Due to the increase in wildfire in recent years, the state and local organizations have stepped up efforts to mitigate risk through forest thinning, controlled burns and the establishment of fuel breaks.
The Calaveras County Resource Conservation District (CCRCD) recently completed the first section of a 732-acre shaded fuel break on private land stretching between the town of Murphys and Forest Meadows on the south side of Highway 4.
CCRCD estimates that the project will protect about 7,000 homes on the Ebbetts Pass Corridor. The project units are connected by a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) fuel break directly southeast of Forest Meadows.
Funding was provided through a $2.1 million grant from Cal Fire’s 2019 Fire Prevention Grant Program.
The CCRCD was established following a vote by county residents in the November 2016 election, making Calaveras County the last rural county in the state to establish a resource conservation district.
“It was the third time that it was put to a vote, but it was the first time that there was no tax base associated with it,” CCRCD Executive Director Gordon Long said while driving up Forest Meadows Drive on the way to the project area on the morning of Aug. 5. “We are a strictly grant-driven organization, and it is a volunteer board.”
While the CCRCD has completed multiple smaller projects in the past, the scope of the Murphys-To-Forest Meadows Wildland Urban Interface Fuel Break Project is significantly greater.
“This is by far our biggest project,” Long said. “We’re pretty excited.”
Tanner Logging was contracted to complete the first 85-acre unit on Darby Knob. Work on the unit began on June 3 and wrapped up on July 21.
“We were a little concerned with doing work this time of year,” Long said. “But we only had one red flag day, and that was the day that we actually had a little bit of rain here.”
Dick Tanner was just finishing up work in the area and moving out his last piece of heavy machinery when Long pulled up. Although work had been finished on the unit a couple of weeks earlier, Tanner Logging was hired by an adjacent landowner to do some additional work on their property.
“They hired Tanner on themselves and added some more fuels reduction and fire safety,” Long said. “That’s a great side effect when people see the work.”
As he drove into the project area, Long passed a property owner walking his dog. He said that people in the area were supportive of the project.
“A lot of people out here feel much better,” he said. “It’s a big deal to a lot of people out here.”
The total project impacts about 90 private parcels with about 50 habitable structures. Long said that only a few of the property owners failed to return right-of-entry forms.
“Because of fire danger now, I think that the general public understands the importance of doing this work,” he said. “Everybody is fully appreciative of the work that we’re trying to do for them.”
Darby Knob sits at the top of the Stanislaus River Canyon. Several charred logs and stumps could still be seen from the Darby Fire, which passed through the area in 2001.
“This whole area was impacted by the Darby Fire,” Long said, passing by a slope covered in masticated brush, but barren of trees. “There were no trees to leave because they burned.”
The Old Gulch Fire also impacted the area in 1992 after jumping Highway 4.
“Where there’s fire, it’s going to come back again,” Long said. “There’s just something about drainages and slopes and people.”
As Long proceeded down the gravel road, the view of the river canyon opened up. Masticated brush covered the forest floor between evenly spaced trees.
“Before, you could not even see the canyon from here,” Long said. “This was just a wall of debris and trees and brush.”
In addition to working for CCRCD, Long is employed by Amador County RCD and contracted to work with the National Resource Conservation Service. He holds a biology degree from California Polytechnic State University, and has worked as a wildlife biologist for much of his career.
“I’m a wildlife biologist by trade really, but I got into forestry work,” he said. “This work that we’re doing is actually doing more for wildlife than some of the wildlife projects I’ve done.”
Long said the environmental studies for the project only took about three months.
“Since we’re a state special district, we can actually be the lead agency, which helps a lot,” he said. “Cal Fire and nonprofits, they usually have to have Cal Fire be the lead agency, and they’ve got a higher level of bureaucracy they’ve got to go through.”
Long passed by a fuel break on Forest Service land on the edge of the project that was completed about three years ago. He said that once a fuel break is created, maintenance is still a challenge.
“You like to come in every five to seven years—it’s just hard,” he said. “Cal Fire and Forest Service have been hesitant to put a bunch of money into maintenance of these projects.”
Long said that while CCRCD expects to finish the project in March of 2024, most of the work should be completed by the summer of 2022.
The Murphys-To-Forest Meadows Wildland Urban Interface Fuel Break Project is part of a series of projects currently being planned, coordinated and implemented by multiple agencies and organizations, including CCRCD, Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, the Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council, the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team, Sierra Pacific Industries, homeowners associations and private landowners.
“It takes a village, and no one group can do everything,” Long said. “It’s nice getting all of the collaboration. That’s kind of heartwarming to see.”