Preparing for winter rains after the fires

This article is a follow-up to our two-part series, Turning Fire Into Water.

In August and September, the CZU Lightning Complex fire burned 86,509 acres of our beloved mountains in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, destroying 1,490 structures and devastating the beautiful ecosystems of the forest. 

Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

As we continue to grieve what was lost, plants are already starting to sprout new growth among the ashes and people are looking toward the future of rebuilding and recovering. Now is the time to prepare for the coming winter rains to prevent additional damage to the recovering forest while simultaneously preparing the ground to receive much-needed rains to help the forest regrow. Even if your home wasn’t affected by the fires, you can still prepare for the coming rainy season with some of the suggestions outlined below.

Coming Together

On October 23, a diverse team gathered for a workshop to teach about and implement some key strategies for preventing erosion and revitalizing the landscape in burned areas. The group included folks from Santa Cruz Relief, CoRenewal, Ecosystem Restoration Camps, the Camp Fire Restoration Project, Catalyst BioAmendments, fire survivors, and many others with skills and interests related to restoration and regeneration of the landscape. 

Organizer Rebekah Uccellini of Grow the Change explains: “Many fire-survivors are interested in doing toxic-run-off-control measures but don’t know how or they don’t have the finances or physical ability to do it themselves. This is a lot to put on people who are already displaced, who have lost everything in the fires…to now protect their watershed on top of it all. 

“I wanted to bring in experts who had been doing this for multiple years to train up our community so that they felt empowered to keep supporting each other. This is important knowledge that all of us should be carriers of, and indeed ‘Many hands make light work.’ 

“While we were incredibly effective in meeting more than our goal of properties served… this goes so far beyond just the work itself. This is about community helping each other. It is incredibly healing for fire-survivors to be surrounded by pure-hearts who are there to just help lift a little bit of the weight off of their backs…to remind people that they aren’t alone and to tend to the earth together.”

Photo credit: Mauricio Rivera
Matthew Trumm, Permaculture teacher (and fire-survivor) from Campfire Restoration Project and TreeTop Permaculture. Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

Their process for preparing a hillside includes the following steps:

  1. Assessment
  2. Map Contours
  3. Dig berm and swale (4 inches deep)
  4. Apply compost
  5. Lay wattle or compost sock
  6. Stake in wattle or compost sock every 4 feet
  7. Apply compost tea to wattle
  8. Inoculate with native fungi

Since the October workshop, folks throughout the mountains have been implementing this approach in preparation for winter rains. To learn more about each of these steps so that more people can implement this, we reached out to some of the workshop organizers and presenters.

Why prepare sites in this way?

We connected with Matthew Trumm, permaculture teacher and fire-survivor from Campfire Restoration Project and TreeTop Permaculture. We asked him to share about what happened after the Camp Fire in 2018 to exemplify the importance of securing sites in advance of winter.

He explained that due to rains that came immediately after the fire, there was very little time to secure burned structures in order to prevent toxic ash from flowing into local waterways. “A lot of that material went into the environment and got into the creeks. There was a lot of debris flow and there were definitely flooding issues, there were mudslides, it was pretty bad. There was a lot of erosion. That’s why it’s important to secure the site. It’s important to do the erosion control methods. If you want to live in these places and have a good start when you get back, it’s important.”

He also shared some of the environmental impacts that are continuing to affect the area: “Just to give you an idea of what the reality is behind those toxins that went into the environment on a macro level–we’re still getting data back on the micro level–there were soil tests that came back 3% lead. There are stories I’ve heard of people who went fishing in this last year that caught a fish and started to cook it and it smelled so bad of chemicals they had to throw it out.”

The remains of a home that burned in the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA in 2018. Photo credit: California Office of Emergency Services

In addition to doing what we can to prevent toxins from flowing away from burn sites right now in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Matthew shared the importance of prioritizing the development of protocols for the future: “We can’t be ignored. We need to be persistent about it. If you’re a survivor, don’t feel like you have to do that work yourself. But we need to talk to everyone we know–government, friends, anyone that will help to make this a priority. This is not yet a priority because megafires are a new phenomenon, and this amount of toxic materials being burned up in a fire is new, so there’s not a major protocol to do that. We’ve developed one here in Butte County that we will share with the world because we seem to be the test spot for disaster right now in California.”

Preparation & Assessment

When working in burned areas, it’s crucial to take safety measures seriously to avoid harming yourself in the process. Rebekah shared some key safety considerations:

  • Wear a respirator; “it’s so much better to be safe then to get sick.”
  • “I also highly recommend taking a biotoxin binder (Cellcore makes 2 that work great to pull toxins out of the body after workdays).”
  • For those who have been able to return to their homes in areas affected by the fire: “Plan ahead now if you are in an erosion/debris flow zone. The County is overwhelmed already with the COVID reality and so if you have friends/family that you can plan to stay with if you are evacuated that is most ideal. Get an all-weather radio and be ready to evacuate early. Have your go-bags packed now while it isn’t an emergency (so much easier to pack that now then when the cortisol is running).”

It’s also important to assess the conditions of the site and create a site-specific plan. “The main rule of thumb is that we want to contain as much of the toxic material as possible and not allow water to run into (or through) the house site. Where there is run-off of water, we want to slow that water down into the hillside, and keep clean water clean,” Rebekah explained. “Anywhere that there is toxic ash (home site especially solar panels, electric cars, computers, chemicals, sheds) you want to contain that material from running off down into the streams.”

Matthew Trumm described how to slow down the water: “The most important thing people can do is to secure their homesites and vehicles or other structures that could have had toxic materials in them by digging a ditch on-contour, or slightly off-contour, about 4’’ deep roughly, and berm downhill like building a swale and fill that with compost socks, or wattle that you can inoculate with compost tea, or even lay some compost in the trench first. Just make sure that toxic ash doesn’t run off any further.”

Photo credit: Rebekah Uccellini

In flat sites or sites with porous soil, cover burned vehicles and land where toxic materials may have burned with plastic tarps. This helps prevent toxic ash from washing offsite, as well as protects the bare soil from the impact of heavy rain. Plastic perhaps isn’t the most permaculture approach, but “weighing the fact that toxins can run off into the environment versus adding to the materials they collect in phase two that goes to a toxic waste facility, is not necessarily a bad trade,” Matthew explained. 

Rebekah added: “This is site-specific but we typically lay down a layer of mulch (either a chop & drop aka lop & scatter) with leaves, low branches, straw or woodchips. We recommend putting a barrier of compost socks around the house-site on contour (especially downslope) and often-times will back that up with straw wattles that we innoculate with oyster mushrooms to help chelate the toxins. The compost socks are best for closest to the house-site as they filter more toxins out and they will get picked up with the Phase 2 clean up and properly disposed of.”

Matthew also pointed out the importance of looking uphill. “If you have erosion that’s going to be above the homesite that could cause a bigger issue. You’re going to want to go ahead and set wattles, or trees, or any debris that you can on-contour maybe every 20 feet to help slow debris flows. And then if you can, put down straw or wood chips.”

In these next few sections, we share more about steps to secure a site in preparation for the rain.

Photo credit: Mauricio Rivera

Materials & Tools

  • Spade/shovel
  • A-frame
  • Flags or stakes
  • Level/bunyip
  • Wood chips
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Compost
  • Stakes for wattle
  • Straw wattle materials
  • Compost tea
  • Inoculant 
  • Plastic tarps 

Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond carries wattles, compost socks, tarps, tools, and other supplies you might need for this project. Contact CoRenewal for information about inoculants. Far-West Fungi and Mazu Mushrooms are another possible source for fungi; they generously donated some for these workshops.

Berm and Swale

The berm/swale system that is used for this particular application is relatively small – 4” to 6” deep and wide – as opposed to many of the other berm/swale systems we describe in this blog post, which tend to be at least 12” to 18” deep and wide. These smaller berm/swales serve the function of helping to hold the straw wattles or compost socks in place, which are filtering the toxins out of the water as the water runs through them.

The berms and swales we typically talk about in permaculture are designed to rehydrate the soil. Build them now–even if your home wasn’t affected by the fire–to take advantage of winter rains. For more on this strategy and other passive water harvesting techniques, read part two of our Turning Fire Into Water series.

Photo credit: Rebekah Uccellini

Compost

Compost is added to the swale before staking down the wattle or compost-filled socks. Compost adds biological activity to the site, helps filter toxins, and slows down runoff by providing a more textured surface than the barren, burned ground. You can learn more about the benefits of compost in this article on our blog

Wattles

You’ve probably seen straw wattle around construction sites before—those long worms of straw packed in plastic netting and affixed to the ground with pine stakes? The wattle is used to prevent erosion by physically catching sediment as it runs off. As described in the next section, you can moisten the wattles with compost tea so that they function more effectively in heavy rains.

In addition to helping prevent erosion, straw wattle can also be inoculated with fungi to filter toxins out of water as it passes through them. Folks in other communities devastated by fires have used mushrooms and mycelium for remediation. Read more on this below.

Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

Compost Tea

We asked Matthew to explain why they recommend applying compost tea, which is essentially water that has been “brewed” with compost. He described:The benefit of compost tea on wattles–and how you should think about these measures in general–is that they’re not very absorbent. Wattles by themselves are pretty hydrophobic actually, especially if you get a large storm right away. 

“First of all, having a little bit of moisture on these wattles pre-heavy rain is good because the ground is very hydrophobic because of the ash. So if you get a large storm as the first storm, you’ll have sheet flow and the ash just moves very quickly over the surface which will bring all that toxic debris with it. So if it encounters another hydrophobic surface like a straw wattle, it can potentially just go right over the top of it. Wetting the wattle in general is good but the compost tea is acting as an inoculant, and the biology helps to bind particulates and absorb things like heavy metals. 

“The compost socks are actually the best thing you can get if you wanted to buy a product. What we were doing with the wattles is that we were taking a cheaper product and figuring out a way to try to up its game by adding some biology first. So we dug a trench, put a little bit of compost in the trench, laid the wattle on top of that, and then hit it with the compost tea. Our hope is that these microbes will start doing their job breaking down the straw a little, binding to it. Then when we have the sheet flows and have this debris moving, it will stick to it and hold in the fine particulates and do a much better job of filtering.”

Native Fungi

Mycoremediation is fascinating and has great potential, so we asked Maya Elson of CoRenewal to share about the benefits of inoculating with fungi. She shared that “Folks have used myceliated wattles after the Camp Fire and Tubbs Fire, with some optimistic results, but a lack of tractable data. Our goal is to explore whether there is a scientific basis for ‘mycowattles’ (wattles with fungal mycelium in them) to be used.”

She continued: “We are interested in finding out whether wattles inoculated with fungi and native microbes will a) capture heavy metals from burned homes before they enter waterways; b) increase soil aggregation, reducing erosion; c) increase native microbial community diversity; and d) biodegrade petrochemicals. Folks can learn how to do this at one of our upcoming work parties.” Learn more about CoRenewal’s research and work on their website.

You can see that burned items have been covered with plastic, and compost socks are being placed around them to prevent toxins from flowing away from the burn site. Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

Vision for the Future

We asked Rebekah to share her vision for the future of ecological restoration in our region. She wrote: 

“As the old permaculture adage goes… hidden within the problem is the solution. We are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that the banning of cool-burns and indigenous land management practices is part of what caused such a catastrophic fire. 

“My hope is that this will be an opportunity and an opening for the County and State/CALFIRE and other forestry services to be trained in the Indigenous land management practices that worked successfully on these lands for hundreds of years. 

“I also think that this is a time for us to all become better stewards of the land we call home and we cannot expect that someone else will do it for us. I believe that people are now looking at how toxic their house-sites are from a new lens… and when it comes time to rebuild we get to make the decision around what building materials we are going to use. I see that as an opportunity for a deepening relationship to our local green building materials, and an opportunity to learn and teach the community how to build in a way that is not only healthier for us all but also fire-resistant. 

“As above… so below…. and I believe that all the work we do to heal the land… and the burn-scars… will ripple out into the individuals, the families and the communities that have been forever changed by this fire.” 

Matthew Trumm also shared some advice for folks affected by the fire:

I’d say the biggest thing is take time. Yes, secure the property, that would be good. If you can get someone else to do it, please do that. Ask for help. Don’t think about or take on too much at once. One thing at a time, and know that as bad as things seem right now, there’s spring coming. There’s new hope, and new life to come, and this is an opportunity to start over with all the knowledge that we have and is available today and do things right. If you’re going to rebuild, we can do it better than ever. We have more information than we ever have, and we have great design information out there.

“I think that this is the exciting thing right now is being able to create a new world, and what does that look like? We don’t want to bring back the things from the old world that have been destroyed that don’t make sense. We want to create a new path. I think that’s the exciting part. So focus on these things. 

“Or, if it’s too much pain, think about a new place that you’ve never been, think about the possibilities to travel, to do all these things in this time. The key here is evolutions, to higher expressions of the succession in your life.”

Gratitude

Since the first workshop in October, more than 120 people have been trained on how to set up these erosion control measures. Through work parties, volunteers set up toxic ash runoff prevention measures at more than 15 properties.

Rebekah shared words of gratitude, as well: “Behind these action-days are some of the most dedicated, local organizers who have been working around the clock to make this happen. Most people don’t realize that none of them are paid to do this work, and in fact they have been spending their own money and volunteering full-time to make this all possible. 

“They are water-protectors and community supporters that saw that the burden of this was falling on an already overwhelmed community of fire-survivors to do by themselves (unless they had the money to hire out professionals). Coming to terms with the reality that rain was just around the corner, and that there was no other agencies or local government moving into swift-action, they committed their own time and money to make it happen. 

“They have seen the power and healing that is possible when community comes together, and how empowering it is to give people the knowledge to take care of their own land and of each other after a disaster. They have been ‘tenders-of-this-dream’ and remained committed through all odds. 

“We want to thank you for all of the coordination and sleepless nights that has gone into making these action days such a success. It is rare and inspiring to see such pure-hearts in action.”

Some of the key organizers of this effort include Tiffany Worthington from Wildfire Protectors Corps, Rebekah Uccellini from Grow the Change, Last Chance organizers Gina/Gardner Lund and Lish Dawn, and the Santa Cruz Relief team (Kelly Meyer, Michelle Wilder, Jodi Keschall, Debra Feldstein, Hillary Nervin and Heather Stone), and others.

Special thanks, as well, to Rebekah, Matthew, and Maya for doing this important work and for sharing your wisdom and advice for this article!

Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

Take Action

If you’d like to financially support these efforts, you can donate to these fundraisers:

Post-Fire Watershed Defense Coalition: “100% of proceeds will go directly back into making action-days like this possible for other fire-survivors who cannot physically or financially do this work on their own.” – Rebekah Uccellini 

CoRenewal’s Post-fire Biofiltration Initiative: “We are urgently trying to raise funds to support our community installing mycowattles.” – Maya Elson

If you’d like to get involved and join these folks for a work day, you can sign up through this form.

Photo credit: SCRelief Newsletter

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