A few weeks ago, Blue Lake Springs resident Marjie Miller was sitting on her deck when a towering ponderosa pine came tumbling down, narrowly missing her house and destroying a portion of wooden railing as it fell.
The tree was one of four dead pines on a neighbor’s property threatening to fall on Miller’s house.
Miller reached out to the county Tree Mortality Program, which was retained in early 2017 to remove trees killed by drought or bark beetles, though she was told that foresters could only enter the property if her neighbor agreed to the removal via a right-of-entry (ROE) form.
Miller’s neighbor has been unreachable, and the dead pines, most likely victims of the bark beetle epidemic and/or drought, still stand hundreds of feet tall in close proximity to multiple Blue Lake Springs residences.
In addition to threatening hundreds of homes and infrastructure across the county, dead and dying trees could be serious fuel for the next major wildfire in the Mother Lode region, according to various local agencies.
At a town hall meeting in West Point on Aug. 24, several members of the public heard from local fire chiefs, the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group (ACCG), County Tree Mortality Program (TMP), Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council (CFFSC), and Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) for updates on fuel break projects and discussion of wildfire preparedness strategies.
Calaveras County District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi hosted the meeting with the Calaveras County Office of Emergency Services.
Garamendi emphasized the nexus between fire protection and tree removal.
“Fire protection is a complex mosaic; there’s work going on for prevention through building fire breaks, along with the threat of the hazard trees,” Garamendi said. “We want to bring people together to show that hazardous tree removal is part of a larger strategy to reduce the risk of fire.”
Priorities for surveys to determine presence of hazardous trees are based on the level of traffic on county roads and the presence of residential neighborhoods, according to the Tree Mortality Program webpage.
Though initial surveys by county staff based on 2016 satellite imagery identified around 11,000 standing dead trees potentially affecting county infrastructure, the most recent data compiled by the USDA Forest Service indicates that there were approximately 3.3 million dead trees across the county as of 2017.
Since TMP’s inception in early 2017, TSS Consultants, the contractor hired by the county for tree removal, has only felled and cleared away 600 trees across three projects in the Blue Lake Springs-Arnold area, according to TMP Manager Richard Harris.
Though PG&E and other agencies are also removing trees across the county, TMP has been the primary provider of that service.
The key concern is the low return rate of ROE forms from property owners with trees that pose a threat to county infrastructure.
TMP has sent out 1,767 letters requesting ROEs across the heavily-forested northeastern portion of the county from Murphys to West Point, but has only received approval from 903, or roughly 51 percent of these property owners.
TSS Consultants CEO Tad Mason emphasized that property owners in the West Point area have been especially insufficient in returning ROEs, having received approval from less than half of the 159 letters sent out.
“The dead trees on parcels without returns will continue to deteriorate and contribute to hazardous conditions,” Mason said at the meeting. “For property owners, this is a one-time chance to have the trees removed at no cost. We hope to eliminate the majority of the hazards in the area from Murphys to the county line by this fall.”
After trees are removed, the leftover debris becomes the property of the contractor, who disposes of them by selling to the highest bidder for sawlogs or chips for livestock bedding, fuel or particle board, according to Harris.
Another presenter at the West Point meeting, former District 2 Supervisor Steve Wilensky offered a long-term solution for disposal of debris from tree removal.
Wilensky is the current Board Chair for CHIPS, a local nonprofit corporation founded in 2004 “to put people in our economically-depressed communities back to work,” with a focus on fire safety.
Wilensky announced the group’s progress on securing future profits for a three-megawatt biomass gasification facility to be located on a former lumber mill site in Wilseyville, a project that has been in the works for nearly 14 years.
“PG&E has just signed a power purchase agreement for 20 years at 19.72 cents per kilowatt,” Wilensky announced at the meeting.
Through the gasification of timber, the plant will generate enough energy to power the surrounding Blue Mountain communities of Glencoe, Railroad Flats, West Point and Wilseyville, according to Wilensky.
With the potential to employ 65 to 85 people to run and supply the plant with fuel, Wilensky is confident that the project will be an immensely positive contributor to the local economy.
“This is the biggest economic development project Calaveras County has seen since the old cement plant,” Wilensky said. “This will be taking an old mill site and putting a bunch of people back to work on a sustainable basis. It will accelerate the scale of forest thinning work, since we’ll be buying the logs. This is a combination of restoration and stewardship work coupled with compatible and scaled infrastructure.”
With environmental permits completed, Wilsenksy expects construction to start within four to six months. CHIPS is currently pursuing conventional bonds to fund the remaining costs of site preparation and technology, which could range anywhere from $19 million to $28 million, depending on which gasification technology is selected, Wilensky said.
Wilensky also mentioned that CHIPS currently has eight open forest thinning positions out of the West Point area.
Crews will be dispatched for the rest of the year to make the Highway 88 corridor a line of defense from fires and to open up the scenery of the Mokelumne Canyon for drivers in the process, Wilsensky said.
Also at the meeting, ACCG volunteer and highly experienced grant writer and forester Pat McGreevy presented updates on fuel break projects being undertaken by ACCG, “a community-based group of diverse stakeholders that works to create fire-safe communities, healthy forests and watersheds, and sustainable local economies.”
“Fire acres have dramatically increased over recent years because of hazardous fuels growing on the ground,” McGreevy said as he pointed to a graph outlining a 70,000-acre spike from 2010 to 2015 in Calaveras County.
McGreevy recalled a fuel break that saved the entire town of Mokelumne Hill in 2010 to emphasize the difference these projects can make in the event of a destructive fire.
“In 2010, Cal Fire put a small fuel break near an old sewer line that connects the Catholic cemetery to the Protestant cemetery on the canyon side of Mokelumne HIll,” McGreevy said. “It saved the town. There was fire coming up the hill out of the canyon, and fire truck engines were able spray water down from the top.”
Because the state has allocated $200 million for forest health, forest legacy and fire prevention grants – more than a tenfold increase from last year – since the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties and the Thomas Fire affecting Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, ACCG now has opportunities to take on more projects than ever before, McGreevy said.
That said, having more funding available requires more grant writers and project managers to retrieve it.
In order to increase pace and scale of forest restoration projects, ACCG is working to “develop grant expertise to fund and implement forest management projects, identify job needs and business opportunities in the forest industry, and create apprentice and entrepreneurial programs,” according to McGreevy.
Resources for tree mortality programs
Tree Mortality Program: treemortality.calaverasgov.us/FAQs
Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council reimbursement options:
No-cost fuel reduction and debris removal for seniors and disable property owners:
CFFSC information: (209) 728-8785.
ACCG information: (209) 293-2191.