Local efforts to reduce wildfire threats continue to move forward across the county, while many other projects are locked in environmental review stages.
According to the agency’s tree mortality and fuel reduction update for February, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has treated almost 70 acres across 11 projects in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties this year.
Cal Fire’s Blue Lake Springs Fuel Break project is a part of a landscape effort to protect the Highway 4 corridor.
Surrounded by federal, state and private land, the 2-acre project connects with existing fuels-reduction projects in the area to create a barrier between the Blue Lake Springs community and surrounding forest.
The Enterprise visited the work site with Cal Fire Capts. Isaac Rushdoony and Ryan Buchanan on Monday.
A Vallecito Conservation Camp handcrew stacked logs and brush into burn piles as the captains discussed what they described as a “shaded fuel break.”
“We’re trying to take out the dead materials, snags and open the (canopy) so if we do get retardant in here (during a fire), the retardant actually hits the ground,” Rushdoony said, a pile of brush smoldering behind him.
Brush will grow back in two to three years, and the area should be treated again within five years, Rushdoony said.
Most fuel breaks are not funded for maintenance, and the agency will have to apply for funding in the future, Rushdoony added.
On March 22, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on wildfires and issued an executive order to expedite 35 fuel-reduction projects across the state before fire season.
While none of those projects are in Calaveras County, local officials say the order is a step in the right direction for fire safety.
“I’m really hopeful that if these 35 projects are successful, we can continue moving forward,” said Josh White, the unit chief for the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit of Cal Fire.
White said the projects will still operate under forest practice laws, but will be fast-tracking the California Environmental Quality Act process. That includes surveying for impacts on historical artifacts and wildlife, which can take six months to a year to complete.
Calaveras County Resource Conservation District (RCD) Executive Director Gordon Long said “it was disappointing” that the governor’s list of projects did not include any work in the Mother Lode.
“This is very surprising since we have so many communities at risk that are considered high fire risk,” Long said, adding that Calaveras County itself has 35 high-fire-risk communities.
“Our only hope is to educate and impress upon our state leaders that our Central Sierra counties are in dire need of increased pace and scale of fuels-reduction projects.”
Long said the district will work with Cal Fire, the county and other collaborators to establish a project list from the TCU for Newsom’s consideration for the “next round of streamlined fuels-reduction projects.”
Citing the potential for high-severity wildfires after a century of accumulated fuels from suppression efforts, John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, a Twain Harte-based environmental nonprofit, voiced approval for the governor’s order as well.
“If local, state and federal agencies start planning now to do needed projects as soon as possible, those projects can be done consistent with environmental laws that protect water quality, wildlife, scenic values, air quality and rare plants,” Buckley said. “The challenge is for local, state and federal politicians to provide the money needed to ramp up projects, and to turn the corner on the backlog of so many decades of accumulated fuels.”
This year, the Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council successfully obtained around $3.2 million in fuels-reduction activities covering nearly 3,000 acres, according to Bill Fullerton, spokesman for the council.
The group is still “a couple months out from having on-the-ground work done as we are awaiting on the environmental compliance work to be completed,” Fullerton said.
Fullerton said any ability to shorten environmental procedures would “assist us in completing those projects sooner, thus hopefully making our communities more resilient to catastrophic wildfires.”
Since 2018, the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team has secured more than $5.5 million in grant funding for forest-thinning projects as well, according to CalAm grant writer Pat McGreevy.
While many agree with expediting these efforts, environmental groups around the state continue to claim that home hardening (retrofitting homes with ember-resistant materials) should be more of a focus.
A March 24 post from the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization based in Southern California, argues that the fuel reduction-centered approach to protecting communities is not guided by fire science.
The order “ignores science, dismisses the lessons of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, and is following the pattern President Trump has established – if facts get in the way of ideology, circumvent the facts,” the post reads. “The wind-driven wildfires that kill the most people and burn the most homes are the fires where fuel breaks are irrelevant.”
The group co-signed a Jan. 11 letter to Gov. Newsom with recommendations from fire ecologists and environmental leaders across the state to shift the focus to fireproofing homes.
Cal Fire State Fire Marshal Mike Richwine told state Assembly members in a Feb. 25 hearing that “We need to educate on the benefits of home hardening. It’s proven to dramatically increase the chance of a home surviving a wildfire.”
A Feb. 22 Cal Fire report to the governor ranked fuel reduction as an “immediate term” priority and “identifying options for retrofitting homes to new wildland urban interface standards” as a “medium term” objective.
The report estimated that as many as 15 million acres of California forests need some form of restoration.
Rushdoony said it can be difficult to meet deadlines on some fuel break projects, as the agency starts staffing stations by May 1 to start training in preparation for fire season.
“The average homeowner doesn’t have the resources, time or money to be able to do this,” Buchanan said, observing the manicured hillside – a stark contrast to the dense tangles of foliage and downed logs on the other side of the project boundary.