American River Watershed Institute
Fire Recovery Demonstration Project

Full Narrative

The American River Watershed Institute's Community Demonstration Project was funded in part by the Sierra Nevada Alliance through a 319h grant from theUnited States Environmental Protection Agency pursuant to Agreement No. C997204-02-0 to address Non-point Source Issues in the watershed. Placer High School, the Tahoe National Forest-American River Ranger District, and the Placer County Resource Conservation District were additional cooperators in this project.

The Community Demonstration Project was conceived during conversations between the ARWI board and Rich Johnson, who at the time was District Ranger in the American River Ranger District (ARRD-formerly the Foresthill Ranger District). Ranger Johnson suggested that, in the wake of the Star Fire of 2001, ARWI develop a photo-documentation project to track the forest's recovery, especially in light of the fire-fighting and forest restoration activities of the USFS.

ARWI has renovated, and maintains and operates a "dam-keeper's" cottage adjacent to French Meadows Reservoir. The building was originally constructed as part of the Middle Fork Project by Placer County and the Placer County Water Agency. The building was sold to the USFS and the USFS has established a Special Use Permit with the Placer County Resource Conservation District, passing though the restoration, maintenance, and operation of the site to the American River Watershed Institute. This education and research facility sits in the middle of the Star Fire footprint and is a logical place from which to study the fire and other aspects of the watershed.

Sediment is the pollutant of concern in the Middle Fork American River. Sediment-loading of waterways typically occurs following wildland fires. Direct Measurement of sediment delivery to a watercourse is accomplished by a variety of field techniques. Ranger Johnson suggested that an ARWI field course, offered in cooperation with the local Placer Union High School District and Sierra Community College, be designed to indirectly measure the potential for sediment to be dislodged from the forest floor, and thus be available for transport to watercourses.

Discussions and field trips to the Star Fire with ARWI and USFS scientists identified general forest "burn" categories that are evident to the eye and that would serve as reference sites for the photodocumentation project. Three sites were identified:

  • Severely burned timber stands had few, if any, standing live trees and little or no remaining ground vegetation.
  • Moderately burned stands had remaining large and middle-sized trees and few to no surviving smaller trees and ground vegetation
  • Lightly burned areas had surviving tress of all age classes, except many saplings, and surviving vegetation that was able to quickly root sprout or recover from its branches.

Sites that were easily accessible by public and forest service roads, that were in short driving distance from the French Meadows facility, and that were safe for student teams to photograph, and for visitors to hike, were chosen with advice from the USFS-ARRD.

Picking the actual photo-locations was done using a randomizing selection process. It was decided not to establish landmarked photo points because restoration work was ongoing; posts and tree-medallions would interfere with the work. So,general areas alongside the access roads were selected, along each of which a one hundred meter tape was stretched. Randomly selected points along this tape were selected to run another one hundred meter tape at a right angle, out into the timber stand, alongside which the ten photograph points were (again randomly) selected.

The photographs are standardized one-quarter square meter areas photographed with a four megapixel camera from a height adequate to capture the entire quadrate. Ten sites were selected for each transect. Multiple transects were photographed by different teams of the students enrolled in the school courses. Five of the ten photosites are of only the forest floor. At the alternating five sites, the forest floor was photographed, as was the canopy directly above the site. At the fifty-meter mark along each transect, photographs were made in the cardinal (magnetic) directions.

The selection of the photopoints in each forest-burn-type thus vary from year to year, but thereby capture the nature of the forest and the forest floor in such a way as to reduce subjectivity.

Successes of the project include

  • Commitments from Placer Union High School and Sierra College to offer academic credit for field work. The high school gave five units of general science credit, applicable towards graduation. Sierra College gave one-half unit field trip credit applicable towards an AA degree, and transferable to the California State University system.
  • The work was accomplished to a satisfactory degree by high school and community college students, verifying their ability to do quadrate photo-point documentation of forest conditions.
  • Regularly-scheduled facility users all took the forest tour. This included UC Santa Barbara students in a Water Policy Class, who use French Meadows every summer.
  • The work is available at

Challenges encountered

  • Safety was a major concern. Much of the forest is steep. Burned forest is particularly dangerous due to underground holes from burned-out tree roots. Loose soil on steep slopes is slippery. Snags can fall in the wind, limiting forest time to mornings. These issues applied to the students and to visitors.
  • Hosting, feeding and supervising youth is a huge challenge. We selected only Gifted and Talented students, but academic ability does not always indicate good behavior. We, nevertheless, encountered no disciplinary problems. It was a lot of work, supervising a dozen students from Monday morning until Friday afternoon.
  • Photographic labeling proved difficult as the forest regrew; the cards did not sit flat and some did not photograph well. Additionally, we labeled photographs the first year by student team id number. This resulted in needing a code to identify the team, transect number and photograph number. The second year we cleaned up the labels to state directly the forest condition being photographed.
  • The site is too remote for a steady stream of visitors. The Star Fire site is 35.5 miles from Foresthill and 55 miles from Interstate 80. Driving time from I-80 is 1.45 hours. The journey is beautiful and has many interesting sites along the way, including Placer Big Trees, the northernmost grove of Giant Sequoia in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Joining up with the high school necessitated a sixty-hour course in order to qualify for five credits of science. The work did not take 6o hours, which allowed for in depth looks at forest conditions at the site, and in other parts of the watershed. Many junior and senior students could not participate due to conflicts with jobs and sports.

Tips for Future Projects

  • Choose a site closer to Interstate 80 in order to make the photography easier, and to attract more visitors.
  • Take the work "off-line" from high school requirements of 60 hours. Shorter trips might capture older high school students.
  • Start the project the year of the fire to capture pre-first-winter conditions.
  • Add a photograph-analysis component to tease the numbers out of the photographs.
  • Add a video-capture component.