California

Emergency projects aim to protect California’s most vulnerable areas from catastrophic wildfires

See Cal Fire’s North Fork American River fuel break project

Cal Fire's Nevada Yuba Placer Unit reveals its North Fork American River Fuel Break Project in efforts to prevent wildfires.
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Cal Fire's Nevada Yuba Placer Unit reveals its North Fork American River Fuel Break Project in efforts to prevent wildfires.

After battling the most destructive wildfires in California’s history over the past two years, Cal Fire is rolling out emergency fuel reduction projects to help protect the state’s most vulnerable communities.

The 35 projects span the state, from Siskiyou to San Diego counties. One crucial effort in the Sacramento area, the North Fork American River Shaded Fuel Break, is a fuel break project that covers 850 acres around the city of Colfax in Placer County.

A fuel break is an area of land where vegetation has been transformed to make fires more controllable, Cal Fire officials told reporters Thursday at the Colfax project site. Methods involve chipping and prescribed burning.

Though not designed to completely stop a fire from spreading, a fuel break gives firefighters strategic locations to access the fire. For instance, a fire in an area with a lot of fuel can get as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas ground-level burning is only several hundred degrees Fahrenheit, making it much easier for firefighters to get close, an officer said.

Pre-fire planning involves looking at an area’s fire history, type of fuel and prevalence of camp fires, said Steve Garcia, Cal Fire’s unit forester and primary coordinator of the project.

A combination of risk factors makes Colfax particularly important, Garcia said: PG&E, which produces energy for half a million California residents, runs through the area. Interstate-80, Union Pacific Rail Line and the Kinder Morgan Petroleum Pipeline also run right through Colfax, so “in terms of a wildfire to cause chaos and massive impact to the state’s economy, this becomes a pretty high priority area,” he said.

“When you take into account the massive amount of tax revenue, the county becomes very interested in how do we protect this, the state becomes very interested in how do we protect our infrastructure and this economic value to the state’s economy,” Garcia said.

The North Fork American River Shaded Fuel Break project started in April and is expected to complete its first phase in December.

Not only are fuel reduction projects for community protection, but they are also for forest restoration, officials said.

“When I first came down a few weeks ago, this was nothing but Himalayan blackberries,” a nonnative shrub that sucks all the water surrounding it, said Chris Paulus, Cal Fire Battalion chief for forest management task force. When a wildfire wipes out vegetation in an area with Himalayan blackberries, the shrubs grow back so rapidly that the native trees can’t compete – all that’s left is one type of plant, Paulus said.

Officials said the catastrophic Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and obliterated the community of Paradise in Butte County in November 2018, prompted the current fire protection efforts. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in January calling on Cal Fire and other state agencies to recommend immediate and long term action plans to prevent destructive wildfires..

“These communities that are out here in the wildland are at risk all the time, and so if we don’t do something to mitigate the risk, there’s a potential we have a repeat of that,” Garcia said.

However, fire officials say getting permission to work on land is complicated. Cal Fire can easily work on state property, but must get approval for private and federal property.

“It’s a really complex problem because each landowner is the king of their land, and they decide,” Garcia said. “But some people, their management is, ‘I’m going to do nothing here,’ and after 15 years of buildup of fuel, now we have a potential fire that’s not only at risk to that home, but also to their neighbor.”

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