forests can contain nearly continuous vegetation, which serves as “ladder fuels” for fire to climb and reach the canopy, resulting in destructive crown fires.

Unmaintained forest parcel.

Unmaintained parcel in Nevada City.

A resilient forest is a healthy one, wherein vegetation does not outcompete trees. By promoting responsible stewardship of our forests, we can protect valuable habitat into the future.

What can property owners do?

To promote forest health, you can maintain adequate defensible space by first identifying areas of your property where there are excess fuels. Say you are already doing a good job protecting your property from fire, then vegetation management is a great reason to meet with your neighbors who aren’t. Which begs the question…

Are you part of a firesafe community?

If not, there is a good chance some of your neighbors are already organizing to become one. I have found a renewed sense of community in my neighborhood as a result of this work taking place. What an excellent thing!

How does forest stewardship improve habitat?

Cleared forest parcel.

Parcel after fuels reduction work. Here, most trees under 12” diameter were removed and remaining trees were “limbed up” as a part of this process. Additionally, particular attention was paid towards preserving an uneven aged stand, removing ladder fuels, maintaining species diversity, and minimizing overlap of canopies.

It is a little counter-intuitive, I know. But, in the absence of fire there is simply too much vegetation, and certain species that are not fire-adapted end up thriving without competition, which is not natural.

Ultimately, fire OR responsible stewardship keeps forests in a natural state. Since we can’t afford fire, we choose stewardship and provide forestry consulting services.

  1. Being thoughtful about what vegetation we remove, benefits forests and improves habitat by:
  2. Increasing resilience to drought and disease/forest pests.
  3. Reducing the threat of crown fires, which cause nearly complete mortality of the forest. A forest of standing dead trees is great habitat for invasive species and other undesirable species.
  4. Removing undesirable or invasive species as well as unhealthy or diseased trees in the process of fuels reduction work, which stops the spread of invasive species and diseases.
  5. Protecting all of the healthiest, oldest, and largest trees in the forest, so that they remain to provide critical habitat. Dead snags can be left in place, or reduced if there are too many.
  6. Returning organic material to the property. Blowing chips back onto the property is a good natural mulch method that helps the soil and plants retain moisture further into the season. Care should be taken to not leave: a continuous mat of chips, piles more than an inch or two thick, and chips close to any structures.
  7. Keeping fuels at an appropriate level helps so that forests experience a beneficial fire rather than a damaging one, should fire occur.
  8. Additionally, having an open understory to view wildlife that would have been obscured by vegetation. Our clients find that an open understory makes it easier to travel by foot, so they’re able to enjoy portions of their property that they couldn’t ever access before!

How can I prepare for fire season?

Here are some great resources for learning more about preparing your property for wildfire and organizing your neighbors for fire season:

Nevada County Fire Safe Council

The NCFSC offers free defensible space inspections and a myriad of other resources

Ready Nevada County

A go-to site for current local fire-safety law. The ready, set, go! handbook is a must-read.


Make sure you are signed up for CodeRed, the emergency alert system for western Nevada County

Yuba Forest Restoration

Lastly, visit our website any time and follow us on Instagram.