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Regional Interests

One Way to Save a California Town From Wildfire: Advance Work by Unsung Heroes

Signs of gratitude, literally, adorn the Fresno County mountain town of Shaver Lake, population 500 plus a collection of cabins, restaurants and real estate offices.

Outside of Bob’s Market, the message is: “Thank you, Creek Fire Heroes,” adjacent to a photo of firefighters.

The town today is an island of green pines, surrounded by charred hills and the burnt remains of trees. Yet the signs of gratitude, while well-deserved, could also rightly extend to a mostly unheralded group of workers who labored in advance of flames bearing down on the area from the raging Creek Fire.

That fire started on Sept. 4, 2020, the Friday before Labor Day. After a hot, dry summer, all it took was a spark in a steep, overgrown canyon to ignite what turned into an explosive blaze.

“Having a fire in this canyon was kind of a nightmare,” said Ryan Stewart, a forester for the utility Southern California Edison, looking down a steep hillside, which as of September was overgrown with thick brush. “You look at it and you go: ‘I don’t know how they’re going to stop that fire.’”

SoCal Edison owns a lot of property to the south of the canyon, around Shaver Lake.

When the Creek Fire started, Stewart “was kind of just thinking in the back of my mind, ‘I wonder what they’re doing over there, because I got it over here. But over there it’s a different story.'”

Over “there” are the forests around Big Creek, where half the homes burned. The “here” Stewart referred to is the forest where he and his colleagues have treated the landscape for years, cutting crowded and dead trees, clearing brush and lighting prescribed fires. All that work, performed in preparation for the next big wildfire.

When the fire struck, Cal Fire Assistant Chief Jim McDougald, who’d just returned home from fighting fires in Sonoma County, had been forced to head out in the middle of the night to do yet more battle with a conflagration. While driving he spotted the glow from miles away.

“And that was a clue to me it had the potential to become a major fire,” he said.

Stewart says he got the call from McDougald around 2 a.m., telling him the fire was headed up the hill toward SoCal Edison property. “I knew that, OK, well, we’ve got a good chance of stopping it once it gets on Edison lands,” he said.

McDougald also thought the fire could be stopped there. “The best tool at that time was to try to get dozers in there and open up some of the fuel breaks.”

Stewart arrived at the property in the dead of night and began tying pink flags to trees, marking spots where fire breaks should be widened. Many of the pink flags are still in place.

And that line is where crews held it during the first hours of the Creek Fire incident. Once the flames crossed over into the treated lands, the fire’s behavior rapidly changed.

“The intensity of the fire was reduced to a ground fire, and we didn’t get into the crowns, didn’t kill any of the trees,” said Stewart, surveying the land last winter. “Looks pretty good. It’s actually pretty much a controlled burn.”

The diminution rapidly halted one flank of the fire. And, McDougald says, it bought time to complete evacuations and prepare to defend Shaver Lake.

“No question about it … that work bought the direct impact of the fire hitting Shaver at least 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fire continued to spread in other directions, drawing McDougald’s attention elsewhere. He knew he needed help.

As the Creek Fire surged, Clint Wade, a fuels specialist for the High Sierra Ranger District of the Sierra National Forest, was working a different fire in the Los Padres National Forest. He and McDougald had worked closely together on getting a system of fuel breaks installed in the Sierra.

“Jim made a special request, like, ‘Hey, we need Clint back. He understands this fuel break system,’” recalls Wade.

Ryan Stewart stands on the edge of a parcel of land he helped prepare for fire. To his left is untreated Forest Service land, to his right Southern California Edison land. (Ryan Tamborski)

That system helped provide protection in part because Wade, McDougald and others made a conscious effort to put breaks in place where they were needed most, regardless of whether the land was federal, state or the private parcels dotting the land within the national forest.

“You know, the Forest Service doesn’t treat private land, typically,” Wade said. “So Cal Fire came to us, said, ‘Hey, we have some money. Where do you have holes?’ And we got out the maps [and saw], ‘Hey, Twin Brooks has got some patches. Can we glue that together? You know, there’s stuff over here off the back side of Cressman’s, there’s patches. Let’s glue that together.’ And we started designing projects.”

Some of these fuel breaks and controlled burns were funded because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 executive order fast-tracking 35 high-priority projects to protect vulnerable communities. Five of these were on lands in and around Shaver Lake.

At a California Assembly hearing last fall, Cal Fire director Thom Porter told lawmakers, “The centerpiece of Shaver Lake would have been completely consumed like Paradise, had we not done those projects and had we not had those prescribed fires that occurred in that area.”

Breaking Down Jurisdictional Barriers

Although the Creek Fire, the fourth largest on record in the state, destroyed 900 structures and injured 26 people, the preventive treatments around Shaver Lake are a success story, albeit one that’s not common. Even though vegetation treatments and planned fires can make wildfires less catastrophic and smoke less toxic, they are not easy to get done in California.

Questions of jurisdiction, for instance, can get in the way.

“It shouldn’t matter whose ground it is if that’s where the fuel break needs to go and both agencies agree,” Cal Fire’s McDougald said.

Yet, it often does. Agencies like the Forest Service or Cal Fire have individual mandates to care for land and protect communities, but not necessarily to work together smoothly. So success can depend on the goodwill efforts of individuals with the power to make decisions.

“We’ve spent a lot of time fostering the professional and personal relationship that needs to be in place so that you can implement work,” Wade said.

A host of other barriers exist, such as questions of who has liability if the controlled burn escapes or what animals can’t be disturbed because they’re in mating season. There’s also a firefighting culture at work: People who extinguish flames are called heroes. People who trim brush and light prescribed fires aren’t thought of that way.

Looking toward Musick Mountain through a fire-destroyed forest. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

One approved project wasn’t completed before fire season because of limited staff, time and money. So when wildfire tore over Musick Mountain, it ruined habitat and blazed a path to where people lived.

“(T)he regret is, you know, could we have gotten that done a year sooner?” said Wade. “We probably would’ve had fuel-breaks in [which] would have surrounded that ignition, and there could have been opportunity to slow this down.”

The sheer magnitude of all the treatments that need to be done is intense in a forest where fires have been suppressed for more than a century.

Cal Fire’s Jim McDougald says what he and others do in the next few decades will determine if Shaver Lake will survive future fires. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

“You’re always behind, you’re working hard, you’re building fuel breaks, you’re doing the right thing,” McDougald said. “You’re getting some prescribed fire done. But there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for a while.”

McDougald says what he and others do in the next years to decades will determine whether Shaver Lake has healthy forests — and healthy fires.

“Hopefully the story you’re talking about next time is: ‘This is now a resilient landscape. And how did you do it?’ It’s work we haven’t done yet.”

Copyright 2021 KQED