In the midst of the current fire season, 2015 Butte Fire victims are struggling to maintain defensible space on their properties by removing the dead and dry trees that pose a continued threat.
Skip Jungmann’s 31-acre property in Mountain Ranch on the 10700 block of Ponderosa Way is riddled with dead ponderosa pines and spindling charcoal branches, a burial ground for the aftermath of the Butte Fire.
Hampered by a persistent shoulder injury and restricted to a $3,100 a month income, Jungmann lives in a constant state of jeopardy: the memories of the Butte Fire linger in the danger of the dead tree burn scar surrounding his home.
“Before the fire everything was green here. But after the drought and the bark beetles and everything, it was just too much,” he said. “They need to be cut down, and of course this here,” he said, indicating to 30 foot tall shorn trunk at the top of a small embankment, overhanging his two trailers.
While hawks circle above him in the triple digit heat, Jungmann smiled and confirmed that despite the risk, he would remain on the property and deal with the defensible space issues over time.
“Of course everything changes, life is about change,” he said.
The Butte Fire ignited on Sept. 9, 2015, after a gray pine came into contact with a PG&E power line conductor, according to an analysis released by Cal Fire in April 2016. Investigators blamed the failure of the pine on the removal of two other trees by PG&E and/or its subcontractors months before the fire.
The fire burned more than 70,868 acres, killed two people, injured another and destroyed 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties.
Total losses were estimated by the California Department of Insurance at more than $300 million dollars.
On Sept. 10, 2015, Jungmann’s 1,800 square foot manufactured home, and all 31 acres of his property, was consumed by the flames.
“I got up the morning of the fire and I couldn’t see beyond the backyard fence,” he said.
Jungmann was still wrangling with his insurance company for compensation of the contents of his home, including a high school letter jacket, his Navy memorabilia, a pipe stand and a collection of more than 100 smoking pipes.
He did his best to efficiently evacuate the site, he said, but still wasn’t prepared for the level of destruction to the property.
“I don't react when there’s a crisis going on until it's all over with. And when it’s over I scream and holler. It does you no good going off when you are trying to survive,” he said.
In the ensuing months, AmeriCorps, a federal civil service organization, cleaned up most of the debris surrounding the residence and PG&E cut some of the worst of the dead trees on a crest of land overlooking his trailers. In April Jungmann took a weed eater to the empty lot where his house once stood, but four months later, the hay grasses have crept up to over a foot tall, patched in dense, dry clusters leading up to his home.
Calfire defensible space requirements denote that residents remove dead vegetation within 30 feet of a home and thin live vegetation within 100 feet of a home or to a property line.
But the steep cost of the professional tree services in the area has hindered his ability to remove the brush and around 70 to 100 dead trees on the property, Jungmann said.
“Once I get better I’m going to split them into fireplace length and just keep them as firewood,” he said. “But at some time I have to quit being macho.”
For about a mile down Whiskey Slide Road, sepulcral dead trees overhang from the side of the road and hardscrabble trails throughout Mountain Ranch.
Near the intersection with Mountain Ranch Road at The Hive, a Buttle Fire Recovery Center located at the Mountain Ranch Youth Alliance building, President Mona Baroody waits patiently for guests to visit and share their continuing efforts to protect their homes and property.
“We help in all areas of life for short and long term needs,” she said, but added that the overall goal of the organization was to give the victims the tools to advocate for themselves.
Inside the center, there is a rotating cast of visitors, seeking advice and guidance from the professional staff. Surrounded by a white picket fence, and particularly lush in wildlife compared to the surrounding area, the building functions as an oasis of advice, and ultimately, preservation.
About a third of the population of the Calaveras County towns affected by the Butte Fire live below the poverty line, she said, at about 28 percent of Mountain Ranch, 30 percent of Mokelumne Hill and a range of 23 to 38 percent in Railroad Flat. Statistically, a great portion of low-income residents are disabled or veterans and are an average age of about 49 to 69 years old.
Baroody would often act as an intermediary between the victims and their insurance, utility or tree service companies, while they dealt with the loss of their homes, outbuildings and trees.
With over 300 clients in her database, many are in dire need of defensible space clearance, she said.
At the end of May The Hive had sponsored an AmeriCorps team to assist with defensible space clearance throughout the Butte Fire scar with a $5,000 grant from the Calaveras Community Foundation. The money was used to purchase five bush-eaters and two chainsaws for the crew to work over the six weeks they were scheduled to be in the area. But after just two days, the crew was pulled without reason by a regional director, packed up, and left Calaveras County.
Though Baroody has maintained a congenial relationship with AmeriCorps, and they do plan to return for another clearance operation, their absence created a void for a trained workforce at the most crucial time at the beginning of fire season, she said.
“I’m a little concerned about how to proceed. We should not be out with the chainsaws, we should not be out there with the metal blades,” she said. “We’ve seen fire caused by equipment used to create defensible space.”
The main difficulty was finding skilled manpower at affordable rates to work in dead tree and brush clearance around homes, Baroody said. With tree clearance averaging at a rate of about $2,400 a day, many low income residents opt to live with the fire danger rather than maintain defensible space.
The intake services offered by the Hive are meant to determine a victim's special and specific needs so that their reintegration into the community can be achieved.
The “slow death” of the Calaveras County backcountry and the mass exodus of its population brought upon by the Butte Fire could be reversed, Baroody said, with a concerted effort by the community to regrow the wildlife and reestablish the residences.
“We’re trying to preserve an important part of our community. And it is remote,” she said. “Until we get an ecological balance in the community, we’re still going to have problems.”
Paul Klingborg’s 60 acre property that he has owned for more than 40 years is beset with those remote environmental fire dangers almost two years after the Butte Fire: dead and fallen trees reign over huge portions of land and huge piles of lumber fill the crevices between the dry brush.
“I’m deathly afraid of everything burning,” he said. “This is what happens to the stuff. It just falls where it wants to fall.”
During the Butte Fire, he said, “it was all just total chaos” as he worked retain the integrity of his home and the outlying structures placed throughout the dirt roads spindling out from Highway 26 and Rich Gulch Road. Despite his efforts a 2 bed/1 bath stucture, 2 self-contained campers, and several propane tanks burned in the fire.
Discing in the defensible space area around his home, killing all the grasses and roughening up the earth, had ultimately saved the place where he lived.
“I always have a nice buffer for fire. That’s been my biggest worry here, fire,” he said.
But now, hundreds of dead pines, cedars, oaks and manzanita scrub heap the space between powerlines, ranch fencing and burned out tractors throughout the property.
“It’s just like tinder. It’s also trees with all the oils with the brush itself.”
In the months following the fire, ACRT Vegetation Management was paid by PG&E to perform tree removal near a powerline that ran through the property, he said. But the dense thickets of grassland still bare the unfinished results of that work: over a hundred sheaths of lumber, cut and uncut, pile into a small canyon and pose the most immediate threat of burning if another fire were to come through the property.
“They just cut cut cut,” he said.
Klingborg eventually received a price quote of $100,000 for the removal of the debris on just one swath of the land on his property.
“I didn’t get paid for anything like that and I won’t get paid for anything like that,” he said.
The continual wrangling with PG&E to do additional work has been disheartening, he said, and the enormous associated costs and the continual administrative headaches to organize the tree removal means Klingborg may leave the property.
“It’s just ongoing,” he said.