Research at Sonoma County's Pepperwood Preserve seeks tools for quantifying forest 'fuel load'

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Pepperwood Preserve, with an environmental conservation center and refuge for over 900 species of plants and animals in Sonoma County, is pursuing a Fire Science Initiative that its officials say will measure, map, model and message fire research and data to citizens, and decision makers, including all levels of government from Sonoma County agencies to Cal Fire and the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

The same data will help homeowners better understand fire weather, fuel hazards and potential lethal fire corridor dynamics as well as provide practical web-based decision support tools.

A key aspect of this research is quantifying the amount of “fuel load” in local forests by estimating live and dead above-ground biomass that can cause wildfires using lidar. Short for light detection and ranging, this surveying technology measures distance to a target by illuminating it with pulsed laser light and measuring reflected pulses with a sensor.

This forest monitoring technology will provide fire agencies with high resolution vegetation fuel load data maps based on 3D representations of the terrain in critical regions of the state.

In the short term, this new method will provide a scientific basis for setting priorities when it comes to locating and removing hazardous debris to prevent deadly fires and minimize threats to life and property.

For the long-term, such data will inform adaptation strategies to protect land, water, forests, wildlife and human communities in the face of climate change, according to Lisa Micheli, Ph.D., president of the nonprofit Pepperwood Foundation that operates the facility in the Mayacamas Mountains off Porter Creek Road.

“This effort builds on Pepperwood’s 10 years of environmental data collection, education and collaborative networking with research that is carefully designed to improve California’s wildfire preparedness, first response, recovery and long-term fire resilience.”

She said these findings will also be combined with real-time data collected during extreme fire weather events as well as help inform preventive measures, like where to turn off the grid, and may assist fire agencies in prepositioning fire fighters.

Pepperwood knows about fire first-hand. During the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, some 95% of the 3,200-acre preserve was burned, destroying five buildings and over 7,500 square feet of space critical to managing the preserve’s operations and programs.

In response, Pepperwood has mounted a separate, focused $1.25 million Rising from the Ashes fundraising campaign, which together with an insurance settlement, offers the opportunity to construct new facilities that will be a showcase for state-of-the-art sustainable design, Micheli said.

Structures to be rebuilt include an updated barn and field office, the preserve manager’s home, and a new Visiting Scholars’ Center reflecting next-generation fire-resistant, low-toxicity, energy efficient and sustainable construction.

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