The Highway 108 Fire Safe Council has a $413,000 grant to reduce fire threats to more than 600 homes outside the township of Tuolumne, and they are trying to do it with a 1.9-mile-long, 300-foot-wide-minimum shaded fuel break between Mount Havilah and an existing fuel break put in when the 2013 Rim Fire was burning in the North Fork Tuolumne River canyon.

They call their project the Ponderosa-Mira Monte Shaded Fuel Break because about 400 homes in the Ponderosa Hills subdivision are near the north end of the new fuel break and about 25 homes in the Mira Monte subdivision are near the south end. About 200 homes between Mira Monte and Ponderosa Hills will also benefit from reduced fire threats because the shade fuel break is supposed to be at least as wide as the length of an American football field.

The Ponderosa-Mira Monte project may be named in north-to-south terms, but work on the project began on the south end, in September 2019, at the top of Mount Havilah.

So far, the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council has spent about $250,000 and completed a three-quarter-mile-long section of the shaded fuel break. All of that section is at least 300 feet wide, Stephen Johnson, project director for the Ponderosa-Mira Monte Shaded Fuel Break, said on West Side Trail.

“This canyon is the fire danger,” he said, gesturing from the West Side Trail into the densely-overgrown North Fork Tuolumne River canyon and up the hill toward homes surrounded by dense trees. “We’re trying to protect the homes.”

Creating a shaded fuel break is labor-intensive, and the physical work so far has been done by inmate crews from the state Department of Corrections Baseline Conservation Camp outside Jamestown, workers with the Greater Valley Conservation Corps of Sonora, and workers with High Sierra Timber Management of Twain Harte.

Johnson pointed out an area next to West Side Trail that used to be dense with ladder fuels, which is now cleared and open, with chopped up remnants of the fire fuels that used to be there — buckbrush, live oak, and manzanita — spread on the ground to prevent erosion.

A little further on West Side Trail, Johnson stood next to a sign explaining the history of fire dangers on the old West Side Lumber Co. narrow-gauge railroad, which the trail is named for, in the densely-forested North Fork Tuolumne River canyon. The company was one the county’s largest employers from the late 1890s to the early 1960s.

“Railroad logging bristled with hazards, but fire was Enemy Number One,” the sign reads. “It relentlessly threatened the source of West Side’s wealth.”

A shaded fuel break is supposed to reduce, modify, and manage fire fuels in designated areas, to reduce fire threats and improve possible fire mitigation efforts when a wildland fire burns through a given area.

Building a shaded fuel break requires trimming low limbs from trees that will remain, cutting out ladder fuels that help fires spread from grasses into mature trees, and clearing the forest floor of dense fire fuels. It’s called a shaded fuel break because some trees and other vegetation are left behind, so they provide shade on some of the newly opened spaces within the fuel break.

Shaded fuel breaks do not remove all vegetation in a given area. Foresters and fire scientists say shaded fuel breaks can provide more fire protection for people who live in fire country, while also improving forest health.

Such breaks are intended to separate communities and clusters of communities from native vegetation that is designed by nature to burn. They are most commonly found on ridgelines, where fire control efforts are focused.

Shaded fuel breaks are also defined as defensible locations, where fuels have been modified, that can be used by firefighters and other fire personnel to try to stop, steer, control or suppress oncoming wildfires. Firefighters emphasize that a shaded fuel break or any other type of fuel will not stop a wildfire by itself.

The Highway 108 Fire Safe Council has until March 2022 to complete the Ponderosa-Mira Monte Shaded Fuel Break, Johnson said.

Higher up the hill in the Mira Monte subdivision, far above the West Side Trail, Johnson stood in a driveway near a hilltop home and pointed toward a section of completed shade fuel break and Mount Havilah.

“See the open spaces?” Johnson said. “There’s no brush on the ground. And the trees, we call them lollipop trees because we have trimmed out the lower branches, eliminating more ladder fuels.”

The Mira Monte subdivision dates to about the 1970s or earlier, Johnson said. Mira Monte means place with a view of the mountains in Spanish, and it’s accurate for the location. People can see numerous mountaintops and mountain ridges from the subdivision, including 5,835-foot Duckwall Mountain to the east.

With about 25 homes on about an acre each, the Mira Monte subdivision is not densely developed. It was densely vegetated before work began on the Ponderosa-Mira Monte Shaded Fuel Break, Johnson said.

“You can see from the steepness of the canyon here that fire would roar up out of the canyon,” he said. “We’re removing the ladder fuels and creating more defensible space up here, so firefighters can defend the homes. If the brush and trees are too dense, the firefighters won’t even go in there. The personnel, the vehicles, they could be trapped.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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