RCDs working to address wildfire concerns with help from CAL FIRE

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Through a variety of funding sources – including $1.9 million from the state of California – El Dorado County and Georgetown Divide Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) are working with several agencies to implement a cohesive land management strategy to prevent significant wildfire destruction.

The Sly Park Vegetation Management Project is a three-phase, all-lands approach to create fire resilient forest ecosystems and fire-adapted communities. It leverages collaboration between long-time partners to implement forest restoration on a large landscape scale. The RCDs are in phase one, which focuses on treating 3,500 acres with nearly $2 million from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and $500,000 from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy within the Sly Park area.

Efforts developed following the 2014 King Fire, which consumed nearly 98,000 acres and threatened more than 12,000 homes. It destroyed a dozen residences and nearly 70 other structures, and damaged roads, bridges and electrical transmission and distribution lines.

“Multiple stakeholders got together and outlined a landscape-scale project that would provide increased wildfire protection to the community. It would increase forest resiliency and protect wildfire firefighters’ safety,” Mark Egbert, district manager for El Dorado County and Georgetown Divide RCD, said.

Egbert said goals include creating resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities and safe and effective wildfire response.

Efforts are proposed in the South Fork American River (SOFAR) Watershed because of the environmental and recreational elements threatened by fire-related issues such as drought, fuel loading, insects and disease. The project aims to improve those residential and recreational communities as well as infrastructure, private timber, water, power, recreation, protected wildlife species and the frequency and severity of wildfire.

Stakeholders meet monthly to build consensus and discuss restoration and resiliency work and progress within the project area. According to Egbert, RCDs serve as the nexus between the stakeholders and the landowners to do the environmental analysis and implement the plan.

The second phase includes enhancement of the fire mitigation line constructed during the King Fire. This work will construct a fuel break on approximately 2,000 acres along the American River Canyon adjacent to the communities of Pollock Pines, Camino and Placerville. The third phase represents an approximate 25-mile fuel break along U.S. Highway 50 corridor, between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe.

Thomas Tinsley is the unit forester for the pre-fire management division CAL FIRE, Amador – El Dorado Unit. According to Tinsley, at the end of the first phase, about 645 acres of timberland owned by El Dorado Irrigation District and Sierra Pacific Industries have been completed and cleared. With fuels reduced, the project has dramatically changed the vegetation makeup of the land. Shade fuel breaks were created; pruning, thinning and mastication occurred; and fuel continuity eliminated.

“It’s worked wonderfully,” Tinsley said. “Way back when I was approached and discussed who has the capacity to undertake something of this scale, quite honestly there was only one name and organization that came to mind, and it was Mark. He has the history, the knowledge and the background to administer, execute and implement the projects.”

Priority areas treated include ridgelines from Jenkinson Lake – a reservoir that serves as a primary water source for El Dorado County – to Park Creek Road. Jenkinson Lake not only serves as a water source, it also attracts thousands of visitors weekly for recreational activities such as camping, boating, fishing and picnicking.

“If we can reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfire in the watershed, ultimately you are improving the water quality,” Tinsley said. “Ash degradation and sediment is reduced from streams, and in turn, fish habitat is enhanced.”

Target areas also included recent timber harvest sections and units that had been cleared as a firebreak from the King Fire. Treatment included shaded fuel breaks, using mounted masticators in areas of substantial vegetation, understory burns and thinning and pruning. Up to 90 percent of brush cover was removed during treatment. The RCDs also ensured best management practices and mitigation measures were used to protect plant species and wildlife habitat.

Tinsley said based on phase one success, CAL FIRE is negotiating with the RCDs for funding phase two of the project. Sierra Nevada Conservancy also is contributing $500,000 to the RCDs to help fund continued fuel reduction efforts.

“We’ve just started” Egbert said, “But we believe our analysis is going to allow us to implement a landscape-scale project that meets the goals of the overall effort to increase forest resiliency as well as provide community-wide fire protection.”

Ultimately, collaboration will meet three goals: fire resilient forests; fire adaptive communities that will less likely be consumed or destroyed by catastrophic wildfires; and safe egress and ingress for those living in the nearby communities and visiting the area, as well as the firefighters and responders.

“The resource values we’re trying to protect are pretty diverse,” Egbert said. “It’s important to build community support and leverage these variable resources to get these different phases of implementation underway.”

This article was featured in the Summer 2018 edition of Forestry Notes. Learn more about Forestry Notes, including how to subscribe, on our webpage.

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