"You do have to bring in some science and some education. But there is something that people who have this generational knowledge can teach." -Algeo Che Casul
SERIES: Role of Agriculture
The majority of wildlands are privately owned. This fact can help us understand the extent of our impact as landowners and as neighbors. In order to see changes, we need to support each other and promote responsible land management practices. This week, we are going back to the past to discover how our ancestors protected their lands from fire. As a 7th generation landowner in Sonoma, Algeo Che Casul shares practical wisdom on land stewardship passed on to him by his great grandfathers. Jennifer and Che, his middle name but also his moniker, talk about fire mitigation practices such as keeping the land healthy, employing natural grazers, and using prescribed fires to prevent bigger, more destructive fires in the future. Che also shares how he became a resiliency hub for himself, his family, and his neighbors. The greatest inheritance we can give our children is a safer, more sustainable future. Don't miss today's episode!
- 03:28 Prescribed Fires
- 11:48 Education for Land Treatment
- 16:47 The Grazers Controversy
- 21:43 Responsible Land Stewardship
- 25:44 Resiliency Practices
- 30:37 Priority Checklist
- 37:18 Fire Forward
- 42:30 Energy and Equity
- 45:22 Generational Sustainability
- 'Good Fire' Revival: How controlled burns in Sonoma County aim to curb risk of catastrophic wildfires
- Raising Resilience by Che Casul
- Rebuild Northbay Podcast Ep 16: How to Face Disaster on an Island (Hurricane Maria) with Kelly Thompson and Mark Martin Bras
03:07: "We have to look back in order to reach forward into a more sustainable future." -Jennifer Thompson
11:12: "We have this false dichotomy that somehow a rancher and a private landowner don't care or know the land. And there's been a demonization of agriculture in that way." -Jennifer Thompson
12:10: "You do have to bring in some science and some education. But there is something that people who have this generational knowledge can teach." -Algeo Che Casul
13:10: "Suppressing all wildfires means that we never have mild fires that we need in order to prevent the mega-fires. We can take a little bit of smoke to avoid the horrific air quality issues when we have these massive wildfires." -Jennifer Thompson
27:31: "In disasters, you need to know what's going on and where so that you don't get caught up." -Algeo Che Casul
29:38: "Resiliency has to start at home. Each of us has a responsibility to figure out how resilient we can be." -Jennifer Thompson
41:35: "In the definition of equity, we want rural. If your county is not well-resourced, you have a very low chance of recovery." -Jennifer Thompson
Algeo Che Casul, or "Che" for short, is a seventh-generation Sonoma County rancher, working on the same ranch as his great-great-great-great grandfather. Wow! Che is the Volunteer and Community Development Manager at Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County and spends his free time tending to his land near Bodega Bay with his herds of goats, sheep, and cattle. Che met his wife in Paris, France in 2009, and their first kiss was at night under the Eiffel Tower, a story he loves to tell anyone who will listen, which embarrasses his wife to no end. Besides being a devoted husband, Che is an avid hunter, mushroom forager, and obsessive ocean fisherman.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, how to disaster. This podcast, we try to help people recover, rebuild and reimagine. Now, one of the most important things that you can do as a person who is interested in taking care of your community is to figure out land management. One of the things that we are very involved with our organization at ReBuild NorthBay Foundation is how to support land owners in land management practices. That means a variety of things from how do you employ grazers? What do you cut? Where do you cut? What kinds of grazers will work at different times or different types of plants? And really importantly, how can you employ mild fires in order to prevent mega fires? We're in the age of mega fire. And what that means essentially is a fire that has a disproportionate impact on the land and the people who live there. It wasn't always this way, but we're in this moment of climate change meets land management practices over the past 70 years that are not actually the best for the land.
"We have to look back in order to reach forward into a more sustainable future." -Jennifer Thompson
I want Che to come on today to give a perspective from a land owner, but also somebody who is looking at how you pass your land to your next generation. He's a father. He's a family man. He's a seventh generation landowner here in Sonoma County. One of the things that our listeners may not be aware of is that 80% of the wild lands in our county are actually privately owned. And maintaining those lands in a way that keeps the rest of us safe is actually incredibly expensive. It really does depend upon a lot of people to come forward to help take responsibility by funding, or providing volunteers, or listening to the land owners to figure out how we support you and making sure that your land is safe, and that will keep the rest of us safe. One of the things that happened in the 80's is that there was so much concern about the clear cutting from the lumber industry that the environmental industry then said: "We need to stop all clear cutting, and we just need to lock the gates and walk away." And it turns out that you have to manage the land, you can't just let it grow. While you have to do what Native Americans did and what ranchers and landowners did for several 100 years, I could even say that we have to actually look back in order to reach forward into a more sustainable future. So welcome to How To Disaster Che. Please tell us your story.
Che Casul: Well, thank you very much for having me on, Jennifer. I do appreciate it. I am a seventh generation rancher on the same spread settled by my great, great, great, great grandfather. I also run a local nonprofit that teaches at-risk youth through paid vocational programming, ecological preparedness, specifically what we'll be talking about today's fire fuel mitigation. And you know what? I like to say about my family history that this land here, right across the highway is a school built by my great, great, great, great, great grandfather. So my family has been helping our community for a very long time. So one of the pieces that I really want to address today is how we look at, especially our large landscapes, but also our wildland urban interfaces. And what that looks like as far as how can we treat it? How can we make it safer? And how can we make it more ecologically friendly? We're all familiar with what I call manual, which is what the young people at Circuit Rider Community Services do. We take them out with chainsaw meters, loppers and all of that and they will do treatments of shaded fuel brakes, they will look at ridges and see what we can clear there. And of course, 100 foot defensible space around homes and infrastructure, that's important, particularly of course water tanks. But that's extremely expensive, as far as a way to treat a landscape. Usually 4,000 and up per acre to treat. And heavy woods, you can get to 8, 10, thousand dollars an acre. We obviously have properties out here that are thousands of acres that have been untreated for a very, very long time. So how can we address that, and how can we do that in a way that is high, but also the most cost effective.
So one of the pieces that I would get really excited about is prescribed fire, which makes people very nervous. But as an example, wandering around with my grandfather when I was five or six, he would light patches on fire. I just sit there with a shovel and put them out with a shovel if they got out of control. And that used to be a much larger landscape application by my family. I did a prescribed burn last year, 33 acres. And when I was calling all of our neighbors, they became, well, very nervous. And rightfully so because we were literally in the middle of the Walbridge Fire when I was proposing to do a prescribed fire. But all of them were recents. They've moved here within the last generation or so, that's recent to us, except for this older gentleman across the highway that had been ranching in my grandmother's time. And when I called him, he said: "Well, we used to do that in the flats all the time until the government told me we couldn't anymore." And so for him, it was just a way of life. That was something that we couldn't, that wasn't allowed anymore. So he was actually very excited to hear that that was coming back. And to learn about how he could possibly do that again as well.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you give us a timeline about when those prescribed fires were prohibited, and also talk about the difference between a controlled burn and a prescribed fire? It's like a pile of stuff you put in your backyard and you get a permit, it's very different. So just for our listeners who aren't familiar
Che Casul: Absolutely. So it's been about the last 50 to 60 years that we've not been allowed to do these burns. And then there's two kinds of treatment ways. Well, okay, there's three treatment ways, and we'll talk about those for a sec. The first is that manual, what we call often scattered. So you cut limbs up to 6 to 10 feet high, and you scatter them throughout the forest. So if it does catch on fire, they're all going to be low to the ground, they're not going to ember cast. We'll talk about why ember casting is very, very bad, and how to address it. But then we have pile burning. Most of our individuals in the wildland urban interface probably familiar with, where you cut limbs, pull them up and you pile.And then in the wet season, or if you have a huge hack or some other way to suppress fire, you can burn that in the dry season as well, you burn those piles down, they're not a fire risk, and all of that those nutrients go back into the earth. Then there's prescribed fire, which is the large treatments of, as I said, 33 acres up to a couple hundred acres even. And one of the benefits of that is not only are we clearing out possibly very, very heavy fuels that can burn super hot, and ember cast over a very long way. But it also mimics our ecology here, and our native plants were designed to burn or get the graze down, and then come back. And the non natives really can't compete in those environments, especially if you do in the drier seasons. Because our native plants, some of the grasses can go down 40, 50 feet down into the ground with their roots. You graze those down, you burn those down, they're gonna come right back because they can pull moisture out of the soil. But the--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hold on, I had no idea that that was the case, just so you know. I had no idea that the roots went down so I'm impressed. I just had to call that out because I don't think I'll be the only one listening to this who had no idea. But that explains why it comes back so quickly, the grasses. Go ahead.
Che Casul: And a lot of people don't. And one of the other issues with our non native grasses is if they go down and we say six inches or so, and then they will be called matt is across a whole hillside, they'll die off in the summer where a little bit will survive. And then if we get a heavy rain before they have the chance to grow back, all of that matt is basically just material that's sitting on the side of the hillside. And that's how we get erosion, and our topsoil becomes much poorer. We have devastating mud flows into the creeks for our Samadhi populations or our steelhead and trout. It's bad all the way around. Sorry, that's my little side piece on how much I hate them because I've been fighting my whole life.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, no, you can go on as long as you want. It is educational, but it's also the story so if it needs to be said, then this is the place to say it because we'd also like to prevent disaster. So we appreciate that.
Che Casul: Absolutely. We do have some slowly creeping ecological disasters here as well that are related to fire. An example that we have, first, taking over large portions of our county and we call them dog way at some point because they start piling up, or sorry, dog hair, and they're super thin, and they pile up in these little stands that would traditionally have burned down and the big ones will survive. But now, we have them all piled up. They're all still at least starting to die off. They're choking out the native oaks and they're a huge fire risk. So bad all the way around. We also have this expansion of bay trees into what has traditionally been oak woodland. Bays burned very, very, very well, which is very concerning. If you have any by your home, try to get rid of them. And they do carry sudden oak as well. You'll see these little black spots on the trees, they're the most important. They're not affected by it at all. And what they'll do is spread up these hillsides, killing off the Oaks as they go, which creates more opportunities for heavy fuels. And then they can burn really well because of the oils involved in their bark and in their leaves. I had a kind of funny but scary experience recently where we were doing a controlled burn with some of my young people from Circuit Rider. We had a forester there from a local organization, I won't name, and I'm piling bay trees into a burn pile that are wet. I mean, we just cut them down. He said: "Well, why would you do that? They're wet wood, they're not going to burn. You're a forester, you probably should know. They are bay trees, they're going to burn very hot." Sure as heck, they lit off very, very well burned down. And this gentleman turned to me and said: "Well, you country people can still teach us a little bit sometimes. And that's also really scary."
"We have this false dichotomy that somehow a rancher and a private landowner don't care or know the land. And there's been a demonization of agriculture in that way." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do want to put a pin in that for a second because I think that we have this false dichotomy, which is that somehow, if you are a rancher and a private landowner, that you don't care or know the land. And I think that there's been sort of a demonization of agriculture in that way. And instead of saying, which I think we're now getting to that point, I have something to learn from you, and you have something to learn from me so we have to work on this issue together. And in that learning moment, you actually probably really helped that forester and then it's okay to say, I don't know. I'm glad that I learned that today. And I think we have to be more in that mind if we're going to get to where we need to be.
"You do have to bring in some science and some education. But there is something that people who have this generational knowledge can teach." -Algeo Che Casul
Che Casul: Absolutely. And I would also say that the vast majority of farmers and ranchers that I know are college educated, because you have to be to compete in this marketplace these days. Everything is very scientific. The gentleman that kind of trained me for the neighbor rancher who was a board member of our local farm bureau used to joke that he was a grass rancher and he studied grass at Chico. So you really do have to bring in some science and some education because you don't make a lot of money in agriculture or nonprofit. I don't know what I was doing in both of those fields, but I do work in nonprofit fields as it were. But there is something to be said for what people that have grown up and have this generational knowledge can teach. And I think that also can be very true of looking at tribes, they have deep, deep knowledge that we very much need to tap into because our apology was designed by fire that was introduced, and we need to look at how we can use that fire in order to treat land and keep us safe.
"Suppressing all wildfires means that we never have mild fires that we need in order to prevent the mega-fires. We can take a little bit of smoke to avoid the horrific air quality issues when we have these massive wildfires." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And not to be afraid of, I think that people were well meany when they said, we want our air quality so much cleaner, that was huge, I'm 51, so in the 70's, we heard a lot about that. And it was not a bad thing to say we should have good air quality. But when you look at suppressing all wildfire, I would also like smokey, the bear to go away. And I've said that many times. Suppressing all wildfires meant that we never had mild fires, that we need those in order to prevent the mega fires. And I think you have to say it over and over again so I really appreciate that point that we can take a little bit of smoke. It's to avoid the horrific air quality issues that we have when we have these massive wildfires and tons of chemicals in them.
Che Casul: Absolutely. And when I see that smoke from the prescribed burns, all I think about it's all the non-natives and the bay trees that are burning up, and it kind of makes me happy.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: While you're there, though, talk about one of the things that we didn't do obviously, for most people, including myself, I didn't know very much about wildfire before 2017 and I assumed that when it burned, it was just like the apocalypse. And I remember driving through Glen Ellen and Kenwood and my heart's just breaking, not understanding that the most of the oaks are, like we don't care if we're good. So how are oaks particularly adaptable or adapted to wildfire?
Che Casul: Well, because we live in oak woodlands, essentially most least the vast majority of Sonoma County folks, they will sprout right back from the stumps. And in fact, most of these flames, especially in these low impact burns, which is a prescribed burn, because we choose wetter conditions. They won't even go up into the canopy of these trees and don't even faze them at all. The only trees that really do burn heavily, even in low fires are smaller bay trees. And then those pines, which of course, if anybody's ever burned pine while you're camping, that stuff goes up pretty fast.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The Paradise fire was primarily pine, which was a problem. Sorry.
Che Casul: And then we look at things like Scotch broom, French broom, that stuff just terrifying because it burns very, very well, and it comes right back. We had a property off of Sweetwater Springs Road that my young people called five acres of six foot tall scotch broom right above the home, the Walbridge Fire came down and just ashed everything else that we hadn't pulled, then it came down hot and fast because of that scotch broom, stopped called at our fire break, save the family's home. So my kids are wandering around, their chest out just so excited, proud of themselves. But we just did a site visit two weeks ago where it all burned, it's coming right back. But where we pulled it, it's not because we pulled the roots out. And then that stuff, it will have root banks that can last for I think 25 years. It's very scary.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And when it should be clean, we're not just going to make you the forester, but just for the audience, which should a clean forest look like?
Che Casul: Well, the clean forest should have cleared understory, it should have some mixed smaller saplings that are coming up. Depending on of course, if it's oak, or what kind of woodland. You'll have some brush as well. But specifically around your home or any infrastructure that you care about, let's say roads and egress are extremely important. A clean forest is something that's a little bit different, which is just, everything, 6 to 10 feet up is gone. So the only way that any of that can actually catch is if the fire starts to crown in high winds. And crowning fires, there's not much you can do, but it's going to take a long time for it to get there, and it's not going to be burning hot enough. Hopefully, to reach you while you're driving up out from under it, or touch your home.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Those stories are awful.
Che Casul: Everybody loves baby goats, right? My wife and I ran a hundred, had to go out here and had a sheep, he had cattle. And one of the things that a lot of urban folks don't understand is that these animals eat very, very different things. People joke about no goats will eat anything. Well, goats will eat anything in undue stress. But that's a very unhealthy goat. Goats prefer brush, blackberries, especially the Himalayan blackberries, the invasives and scotch broom, french broom, they absolutely adore, which is wonderful to have them. Any kind of brushing materials. They'll eat the leaves off and then they'll actually start to use their hooves to balance on it while they eat whatever's higher up, and eventually break those things down. When I tried to burn my 33 acres last year, it was the first time that the firefighters had ever tried to burn on a goat ranch. And they actually had a significant amount of difficulty burning larger swaths because there was no understory on my property, and the goats and created basically, 33 acres with shaded fuel break all the way up to, about my chin. And when we look at grasslands, you have your cattle, they can come in and they'll eat grass down. But then they'll still have about this much leftover, and that'll still burn hot fast especially in dry season.
So what I tell folks is, you want to bring your cattle and you bring your grass down, and then you bring your sheep in and the sheep will just like, it's the perfect. It looks like the putting green, but it scans you, it's gonna be right down there. And when it dries out, there's really nothing to burn when the sheep are done with it. So they're great for fuel breaks, and they're great for large fields. And then as I said, that will come back with natives, and they will take over once again. So even in the summer, sometimes you'll have to re-graze an area with sheep.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And talk about the controversy, where did the controversy come from with respect to grazers? What are the misconceptions about what grazers do, or to the land that's not true?
Che Casul: Well, it's kind of like that this conception of goats will eat anything. There are, unfortunately, farmers and ranchers that don't treat their animals very well. And if they leave animals in one space for too long, the vegetation will be completely gone. It'll turn into a dust pit, which we've probably all seen driving around. And then when the big rains come, all of that topsoil goes away. So the habitats are gone, the nutrients are gone and it looks terrible. It's just bad for everybody involved. There's also, waterways are an issue. You don't want animals and waterways, that doesn't make them very healthy at all. So you either have exclusion fencing or rotational keeping very, very briefly in that area. But I think really rotational grazing is, people are starting to understand how important it is for a way to treat land, but also a way to bring back our natives and to sequester carbon. Because as I said, we have these grasses that can go down 40 feet in the soil, or some of these brushes and grasses that can go down even further.
Well, if you think about it, you have a foot or two of grass, and it gets eaten down. As that plant starts to regenerate, it actually starts drawing carbon down to create that new growth. So there is a growing body of science, and there has been for a generation. The rotational grazing is actually wildly beneficial for our natural world, and that it draws down carbon, it brings back our natives. And I think we also have this idea of no cows as an example, the methane that comes from cows. Well, yeah, in a feedlot, absolutely. When they're like trucked corn. But if you have them out in these open grasslands where they're grass fed grass finished animals, that means they only got fed grass even before they're harvested. And then they're rotating through these blocks of land. They're eating that down, there helping to sequester carbon. And at the same time, they're providing an economic means to support this kind of treatment that we desperately need in our county.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because you must hear about this, and I talked about it in the beginning of this, but the economic barriers to good land management are a real concern. And I think that I am happy, at this point, unfortunately, how we got here is so much about disaster. But we're in sort of a new age of finding the science in the middle, and going from there and not just saying, Oh, I read about Brazil clear cutting trees for cow farms from McDonald's. Therefore, all grazing is bad. Or I don't like my air quality to be compromised, therefore, all wildfires are bad. So I'm happy to see that, but talk about like, what are some of the challenges? Or what are some of the things that the public or private sector could do to support responsible land stewardship and management?
Che Casul: Well, I'd say that there's always this element of, well, not always, but there's often an element of nose in the air when you encounter individuals who have their own preconceptions of what the meat industry looks like, and that you're being cruel or being awful. There is the argument that, well, land, it's used for crops, growing this kind of protein, or whatever is much more productive per acre for sustenance. Well, that's very true, but I live in Bodega, and it's very, very steep. Farming that, in any kind of way is completely impossible. It is literally only good for grazing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: As for those who don't know what Bodega is, you'll have to tell them, in case they're like in Missouri hearing.
Che Casul: So very much rolling hills that are getting towards the coastal areas which are very, very steep. The vast majority of my property, it's kind of sketchy to take a truck on, much less attractive so you just simply cannot farm it. You can graze it, and those little goats and cows can go up these very steep cliffs, no problem to have grass all over it. But there's just no way that I'm going to be growing any kind of raw crops. And it's also a colder coastal area as well. But it's also the idea that people have seen so much about feedlots and the cruelty there. And it's a very different experience in the country, I strongly suggest, if anybody's looking to think about buying directly from ranchers, please do because it's great for us. We don't have to deal with a lot of the issues inherent with working with that system. The food system can be pretty awful, but my animals are harvested here on site. They are happy until the moment they're not there anymore. And trust me, they don't feel the thing. And then they are taken to a local butcher shop, which helps to keep our economy alive. I feed upwards of 20 families every year that can say, this is in the freezer from a local guy that I know who's not only managing his land. Well, I hope I am. But he's also somebody that is responsible for that future generation's thought of how do we protect our animals. How do we keep the land healthy? And then think about what my son is going to inherit so that he can do the same.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The ecosystem for our safety and wild lands can also include responsible farming and even responsible harvesting. And I think that that has to be part of the equation so I love that you're talking about that.
Che Casul: If you think about the way that our policy was designed, it was designed for huge herds of ruminants to come through and eat everything down, or fire to come through and burn everything down, and then to grow back. And that's really what we're looking at, what we're trying to mimic rotational grazing or prescribed fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Have you seen change since 2017? Can you talk to us about your fire story or what it was like for you to watch? Just to be clear, Bodega is in Sonoma County where we are located. And I have if you listen to the podcast before, you know that we had devastating wildfires in 2017 that took out about 9,300 structures and burned for 23 days. Wildfire is a very different thing to contend with over the past four to five years. And since then, we've had four major fires, two last year, one the year before, and maybe no more coming up, but probably there. So you tell us about your fire story starting in 2017. And then how you sort of experienced it since then. In 2017 to be clear, it was really more centered in a different part of the county. But if you look at a map of Sonoma County in our surrounding areas of fire over the past four years, it looks like a puzzle piece. Like wherever hasn't burned the year before. We've seen it then burn the year after. And in this past year, the Glass fire actually burned over into the current Tubbs fire from 2017. So I'd love to hear your fire story.
Che Casul: Yeah. So 2017, it was the first big one. So it was a very different experience. We weren't saying, oh, here we go again. And our property was very far away from that. So even with the power being off, my home was built in 1907 before electricity was a thing here. So we had gravity fed water, we could heat with a wood stove if we needed to because it was very hot. And then we had the ability to cook and had hot water because of our propane, and I've installed the solar battery since, so we're trying to be as resilient as possible when it comes to these rolling blackouts, fires, and other unfortunate natural disasters that we're experiencing. But we had all of these individuals, basically camping out here because they've been evacuated, or they've unfortunately lost their homes. And one of the big issues was communication. So because the power was out, we live in a rural community, our cell phones don't work. None of the landlines are kept up anymore by the powers that be, and so we really didn't know what was going on, what was burning, and that continues to remain true. Pretty much, every fire every year, because living in rural America can sometimes be like living in a third world country because you do not have access to broadband internet or decent cell service. So one of the things that I'm very excited about is, thank you Elon Musk, the Starlink program that is going to be providing legitimate, strong internet to rural communities all over the world, and give them access to all of those resources. Obviously, the school children as well. We have an unfortunate experience here in Bodega where you'll see a lot of kids going to the local bar in the back room to do their homework because there's internet there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The Democrat didn't show up for that.
"In disasters, you need to know what's going on and where so that you don't get caught up." -Algeo Che Casul
Che Casul: But in disasters, that issue becomes even more acute because you need to know what's going on and where so that you don't get caught up in this. You need to know if you're in an evacuation zone or if an order has been sent out to you. And something like starlink can provide all of that information based off of a battery source or a generator. So that's something I'm really excited about. There's an organization that I've partnered called Sail Relief Team who goes to disaster zones all over the United States and Puerto Rico. They started in Puerto Rico, in fact, after the hurricane, and they bring renewable energy resources to communities hit by this experience to power communications equipment to power shelters. So we have a two kilowatt system, 48 kilowatt hour solar trailer that we are storing on the property for whatever one of these things hits that we can bring out to power those needs. And then of course, there's a diesel generator attached to it as well.
"Resiliency has to start at home. Each of us has a responsibility to figure out how resilient we can be." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I actually said, when you're talking about Puerto Rico, I interviewed this woman, Kelly Thompson, and who is the executive director of ViequesLove. Vieques is a little island off the coast of Puerto Rico. She and Mark Martin Bras were on the podcast and they were talking about communication specifically. They actually built resilience hubs. Post hurricane Maria, they didn't have power or communication for seven months, which meant all their ATM's didn't work, their pharmacies couldn't work. So what they learned about was that they could actually, there was one ham radio on the entire island. I'm a big proponent of having your own. They may seem outdated, you may not even know what a ham radio is. Let's say my grandpa who's into it, it's something that reminds grandpa was into when I was young. You can't have portable WiFi, it does exist. Amazon even makes it. So they have three areas in the islands now where they are storing their WiFi, so that no matter where it hits, they still have access to at least one, to maybe hopefully all three, but at least one of them. They are not so stuck, but it's that sort of resiliency at some point has to start at home.
And I think the thing about disasters, especially these wildfires, you have a very rough decade ahead of us is each of us has a responsibility to do what you're doing, if we can, which is figure out how resilient we can be? How can we actually sustain a number of communication systems? I bought walkie talkies for my family. So all across the valley, first haven't programmed or charged them yet so I'll probably get on that in a minute. But talk about like, when you are looking at your own resiliency, a rural area in particular, you have to think about, how do you help your neighbors? It's not the same as it is when it hits a suburban or a major city center, you may be cut off so you do need to figure out how are we going to see? Who's vulnerable in your community? And what can you do to help? So talk to us even more about what's in that trailer and how you have built resiliency into your own life?
Che Casul: Well, when it comes to neighbors and when it comes to resiliency, I think one of the biggest pieces right now is power. Power is so important especially when it comes to food security. And because we do have some backup power here and one other neighbor does, when that power goes out, all of our neighbors show up with all of the meat from their freezers. And then we're just trying to like Jenga everything in there as best we can. But it's also the ability to come charge your phone so you can go out somewhere, get some service and know what's going on. Unfortunately, not any of our neighbors, but there's unfortunately a lot of individuals who have health concerns and they need some of this backup power that they can't frankly afford. And if the power goes out, it really could be do or die. And then there's the problem of all transportation. You're out two weeks of fire, there's not that there was a gas shortage at one point. So how do you get vehicles around? Do you have electric vehicles that you can plug into a solar array? Or do you have a large store of gasoline or diesel on your property? And then the unfortunate other part is, how do you get out? And so all of our neighbors, we have a plan on which direction and where this fire is coming from? How to get out? And in season like a chainsaw, a pair of chains, like to pull out material or trees, and bolt cutters in my vehicle so that my neighbors can follow us out if we really need to, because that is the reality of what we're facing. And you never know what these things it's gonna hit.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You do. And masks, have masks because if you can't breathe, I learned that the morning of the Tubbs Fire, I was like, huh, probably I can't breathe, I'll bet I need a mask. So have those N95 or whatever. My husband got me a full face gas mask for Christmas which made me really happy. But I think that the more you can do to be resilient, you really do, you really can save your neighbors. A lot of people don't have the capacity, they don't have it in their lives, or they don't have it financially to be able to be that lifeline for other people. So I love the fact that you're like you are your own resilience hub, and to consider how important that is, and that you can be independent. So I love the fact that you carry all that in your car. Now, I kind of want it in my car, but I don't even know how to use a chainsaw.
Che Casul: You'll figure it out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Anybody wants that.
Che Casul: And one of the other things that's been a silver lining of this terrible experience is that my organization has been pretty steeped in working with some of these community groups that have formed fire or emergency preparedness groups because we've lived through it so many times. And people are starting to talk to their neighbors. Especially in the movie, a lot of these neighbors just have closed gates, they don't talk to anybody and they live on their 10 to 40 acres. And suddenly, people are getting to know each other and they're getting to work together. They're saying, Bill, that's 83 of the hill, he can't do firefield work on his property so let's get up there as a crew of some chainsaws and call some friends in there. Got a buddy that has a tractor and will mow down his front field. And you're seeing this wealth of coming together as a community to make sure that everybody's safe, everybody's taken care of and that you know who needs your help in these communities. And then they're also going out there finding grants and applying for grants to get crews like mine out there to do firefield work or buying a [inaudible], which is a unit that can go into the back of a truck full of water with a big old Honda pump on it, you can spray down a spotfire if it happens.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm surprised you haven't applied to us for a grant for Circuit Riders.
Che Casul: I'm surprised I haven't either. We should probably talk about it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We should talk about that because we purposely have a grants program that fills gaps. We love a gap. We love a gap that a traditional nonprofit can't do because you don't even have to be a nonprofit. If you have five or more neighbors and you want to do things like fuel mitigation and project, we love grazers like we actually funded the websites for a Match.Graze because we were like, oh.
Che Casul: [inaudible] me since I was knee high to a grasshopper.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Talk about that though. That was so smart of her and we love supporting people who are smart and really interested in making a difference or aren't afraid. Love new ideas. So tell me about Match.Graze why you like because I love it.
Che Casul: So Match.Graze is a California currently, but hopefully soon, the world program that will match grazers with fallow lands. So if you have brushy land, you can go out there and you can find some goats. Or if you have large amounts of grassland, you report the grassland and you can bring in some sheep or some cattle to eat that down. It was created by the University of California extension, they like to call it a dating service for grazing. And it's been a wild success. One of the issues with, not that website, but with in general in California is that there's not a lot of agriculturalists left. I don't have enough goats right now, and I've been building my herd for five or six years to graze my own property, much less my neighbors. So getting young people involved in agriculture, I think there's going to be this new push. Because as I said earlier, we don't make a lot of money. But if there's a way that you can graze, sell the meat from these animals and also get paid to do mitigation on properties, I can see a lot of the brain drain that we're experiencing in Sonoma County of young people leaving because it's a rural area, there's not a lot of opportunities staying because there is a viable way to make money and contribute to keeping your community protected and fed at the same time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And there's nothing wrong with vineyards. I like vineyards, they're actually great firebreaks. But not everything has to be or can be converted into a vineyard. And when people think of us, they think of all vineyards. And of course, a lot of our lands have been. But if you drive around Sonoma County, there's still an awful lot of grasslands. And it's good to have diversity in your crops, good to have diversity in your economy. But especially, if there's a little bit of help from the public sector in dedicating funds, support and making the regulatory landscape more friendly to navigate. Why do you think that you might have a chance to have more young people want to invest? What are you hoping to see over the next 5 to 10 years as we enter into this? We're currently in a drought really this era. I don't know I'm harping on it, but this is what I obviously do for a living in this era of mega funds. In favor of a perfect world, how would we address the next five to 10 years?
Che Casul: I think, first and foremost, there needs to be a way for CAL FIRE to interface with volunteer units more. Our last fire last year, I had 600 people sign up to come to cut firebreaks. And then due to insurance or what have you, they were not allowed to do that. We had dozers, we had water trucks. I understand why the government moves slow, but fire lines are really not that complicated to dig or cut. You just need to know how and when to get out is the most important part. And there's a program called Fire Forward that is starting to build some of those volunteers. My wife and I qualified a couple of weeks ago. So when one of these big fires happens, we can actually be deployed out and be a quick reaction for us to find some of these larger fires. So I'm hoping to see, we have our small volunteer units in rural areas and towns, but I want to see a larger outreach by CAL FIRE to bring in quick deployment volunteers that can help to get under Professional Firefighters on crews and actually do some of this work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want you to go in there, but I will give a shout out though in the sense that CAL FIRE is hampered and also guided by environmental laws. Environmental laws are really important. There's a reason why California is so beautiful, the reason why we have greenbelts, like we want all of those things to remain. I have to say that I'm impressed by the last couple of years of CAL FIRE really taking a new look at their policies. And for those permissions, like we have in the North Bay Forest improvement program that is funded by CAL FIRE, specifically for landowners like you so the public sector can pick up the cost. But the amount, it took us two years to really finish out the full structure of that program. It's only $1.5 million, and it will only help about 40 landowners. So there needs to be greater investment. But I do think they're headed in that direction. So I want to give them a shout out and encourage them even more to not to lean it all the way into the kinds of ideas that you're talking about, which is volunteer forces firebreaks. I love when I'm seeing more and more in the paper, in the media rather than about firebreaks. But go ahead, what else would you like to see?
Che Casul: Well, I think that we have these three legs of the stool of firefield mitigation. We have that manual, we have the prescribed fire, and then we have the prescribed grazing. My organization, my great hope when we work with our young people is to train the next generation of young folks who can go out on some of these properties. Look at the property and tell the homeowner, this property is appropriate for this, this and this, and this is where, and this is how. So having all three of those tools under one hat would be amazing. Right now, all of that is very, very siloed. Our county is kind of looking at starting to put an idea of all of that under one roof, but it's going to be a process, it's going to be a learning curve because all of this is very, very new.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I would like to work on that with you, just saying.
Che Casul: Alright, let's make that happen.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay.
Che Casul: I really also want to highlight that we need to do this in an ecologically friendly manner. There is this idea of just making a desert around your home. Well, that's not either aesthetically pleasing nor healthy for the landscape at all. So we can use some of these tools. Fire and cows is the perfect example of being a positive tool on the landscape, instead of seeing as these negative, nasty, bad things like they have been traditionally looked upon. And I hope to see that shift as we move forward. I also want to see, as I said earlier, some more energy and especially communications resiliency in our communities. And if I can say anything to our president right now, please, please, please, get some rural internet out there because our communities are hurting and our rural communities are dying because that is an access and equity piece.
"In the definition of equity, we want rural. If your county is not well-resourced, you have a very low chance of recovery." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We actually, there is a request for input and information that FEMA published in the Federal Register on April 22. I have the link for that if you're interested. We're doing a full suite of answers, and one of the things that we're pushing for very hard is that in the definition of equity. We want rural, because if you are in a rural community and you experienced a disaster, you have very little access to anything. And if your county is not well resourced, if you don't have a healthy economy or if your economy is in transition, like from logging to tourism and you lose all the tourism, you probably have a very low chance of recovery without a significant amount of help. And so we want to look at regional equity and rural equity, and we choose the communities often that we serve based on, can they not afford to have an expensive consultant come in and help them navigate this? But the rural issue, especially with wildfire disaster is massive, and it's a huge inequity. I'm glad that FEMA is asking the question, we're just also asking them to change the question that they're asking for at least one in addition.
Che Casul: I love it. Well, if I can go off on a quick tangent as far as we're talking about energy and equity, we live in an area with some huge trees that block out sun, solar is not an option for a lot of our community members. But in many of those communities, these are older homes, they're gravity fed homes. Micro hydro power is something that is alive and well in New Zealand, Canada and Northern Europe. And it's something that we don't even have access to. I can't get somebody to install a unit here. And a unit for me with it would produce about 2,500 kilowatts a day. So we're all familiar with hydro power, right? But there's also these smaller units with smaller flow and smaller head which means drop and gallons per minute. They can also produce a great deal of electricity. As an example, this Sweetwater property that I'm talking about. Every single home in that community has a run of pipe from Sweetwater for at least 4,000 feet. So that builds up a lot of energy along the way. And all of those homes, basically, once their tank is full, it just either stops so there's a float on it or runs out. So putting a unit on the end of these pipes that is constantly running 24/7 can actually produce power to the home. The unit $695 compared to 18,000 for a comparable solar system. And it can be installed in areas with smaller areas that don't have access to solar. Because if you live in the middle of the redwoods, you've driven through the redwoods, there's no way you can put a renewable energy source of solar wind there. Let's look at some of these other options for our rural communities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I've never heard of that, and I live in this space, and I think it sounds amazing.
Che Casul: Watter Buddy, check it out, W-A-T-T-E-R.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, I totally will. That's another lesson is that there is no one solution that suits or fits all. And this is why collaboration is going to be key and how we get through the next decade. How we really get through our whole lives anyway, but is to de-silo, it is to invite strange bedfellows and all the best brains, knowledge, experience and then have a level of mutual curiosity and respect to get through it.
Che Casul: Absolutely.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because that's how I just learned about micro hydro power.
Che Casul: It's fantastic.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So excited. I say you are we're gonna, we have about 10 more minutes at most. I see what you want to, what you'd like to see over the next 10 years is maybe some applied innovations. I'm always amazed by how much stuff actually exists that could resolve, address or mitigate a lot of these issues. But you are a young father, so talk to us about the kind of what you're hoping to leave for your child in your greatest concern.
Che Casul: Why are there so many concerns? But every generation of my family has done something for the next that has been kind of a large project. We're talking about water resources, we're in the middle of one of the worst droughts California has ever seen, or I think we might have just passed into the worst drought since we started recording. I'd love to put upon on property, it's very, very expensive to do so, especially with the permits, but that would give us at least a little bit of breathing room. As far as a broader landscape, I'd like to see a larger coalition of individuals using those three legs of the stool to treat our landscapes for ecologically friendly landscapes and for fire fuel landscapes. I hope that we see a transition towards greener ways of living and knowledge about our rural spaces and our rural peoples that urbanites can access. They see that we're educated about our properties and our lands and what those lands need. And we're providing a resource and a food source, I hope, that is valuable and will be sourced from us much more than those massive farms. In the middle of the contrary, they have their place too.
But small farmers, we need your help, please. My concerns are vast, but they're mostly with our natural world. Climate change is real. Growing up, I knew a bunch of the more conservative or ranchers around here saying it wasn't. Now, they're saying it's natural. But it's a very real thing, where we're experiencing the worst drought. I've seen the worst fires ever. Our ocean has lost 97% of its kelp forest. And the last three years on the Sonoma coast, we're seeing a collapse and a disaster on an ecological scale that we can't quite understand because it's so vast. And I hope that with some of these tools and some of these new young excited people that are trying to learn how to make their dent, I hope that we can turn it around and make our community safer, our world safer, and my son can live in a place that's a little bit less wildfire, drought, for sure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just really want to thank you, Che. You're gonna link two articles. And below this podcast is the first person to say that you wrote this incredibly beautiful about what it is to inherit the land, and what it means to pass it forward. And also a really great article that was just published about prescribed burning. And if anyone wants to look him up or talk to him, you can let us know. We believe that so much of the way we're going to get through this is community to community, person to person. And again, that endless curiosity, and I really respect you. I think you're very cool. Just said, I posted that on Facebook even to lure you on this podcast. But thank you for all of your stewardship and your care.
Che Casul: Thank you for all that you do and getting the word out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My pleasure.