CALIFORNIA FORESTER Meghan Breniman stood in front of a group of landowners on a hillside in the Sierra Nevada Mountains devastated by forest fire. Clutching a tree-planting tool in one hand and her toddler’s hand in the other, she coached the group on the proper technique for planting seedlings, demonstrating how to aggressively tamp down the soil around the roots to remove air.

The November educational workshop was part of a new reforestation program founded by a group of community members — including Breniman and her business partner Julianne (Juli) Stewart — in response to the devastation of the Creek Fire, which swept through the Big Creek drainage area 50 miles northeast of Fresno, Calif., in the fall of 2020. The blaze was one of the largest wildfires in the state’s history, burning almost 380,000 acres and destroying 853 structures.

The Creek Fire was one of the largest wildfires in California history, burning almost 380,000 acres and destroying 853 structures.

The Creek Fire was one of the largest wildfires in California history, burning almost 380,000 acres and destroying 853 structures.
Photo Credit: Britta Dyer / American Forests

Many of the burned-down structures were homes in Shaver Lake, a town known as a destination for mountain sports, and in Auberry, a rural community down the hillside. Breniman’s house survived, as did Stewart’s — though only barely. Both registered professional foresters, the two co-own the forestry consulting company Vermilion Resource Management, Inc., based in Shaver Lake.

They knew the area’s history had helped create a tinder box. Logging industry practices and long-term mismanagement of the forest on local federal lands, including fire suppression, created lots of fodder for forest fires and increased the forest fire risk over the past century. In the wake of the Creek Fire, Breniman and Stewart wanted a way to do things differently.

“There were like-minded people who within a week had already started conversations about ‘How are we going to fix this as a long-term effort?’” remembers Breniman. Entities were already in place to help with housing assistance, insurance claims and other logistics of rebuilding. But the community also needed reforestation and erosion control. “People had just lost their homes, and the last thing we needed was for the rest of their properties to wash down the hill or for them to rebuild despite fear of the next wildfire that will come through,” Breniman says.

The solution was the Central Sierra Resiliency Fund (CSRF), a restricted fund under the Central Sierra Historical Society, which Breniman, Stewart and a group of others started as soon as the fire had died down. Jakki McDonald Pucheu, an owner of Shaver Ranch and a descendent of lumberman C.B. Shaver, Shaver Lake’s namesake, was a driving force in establishing the CSRF Council, which administers the fund.

CAL FIRE, the state’s fire-management agency, donated about 4,000 seedlings to jump-start the Fund’s “Seedlings of Hope” program, which provides free seedlings and planting tools to landowners in the area. Breniman and Stewart — sometimes with young children in tow — educate participants on how to plant to ensure that the trees can take hold and grow. American Forests also became a donor to the program. The organization had just gotten Intermountain Nursery under contract to produce 40,000 trees for reforestation efforts. Teaming up with CSRF allowed those seedlings to find a home in private landowners’ forests — an option that American Forests is eager to embrace.

CSRF’s long-term goal is to focus more on-site preparation for replanting — that is, clearing away dead forest matter to make way for new growth — and eventually on programs that help landowners thin that new growth to manage future fire risk. These efforts will contribute to long-term sustainable forest management for the local community.

In the meantime, its members plan to continue planting new trees and growing a sense of community among area residents who are moving back after the devastation.

“What pushed the resiliency fund through that entire season was knowing that we had the community on our side,” says Breniman. With that support in place, she says, “we’re here for the long haul.”