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Regional Interests

Amid Devastating California Fire Season, One Small Community Saved Itself. Here’s How

Foresters Julianne Stewart and Meghan Breniman are inspecting a white fir tree. The top branches are green and the bottom singed, probably dead.

That’s a good thing.

“I mean, really, that’s ideal,” said Stewart. “That tree, as it grows, it’s eventually going to drop those lower branches because they were killed during the fire.”

By virtue of this self-pruning, she says, the tree is making itself more resilient when the next fire comes looking for fuel.

California is preparing for another fire season, with last year’s record 4 million acres burned still fresh in the state’s memory. But anyone looking for silver linings amid that devastation might consider one community that had appeared primed to burn but prepared for the worst and survived, offering a lesson in withstanding even a ferocious conflagration if residents have committed to adapting.

Last September, the Creek Fire, the state’s fourth largest on record, roared toward that white fir and its neighboring trees, located near a community called Rock Haven, a community of 16 cabins surrounded by the Sierra National Forest, about an hour east of Fresno and close to the shores of Shaver Lake. But instead of consuming everything in its path, the fire suddenly dropped and calmly burned along the forest floor. Now the fir sits smack in the middle of a transition zone, where just a few feet away the landscape is very different, and “there’s literally nothing alive,” Stewart said.

Dead and burned trees in the area of Rock Haven that was not treated prior to the Creek Fire of September 2020. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

Before the fire, the slope was dense with pines, firs and cedars. The understory of manzanita and white thorn was so thick you could barely walk through. Now it looks like a sand dune punctured by spent matchsticks.

“When we were here right after the fire, this really burnt-up guy, he was smoking like a chimney,” Breniman said, pointing to one charred tree. “He essentially looked like a cigar. It was burning up through the inside of him and just, like, smoking out the top.”

Breniman and Stewart own a forestry consulting company, and they managed the project that cleared brush and removed dead and crowded trees at Rock Haven.

The private, 160-acre parcel is collectively owned by more than a dozen families. Stewart has worked with the community since 2014, when bark beetles, induced by a long, punishing drought, were killing entire stands, turning the dead trees into ticking time bombs before the next wildfire struck.

“What’s kind of neat about Rock Haven is it’s almost like a small miniature model of California,” said Stewart, “with a pretty diverse set of people with generally the same goals,” all revolving around maintaining a healthy forest. “But everyone might have a slightly different view of what they want done right around their cabin or what they want done here or there.”

East Bay resident Jennifer Meux-White is the fourth generation of her family to use a cabin at Rock Haven. She and her husband had to work to convince their neighbors they had to do something about the fire risk.

That took a long time. “We’ve been talking to our members for maybe almost 20 years,” she said.

Part of the community’s reluctance was connected to the area’s history. In the late 1800s, a lumber company built a small millpond in the area that’s now Shaver Lake, harvesting an enormous number of trees in the basin.

Demand for lumber was high. Wood from the area was used in crates to hold California produce, as well as the frames and walls of San Joaquin Valley houses. By the 1920s, most of the trees were gone.

“It looked like a sparse haircut with a few trees here and there,” Stewart said.

As lumber jobs dried up, many left the aream  but some, including Mrs. Shaver, wife of the lumber mill’s owner, remained. After he died she sold the mill and her land to Southern California Edison; the utility company was looking for a place to build a hydroelectric dam. But she kept 160 acres with a view of the lake.

“She basically invited 15 of her friends from Fresno to build cabins there,” said Meux-White. “My great-grandparents were friends of the Shavers, and they were among the first to build a cabin up there with her.”

View from a cabin at Rock Haven looking toward Shaver Lake. (Danielle Venton/KQED )

Finding Consensus

Meux-White says that when the cabins were built, the families had a great desire to see the forest come back.

“We had rules in our association: You will not cut a tree, and you know, trees are sacred and blah, blah, blah. Well, after 100 years, you have a lot of scraggly trees.”

A study of the property showed the situation was dire in terms of fire risk.

“We had at Rock Haven six times as much fire fuel on the ground as the average for California,” Meux-White said. “Well, you could imagine that’s a hell of a lot of stuff that can burn.”

She and her husband held meeting after meeting at her cabin, inviting expert speakers and passing out reading material. The education was continual.

“You’ve got all the generations,” she said, “You may have the grandparents or the parents who say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to do something.’ But about then the kids come along, the 20-year-olds are pretty soon 30-year-olds, and you have to educate them, too.”

But Stewart said the process was effective, and residents realized that, “We’re on the precipice. We have an emergency, our trees are dying.

“And so everyone kind of grouped together and said, ‘OK, we’re going to figure out something,” she said. “And it might not be exactly what everyone wants, but we’re going to move forward because we’d rather have our forest than lose it.'”

But there was also the question of money.

The price of cleaning up, recovering and maintaining a forest can run up to $5,000 an acre, which at Rock Haven prices out to almost $1 million. Less intensive treatments would have still cost in the hundreds of thousands, and while the cabins are beautiful, that doesn’t necessarily mean the families who’ve inherited them have a lot of money.

“We never would have been able to pay for all of that in a timely manner,” said Meux-White.

But help came from the state.

“The one shining beacon of light was the California Forest Improvement Program,” Stewart said.

The program, run by Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, picked up 90% of the costs.

Breniman and Stewart say that by funding the program, California acknowledged that a well-managed forest is in the public’s best interest.

“It reduces wildfire risk. It provides wildlife habitat,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of a win all across the board.”

(The program was not funded for the current fiscal year, ending June 30.)

Still, even paying a fraction of the cost can be a big investment for landowners, so foresters Stewart and Breniman first focused on the half of the property where the cabins are, near the lake.

Trial by Fire

The treatments — removing crowded trees and thick brush — were finished just months before the Creek Fire. The other half of the property was supposed to be done this year, but the fire killed almost all of the trees there, so  new ones will have to be planted.

The entrance to Rock Haven, near the shores of Shaver Lake. Firefighters used treated land at Rock Haven to bulldoze the fire line and fight the Creek Fire. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

Still, without the preventive work they managed to complete, “I think all these cabins would have burned to the ground,” Stewart said.

In the end, the cabins escaped without even getting singed. That’s in part because of another benefit of forest treatment: Cal Fire’s Jim McDougald, an assistant chief in Fresno County, says the advance labor at Rock Haven made the work of firefighters safer, quicker and more effective during the fire.

“If that work hadn’t been done,” he said, “we may not have been as successful protecting homes and people’s property in those areas.”

The stand firefighters mounted at Rock Haven also halted the fire’s progress toward the rest of Shaver Lake.

For foresters Breniman and Stewart, the loss of the trees in the untreated portion of the Rock Haven property is regrettable. Just another year and maybe they could have been saved, too.

But the preserved green half gives them hope. It’s now ecologically healthier than before the fire, residents have noticed more wildlife, and it shows what can be done, in a state with millions of overgrown acres, to reduce wildfire risk.

Copyright 2021 KQED