Swanton Pacific Ranch Fire Recovery
This page includes updates on CZU Lightning Complex Fire recovery on the Ranch. We are hopeful that some operations will be resumed next winter and spring. The rebuilding will be accomplished through a combination of university resources - including insurance reimbursement - and private donations. Make an online donation to help with relief efforts by clicking here.
A steady bustle of activity continues at Swanton Pacific Ranch as recovery efforts continue following the August 2020 fire that destroyed much of the ranch’s infrastructure. Specialized contractors continue to remove ash and debris from the ranch, creating a fresh palette for rebuilding.
For the first time in nearly a year, a few students are returning to work full time at the ranch to provide help in recovery efforts. Swanton Pacific, in Santa Cruz County, is managed by Cal Poly's College of College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The paid student positions allow students to gain practical, hands-on experience in post-fire recovery. Raymond Dennis, a fourth-year agricultural and environmental plant sciences major, Pierce Spielman, a third-year environmental earth and soil sciences major, and Sophia Marquez (Environmental Management and Protection, ’21), will spend the summer clearing roads and trails, identifying and removing hazard trees, measuring and removing damaged fences, rehabilitating the apple orchard, and providing administrative support to work through insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency claims.
Behind the scenes, a core team of leaders from Swanton Pacific Ranch and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences continue to work with stakeholders to re-envision the ranch’s strategic intent, honoring Al Smith’s vision as a unique Learn by Doing living and learning laboratory for Cal Poly students, dedicated to providing students, faculty, staff and the community with unparalleled learning and research opportunities for understanding sustainable land management practices.
In April, more than 32,000 stakeholders were invited to participate in a survey to help shape that vision. The college also held several open forums and listening sessions with key groups, including faculty and staff, the Swanton-area community, and the Swanton Pacific Ranch Railroad Society. Leaders are now sifting through the nearly 700 survey responses received, which will help shape the strategic intent and inform programming decisions.
The Siegel & Strain Planning and Design Team has been selected after a rigorous search to lead the built-environment rebuilding process, which will be informed by the strategic intent.
“The outpouring of support and commitment from those who have participated directly or indirectly in recovery efforts is astonishing to see,” said Mark Swisher, director of Swanton Pacific Ranch. “It is clear, through my numerous interactions with alumni who have spent time on the ranch in their formative years, that the most important things this ranch is capable of producing are exceptional leaders who value the multiple dimensions of working landscapes.”
Looking forward, a $4.2 million Cal Fire grant was recently awarded to provide increased training for the current and future workforce in fire mitigation, addressing the growing impact of fire in California. Grey Hayes, the ranch’s research and education coordinator, and Jeremy James, head of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, will lead the effort. In the classroom, students will be taught practical lessons such as designing vegetation management plans to make forests more resilient to fire. Outside of the classroom, a series of workshops, headed by Hayes, will be held throughout California. Students will be involved in that process as well. “Swanton is about the students,” Hayes said. “In every situation that we entertain these conversations of developing community practice, students will be involved. These workshops will allow our students the opportunity to mix with those individuals who will one day be their work peers.”
Photo: Ky Dupuis works near the newly installed streamflow equipment.
Swanton Pacific Ranch welcomes a wet winter with lots of work ahead. Our first rains were a month ago, but since then nothing but drying wind – until December 12 when things got rainy again and we watch as the fields begin to green. We won’t have any cattle back for some time as the fences and livestock watering systems still need extensive repair from the fire. But, out on the rangeland a different sort of action: research! Swanton Pacific Ranch’s Agricultural Management Specialist Aaron Lee is becoming another example of the ranch’s Learn by Doing contributions, not only helping Professor Stewart Wilson with a cutting-edge research project, but he is also entering the graduate program in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department. Lee has been hard at work spreading nearly 200 tons of compost in 24 carefully placed treatment plots in the artichoke pastures. Meanwhile, Wilson finished an exhaustive baseline soil sampling for the project. We’ll soon know more about our rangeland soils than ever before, and students in the campus soils lab will get hands-on training in lab routines.
The research isn’t all in the rangeland — there’s plenty of research taking place in the Little Creek basin. For instance, this past (rainy) weekend, Professor Chris Surfleet placed stream monitoring devices in Little Creek and in other Scott Creek tributaries to monitor stream height. His graduate student, Ky Dupuis, joined with the (soggy) work and will return throughout the winter to monitor precipitation and stream characteristics.
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire is still very much on our minds. Given the only very recent rains, the ranch still looks quite bleak: the browns and blacks of post fire dominate the landscape. With shortening day length, growth rate has slowed with resprouting redwoods and brush. Hungry deer and/or woodrats are browsing heavily on tan oak sprouts. Some redwoods are pushing tiny green shoots out of their blackened trunks, and way, way up, post-fire bottle brush trees are forming. When we ask our National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration colleagues about the fish, they say they had good counts way up in the streams – the young, rare fish survived the fire!
Behind the scenes, staff are busier than ever. We are down to five staff now (we had 10 before the fire) due to retirements and season employment. Half the staff and quite a bit to do! Besides supporting research, we are working on the cleanup and repairs. Soon, we will have internet service back at our office. Also, we hope to soon see some additional debris removal. A metal scrap recycling contractor has been hauling off hulks of burnt up metal or machinery. Along Swanton Road, the utility line and culvert/bridge crews have wrapped up and it is easier, and safer, to pass. Thanks to our eternal heroes at the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, any sites that burned near streams were contained with straw and such before the rains.
While post fire wildlife and vegetation rebounds, Swanton Pacific Ranch associates are understanding the impacts of the fire facilities and natural resources to chart the best way towards recovery. Our walks through the forest and rangelands help us to see the resilience of native species. Fresh, tan wood showing through blackened trunks: evidence of the prolific and diligent work of 4 species of woodpeckers. Resprouting tan oak is frequently browsed by deer, rabbit, and woodrat. Redwoods, bays, and even nutmeg are resprouting where trunks meet the charred earth. Ravens caw and peregrine falcons and other hawks gyre over our office building (Casa Verde) in great numbers. And, through all this natural wonder, us humans studiously make plans for the very best next steps and learn from what happened.
There is a lot of solo work, but also many great minds coming together at the Ranch. We plan and make lists and calls and then meet with numerous people in the effort to clean up and understand insurance negotiations. Field staff repair scientific instrumentation and infrastructure, facilitating a surprising coalescence of research interest in post fire dynamics. We also meet with our extended network of advisors, considering where we go from here. Dean Andy Thulin recently convened new staff at the Ranch: Vice Dean Cath Klier and NRES Department Head Jeremy James. We’ve also had visits by our partners at TomKat Ranch as well as meetings with many expert foresters, including 20 highly supportive/influential Cal Poly/Swanton Pacific Ranch alumni.
Despite the fire and the pandemic, students and professors are especially engaged with Swanton Pacific Ranch. We have students, professors, and other partners flying drones to capture images of fire effects. Jacob Dixon, a student living locally with his family has helped to monitor grazing and fire effects on rangeland forage, part of Dr. Marc Horney’s long-term annual monitoring program. We have students signing up as interns to help create curricula related to regenerative land management at the Ranch. Students are also getting hired to help with soils analysis as part of our rangeland soils health research. And, a student team is working with Jeanine Scaramozzino to create a user-friendly Q&A computer interpretation program to help greet and engage future Ranch visitors. NOAA is back at the fish weir capturing salmonids. Geologists are getting ready to monitor how the rains will affect the fire-bared slopes. We keep up with all of this excitement and look forward to a formal strategic planning process beginning early next year.
It’s hard to believe the CZU Lightning Fire Complex hit Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch just over a month ago. We still find ourselves shocked at the losses – the homes especially, but also our teaching spaces, our favorite trails, and tools and equipment that we took for granted. Yet our team, like the land we steward, is resilient and we are making fast progress toward recovery. Perennial grasses have already resprouted with luxuriant six-inch blades, shrubs and trees are quickly growing shoots from the base of their charred trunks.
Before the fire, daily ranch life was already on a different rhythm because of COVID-19. Field trips were limited, events canceled, and we were missing the smiling faces of students. Yet we learned how to stay connected from afar. Professors transitioned to including the ranch’s forests, creeks, and rangelands in classes virtually. Now, they need new visuals and stories: more work, more opportunity! Forestry classes need photos of charred redwood stands with ashy understories and we will learn together from our emerging salvage forestry plans led by Nadia Hamey, our long-term forester-advisor. Our rangeland management classes can “huddle” around the screen with us as we create new fence lines and think about reintroduction of evacuated livestock (and how to use ruminants to reduce resprouting brush).
Meanwhile, our staff are slowly returning to the ranch as power and internet are restored. Associate Director Mark Swisher (Animal Science, ‘03), who joined us last year, is supervising our teams to inventory losses, create temporary staff housing, and plan for the next steps of engagement in teaching and research. We are very thankful for the outpouring of support from our Swanton Pacific Ranch and Cal Poly communities.
Grey Hayes, Education and Research Coordinator
Cortney Newby (Agricultural Science, ‘03), Administrative Support