A 30-acre fuel-reduction project in the Mill Woods subdivision northwest of Arnold broke ground on July 11, according to a Mill Woods Firewise Community press release.
In December of 2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) awarded the Calaveras County Resources Conservation District (CCRCD) a $103,000 grant to fund the work through a state program called the California Climate Investments (CCI). The initiative spends billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy and improve public health and the environment, with an emphasis on disadvantaged communities.
The goal is to decrease the fuel load (the amount of flammable vegetation in the area) and create a fuel break protecting the Mill Woods subdivision, central Arnold and other neighboring communities from a large wildfire event. A small section of the Arnold Rim Trail (ART) is included in the project.
Accessible through Manuel Road in Arnold, the perimeter of the 74-acre subdivision is bordered on the north, east and west by the Stanislaus National Forest, and on the south by other homes and lots in the Arnold community, according to a fact sheet provided by Marg Donnelly, a grant writer on the project.
In theory, the practical benefits of a fuel break are to reduce chances for fire ignition, slow the potential spread of a fire and provide first responders extra time for containment. Grant funding covered the costs of environmental reporting, groundwork to include mastication and hand work, project management and contract administration.
Goals laid out in the treatment include masticating underbrush vegetation and small trees, preserving mature dogwood trees, removing “dead, dying, diseased or unsound trees,” masticating and grinding stumps to the ground, pruning up to 12 feet to remove potential ladder fuels and thinning the forest stand to 40% canopy. After these are completed, the masticated biomass will be spread as a mulch over the project area to suppress new growth of understory trees.
Ronwright Logging, a Dorrington-based company, was awarded the contract for the work, and is expected to complete the project in approximately one month.
Because of the danger caused as a byproduct of the heavy machinery, the public is warned to avoid the working area. For the safety of hikers, the ART will be closed between the end of the paved section from the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum and the intersection with the Cedar Center feeder trail.
The project is part of an effort to build fuel breaks around communities from Camp Connell to Murphys along the Highway 4 corridor, with large contributions from Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Sierra Pacific Industries, Stanislaus National Forest and other subdivisions, according to Pete Padelford, the Mill Woods project manager.
Comprised of the communities of Murphys, Forest Meadows, Hathaway Pines, Avery, Arnold, Dorrington and Camp Connell, the Highway 4 area has a history of large and damaging wildfire events, Donnelly said, with reference to the Butte (2015), Armstrong (2004), Sourgrass (2002), Darby (2001) and Old Gulch (1992) fires. The area is home to 8,560 residents, according to 2010 Census data.
Padelford highlighted the importance of the work in the Mill Woods subdivision in particular: within walking distance of the project area, two large propane tanks outside of Ebbetts Pass Gas in Arnold could wipe out the area if ignited by a fire.
Padelford said that the collaboration among various stakeholders, and the state funding pools for fuels-reduction work that have become available over the past two years have expedited fuel break efforts. Additionally, more and more private landowners off Highway 4 are getting on board with these kinds of projects, provided the promise of grant funding, he said.
“We’re getting so much done so much faster,” Padelford said, with reference to the work of the Calaveras-Amador Forestry team in the northeastern part of the county as well.
Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) just received a grant for a project on Calaveras County Water District land via the efforts of the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team. They're also planning on applying for a $2 million-plus grant through CCRCD to start a 600-acre fuel break project east of Murphys in September.
In recent months, SPI has been working on a 500-acre fuel break in the Love Creek area near Blue Lake Springs. Additionally, the company’s proposal for a 433-acre fuel break adjacent to the Big Trees Village subdivision is expected to start in the fall, pending a Cal Fire review, SPI Community Relations Manager Mark Luster confirmed with the Enterprise Monday.
In addition to helping prevent the next massive wildfire, Padelford said he hopes the uptick in fuel-break projects will draw home insurance companies back to the area.
“The Arnold area is a very special place,” Padelford said. “We’ve got to do something to protect this thing as best we can.”
This story was updated on July 18, 2019 to correct that the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team was the group that applied for grant funding for a CCWD fuel reduction project, with CHIPS as the fiscal agent.