Stepped-up efforts to reduce wildfire threats are underway in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties in the wake of record-breaking deadly, destructive mega-blazes in the past two years up and down California.

One of the projects coming up is a 4.5-mile long fuel break Sierra Pacific Industries is planning in the North Fork Stanislaus River watershed to protect people and 2,000 homes in the Big Trees Village and Dorrington areas.

In autumn 2018, Pacific Gas and Electric cranked up tree removal efforts in the Twain Harte area and other mountain forest communities to comply with new fire-safety regulations ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission, requiring PG&E to maintain more clearance between trees and its power lines year-round.

In September, Cal Fire awarded the Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services $1.6 million in grant funding to reduce vegetation along 140 miles of local roads.

SPI is a partner in the ongoing Lyons-South Fork Watershed Forest Resiliency Project, intended to reduce wildfire risks to PG&E flumes and ditches that convey 95 percent of Tuolumne Utility District’s drinking water for 44,000 people. During the massive 2013 Rim Fire, a fuel break was credited with helping keep that blaze from reaching Pine Mountain Lake and Groveland.

Foresters with SPI hope that work on the 740-acre project, with 433 acres of fuel break along the Big Trees Village perimeter, will begin this summer, according to a timber harvest plan submitted Jan.14 to Cal Fire. People who own Big Trees Village property within 300 feet of the project area have been sent letters by Cal Fire advising them of the SPI harvest plan.

A resident who lives on Teton Drive said Friday he is in favor of the SPI fuel break, but he has problems with PG&E’s demands that healthy trees be removed nearer to his home because he’s already paid some $200 to have limbs trimmed from trees close to power lines. He declined to give his name for publication.

Hasn’t burned in decades

Big Trees Village is east of Calaveras Big Trees State Park and south of Highway 4 at elevations around 5,000 feet above sea level.

Out on the south end of Teton Drive last week, snow-plowed paved roads and snow-dusted forest home lots in Big Trees Village subdivision gave way to unburned portions of the densely overgrown North Fork Stanislaus River watershed.

Numerous trees near roads in Big Trees Village were marked with red spray paint, green ribbons, yellow spray paint, red ribbons and other markings. A timber harvest plan for the fuel break is featured on a social media page for Big Trees Village Property Owners Association.

Reminders of wildfire safety in the Big Trees Village-Dorrington area are on roadside signs, bulletin boards and multiple websites. A Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council and Cal Fire tree mortality removal cost share program, fire safety regulations, PG&E tree work, Cal Fire inspection notices, the Be Firewise campaign, Defensible Space Background and Laws, and other fuel reduction strategies are among those featured on Big Trees Village Property Owners Association bulletin boards and websites this week.

Fire history records in North Fork Stanislaus River watershed are limited, but some people believe the last major fire in the area was a century ago, a fire history similar to the densely-forested corridor where the PG&E Tuolumne Main Canal passes through the unburned South Fork Stanislaus watershed.

Big Trees Project

Dennis Hall is a Cal Fire assistant deputy director in charge of the Forest Practice Program that regulates timber harvest activities on non-federal lands statewide. He’s based in Sacramento and lives in Arnold, and he knows the need to reduce fuel loads near communities on the Highway 4 corridor.

Aaron Smith is a manager for SPI. He’s based in Sonora at the Standard Mill off Camage Avenue. He oversees more than 100,000 acres of Sierra Pacific land in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, the area SPI calls its Sonora District.

Smith says there are about 2,000 homes in the Big Trees Village subdivision.

“We share about five miles of property line with the subdivision,” Smith said last week. “The fuel break will be at minimum 300 feet wide, and 400 to 500 feet wide in most areas.”

The Big Trees Village project will include another fuel break about two miles long and 300 feet wide above paved Forest Road 5N02, Smith said. A third element of the project is an intended choke point, another fuel break to stop a fire coming up the canyon of the North Fork of Stanislaus River canyon.

“The last time there was a fire in there is difficult to determine,” Smith said. “Anecdotally, it could be as much as a hundred years since the last major fire in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Obviously there’s a lot of concern in that area. A wildfire coming through there could be catastrophic.”

The timber harvest plan allows as much as seven years to complete the work, Smith said, but SPI planners hope to be aggressive and finish the project inside two years.

Mark Luster, a SPI community relations manager based in Placer County, emphasized the purpose of the Big Trees Village project is to protect the community of Dorrington from a fire coming out of the North Fork Stanislaus canyon.

“We have had community meetings with overwhelming support for the project,” Luster said last week. “As we are experiencing the increase and magnitude of catastrophic wildfire it is critical that we do everything we can to protect our communities wherever possible.”

Partnerships

Sierra Pacific has another plan to do another fuel break in its Lyons tracts off the Highway 108 corridor, an example of what SPI is doing in Tuolumne County, Smith said. Wildfires don’t recognize property boundaries and that’s why SPI is partnering with other agencies and groups to try to protect neighbors like those who live in Big Trees Village, Smith said.

“With all the recent fires there are more partnerships to create fuel breaks and protect resources,” Smith said. “It's not just us. It’s cooperative, it’s the Forest Service, the Fire Safe councils, it’s TUD and the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.”

Sierra Pacific owns about 150,000 acres total in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, about 1.7 million acres altogether in California, and another 200,000 acres in Washington state. It’s billed as being among the largest lumber producers in the U.S.

Asked for perspective Monday, John Buckley with the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte said the Big Trees Village project has positives and negatives.

“Bottom line, SPI generally clear cuts aggressively and they have chosen to use shaded fuel breaks in the interface with the subdivision,” Buckley said. “If I lived next to one of the fuel breaks I’d be concerned but I’d be accepting, and I’d be glad to have some green trees left.”

There’s always the risk of a windblown wildfire sweeping into one of the forest subdivisions in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, said Buckley, who is a former Forest Service firefighter and fuels treatment foreman. He agrees fuel breaks increase safety for fire crews trying to stop a fire as it approaches a residential area.

The Forest Service and the nonprofit Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions group want more fuel breaks on ridge tops and around forest communities because no one wants catastrophic wildfires here, Buckley said.

But the Forest Service and YSS and some timber industry people agree that shaded fuel breaks are just one part of a strategy that should include thinning logging on much broader areas, and widespread prescribed burning to reduce wildfire threats and improve forest health.

Asked what communities near Sonora are most at risk from a potentially devastating wildfire, Buckley said it’s probably the Big Hill community north and northeast of Sonora, followed by Ponderosa Hills, northeast of the town of Tuolumne. Buckley also included communities along the Highway 4 and Highway 108 corridors, including Mi-Wuk Village, Sierra Village, Arnold, Avery and Forest Meadows.

People with concerns about their neighboring forest areas can see this Village project as a glass half full or a glass half empty,” Buckley said. “The fact they are not doing clearcut-type logging next to the subdivision should be a benefit and contrast to clearcut-type treatments that will be done in other areas, such as along Highway 4.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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