Though wildfire danger may move to the back of most people’s minds for much of the year, one local nonprofit is constantly working to prepare for the next fire season.
The Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council (CFFSC) is currently working on a roughly 500-foot-wide, 160-acre fuel break that stretches almost three miles along the northwest side of Fullen Road between Murphys and Avery.
Funding for the project came through a $213,000 grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (Cal Fire) California Climate Investments program.
The project will complete and maintain a fuel break constructed as a contingency fire line during the Butte Fire of 2015. The area of the fuel break also served as a fire line during the Old Gulch Fire in 1992 and the Mineral Fire in 2004, which both burned through the area.
Bill Fullerton, CFFSC coordinator and Murphys Fire Protection District fire chief, watched from an adjacent hillside as the heavy machinery of local contractor Ron Wright Logging steadily cleared and masticated brush for the fuel break on the morning of May 7.
“It’s like watching a lawn mower work, just a way bigger version,” he said. “That brush is probably 8- to 10-feet high at least.”
As council director, Fullerton is responsible for grant writing and implementing and managing the day-to-day operations of the CFFSC. He said that securing grant funding for the council’s projects is very competitive.
“Grant work is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” he said. “What takes the longest amount of time is the environmental work. Everything’s got to be vetted.”
While the on-the-ground work is expected to take between five and six weeks, the necessary environmental studies took about two-and-a-half years.
“It’s also very expensive,” he said. “A decade ago, we could do CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act process) on a 1,000-acre project for about $1,500. In 2021, that 1,000-acre project could cost anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000. So, it’s gone up exponentially.”
Though the environmental review process can be frustrating, Fullerton said that it was an important part of carrying out projects.
“If we were to just run through here and just wreck havoc, it would defeat the purpose,” he said.
The Fullen Road fuel break is substantially larger than projects that the CFFSC has undertaken in the past.
“This is really the first time that this fire safe council has done any really large-scale fuel breaks,” Fullerton said. “They’ve typically been small fuel breaks or door-to-door programs, like a chipper program or a defensible space program.”
The treatment method is also different due to lack of older trees in the area, Fullerton said. Usually, the council aims to create shaded fuel breaks, which retain more trees for wildlife habitat.
“This is a little different only because this area has been hit by fire a couple of different times,” he said. “There weren’t a whole lot of trees for us to save.”
The fuel break will serve a variety of purposes in the event of a wildfire, Fullerton said.
“A lot of people think that a fuel break is just used to stop the fire, but it’s also a strategic location for us,” he said. “We could put fire engines on this line. If we have a fire front coming this way, we could actually light from here, and actually feed it into itself, and then in theory, extinguish the fire by using fire itself.”
Three young deer dashed one-by-one across the freshly-cleared fuel break.
“That’s one of the other benefits to these projects,” Fullerton said. “Taking these huge brushfields out creates an environment for these guys to run around.”
Establishing a fuel break is one thing, but maintaining it is another, Fullerton said.
“We’re struggling with the maintenance component,” he said. “There is some push now to provide dollars for maintenance, but within five to seven years this project will need to be maintained.”
CFFSC Board Member Tom Vail lives near the new fuel break. He said that he and his neighbors were excited about the project.
“This whole community is very positive about this,” he said. “We definitely need to have underbrush cleaned out from trees. There’s just funding and a lot of red tape.”
Funding for organizations like the CFFSC has increased in recent years following some of the most destructive wildfires in state history.
“As we get these catastrophic fire years, it gets more and more apparent to our political bodies that these types of projects need to happen,” Fullerton said. “It’s a strange way of living, but the worst fire season in history is the best grant fire season in history.”
The Fullen Road fuel break project received funding in 2018. That year, the CFFSC received over $3 million in funding through Cal Fire’s California Climate Investments program, about half of the total $6 million that the organization has received in grants since it was founded in 2003.
The CFFSC has multiple large projects nearing the end of the environmental review stage, including an 800-acre project near Salt Spring Reservoir, a 200-acre project in the San Domingo Creek drainage and a 1,000-acre project between Murphys Grade Road and Dogtown Road. An additional 55-acre hand-work project in the common areas of the Bear Valley subdivision will soon begin on-the-ground work.
Recent wildfires have highlighted the importance of home hardening in addition to creating fuel breaks, though the cost can be substantial, Fullerton said.
“It’s not a cheap venture by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But it’s also not cheap to have to go to the California Fair Plan and lose your homeowner’s insurance, or ultimately lose your house in a fire.”
In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $536 million legislative package aimed at accelerating wildfire prevention projects in high-risk communities as part of the $1 billion investment in forest health and community fire resilience proposed in his 2021-22 state budget.
“California is taking bold, early action to protect our high-risk communities from the upcoming wildfire season before it starts,” Newsom said in a press release. “This crucial funding will go towards efforts including fuel breaks, forest health projects and home hardening.”
When the fire season is less severe, both funding for and volunteer interest in nonprofits like CFFSC tend to dry up, Fullerton said.
“It’s amazing how quickly people’s memories of catastrophic fires go away,” he said. “The Butte Fire was only five years ago, almost six, and you hardly hear anybody talk about it, except the people that were directly involved.”
Fullerton said that fuel reduction projects like the Fullen Road fuel break are critical to limiting the severity of wildfires.
“Unless we continue to do a lot more of these—because this is just the tip of the iceberg—we’re going to see those large-scale fires,” he said. “It’s just a totally different environment. There’s different theories out there as to why, but a lot of it has to do with we’re just not maintaining things like this, and we’re not introducing fire back to the environment like we used to.”
This year is shaping up to be another challenging fire season, Fullerton said.
“We’re already seeing those small fires pop up, and this is pretty early,” he said. “That’s a pretty good indicator that we may have our work cut out for us this year.”