In a first of its kind for Plumas County, a fire barrier is being constructed around the perimeter of the American Valley to protect homes from catastrophic wildfire.
Similar projects are going on to protect homes along the east side of Lake Almanor and around Clio and Portola.
On March 30, a group of about 20 people listened to Kyle Felker and Sara Taddo Jones describe the American Valley project. Both Felker and Jones are working for the Fire Safe Council.
The group then carpooled out to the perimeter of American Valley to look at homeowners’ back yards that had been recently thinned. The work was led by Felker utilizing local contractors and CalFire crews.
Additional thinning around the perimeter of the valley is being done by the U.S. Forest Service on its property and by private landowners on their property under contract with the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Community fire protection barriers
A community fire protection barrier consists of forestland that has been thinned, with the resulting downed woody debris masticated, chipped or burned.
The purpose is twofold: 1) to drastically reduce the height and amount of fuels present beneath larger, more mature trees, and 2) to separate the crowns of the larger trees from each other.
Then, when a fire does occur, it will just burn along the ground and not make its way into the crowns of the larger trees.
If fire does make its way into the crown of a larger tree, it won’t be able to travel from crown to crown. The heat and severity of the fire will thus be much reduced near homes and less likely to burn structures.
Thinned parcels of land are linked together to form a barrier, or firebreak, to stop the spread of fire.
It’s the law
Felker pointed out that state law requires that homeowners thin forests for 100 feet around structures. Failure to thin forests around structures ties up expensive fire-fighting equipment and crews needed elsewhere during catastrophic fires.
Landowners may be legally liable for not thinning forests adjacent to other people’s homes.
There are government programs, however, that can help homeowners thin their property.
Money from the state
There is near universal agreement that dense forests need to be thinned to stop catastrophic fire and protect old growth trees, wildlife, soils and homes.
The problem is that thinning and reducing woody fuels is expensive and requires a certain amount of expertise.
Thinning an acre of land using a low impact mechanical masticator costs $900 per acre. Hand thinning, piling and burning costs more than $3,000 per acre. The latter method is so expensive that it is only used on very steep land.
This is where the Fire Safe Council comes in. Felker and the council help landowners design defensible space around their homes or other people’s homes and help them find the funding to pay for it.
State Responsibility Areas are areas of the state where fire protection is CalFire’s responsibility. An annual fee of approximately $150 is paid by landowners within SRAs to help pay for this protection.
The problem is, as Jones told the group, fires in Plumas County have been mostly put out by federal and local fire crews.
Residents of Plumas County have made CalFire, the state agency responsible for fighting fires in California, know about this discrepancy.
Therefore, in 2015 the Plumas County Fire Safe Council was granted one of the first SRA grants to initiate fire protection barriers around Plumas County communities.
This grant paid for much of the thinning that has taken place so far around the perimeter of American Valley.
The Fire Safe Council wants homeowners to know that they no longer cut trees larger than 10 inches in diameter.
The equipment used does not cause erosion or damage soil or non-targeted vegetation. The homeowner has the last word on what happens on his or her property.
Other programs to help pay for thinning
The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service reimburses landowners up to $800 per acre for thinning forests through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The Council also helps elderly or disabled homeowners receive funding from the U.S. Forest Service, the state and the county to thin around their homes if they can’t do the work themselves.
Complacency will not save you
Most catastrophic fires occur quickly and without warning. Usually associated with dry conditions and high winds, about all firefighters can do is try to get word to homeowners in the few minutes before the raging fire reaches their property.
Some of the fires in Lake County in 2015 swept through communities in just a few hours. Residents had just enough time to get out the door and down the road to safety. Preventative measures had to have been in place before the fire.
Getting in line for future SRA funds
The Council hopes to obtain another grant from CalFire to thin areas within the barrier around the American Valley and other communities that have not yet been thinned.
Therefore, the counsel is encouraging homeowners to put their names on the list for future thinning contracts.
Felker is a knowledgeable resource for homeowners and property owners with land adjacent to structures.
Felker worked for 40 years with the Forest Service in timber layout and, although semi-retired, is still a member of a national team that manages wildfires.
Felker does house calls. He will come out to your property and talk with you.
Jones, who is moving on to work for the state, said, “I was employed only so that I could hire Kyle Felker.”
The coordinator of the Plumas County Fire Safe Council, Hannah Hepner, can be reached at 283-0829, 616-8154 or [email protected].
Felker can be reached at 251-6112 or [email protected].
Applications for assistance in thinning around homes and in finding funding sources can be found at plumasfiresafe.org by clicking on “Assistance Opportunities.”
Information on the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s EQUIP funding can be on the USA website.
Information on the state law requiring property owners to thin forests around structures can be found on the CalFire website.