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How One California Community Protected Itself From Forest Fires

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California's in a drought emergency that could mean another year of devastating wildfires. To try to help prevent them, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed massive spending on prescribed burns. That is setting small fires on purpose.

Danielle Venton of member station KQED reports on how that saved one community last year.

DANIELLE VENTON, BYLINE: In the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains sits Rock Haven. It's a small private holding in a forest of cedar, fir and pine trees. And for years, it was a ticking fire time bomb as throughout the West, natural fire had been suppressed for a century.

JENNIFER MEUX-WHITE: We had at Rock Haven six times as much fire fuel on the ground as the average for California. Well, you could imagine that's a hell of a lot (laughter) of stuff that could burn.

VENTON: Jennifer Meux-White lives in the East Bay. She's the fourth generation of her family to use a cabin near Shaver Lake and is part of the association that collectively owns the land. She and her husband worked hard to convince everyone else they had to do something about fire risk.

MEUX-WHITE: We've been talking to our members for, you know, maybe almost 20 years.

VENTON: But many of the families were reluctant. A century ago, a lumber company cut most of the trees in the area. And when the forest came back, people loved the trees and wanted to protect them. The idea that it was good to cut crowded trees and set prescribed fires was a non-starter.

MEUX-WHITE: We had rules in our association with, you are not to cut a tree, and, you know, trees are sacred and blah, blah, blah.

VENTON: But by 2014, there was a new threat. During a punishing drought, bark beetles began killing entire stands of trees, making the fire risk even worse. Meux-White finally convinced her neighbors to hire a forester.

Julianne Stewart told them taking action was urgent.

JULIANNE STEWART: So it was a really neat process and kind of bringing that group of people together to realize, like, we're on the precipice. We have an emergency. Our trees are dying. We need to do something.

VENTON: People compromised and made a plan. Then came the question of money.

MEUX-WHITE: We never would have been able to pay for all of that in a timely manner.

VENTON: It can run up to $5,000 an acre to clean up, recover and maintain a forest. That would mean about a million dollars for Rock Haven. And while the cabins are beautiful, that doesn't mean the families they've been passed down to have a lot of money.

STEWART: The one shining beacon of light was the California Forest Improvement Program.

VENTON: It's run by Cal Fire, the state fire agency. And forester Stewart says it picked up most of the cost, helping homeowners hire foresters to write management plans, meet state regulations and pay contractors to do the labor. Still, even paying 10% of the cost was a big investment for Rock Haven, so they chose to start with just half the property.

STEWART: The most valuable part is where the cabins are.

VENTON: They finished the work just months before the Creek Fire ignited last September, devouring forest in 100-degree temperatures and high winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: An inferno raging out of control tonight in California's Sierra National Forest.

VENTON: Visit Rock Haven today, and you can see that forest management work made a stunning difference.

How about this one?

STEWART: OK.

VENTON: At the edge of the treatment area, Stewart inspects a fir tree. The top is green, but the bottom branches are singed, probably dead. Right here is the zone where the fire transitioned and laid down on the ground.

STEWART: I mean, really, that's ideal. That tree, as it grows - it's eventually going to drop those lower branches because they were killed during the fire.

VENTON: It's almost like self-pruning.

STEWART: And it's making itself more fire-resilient for another fire that might come in the future.

VENTON: Within literal spitting distance, where there was no management, it looks like a sand dune punctured by burned matchsticks.

STEWART: I wish that I could show you a picture of what this looked like before because now when I look out there, like, there's literally nothing alive.

VENTON: Stewart, the forester, doesn't believe any of these cabins would have survived the fire. But in the end, they weren't even singed, in part because there was another benefit to treating this land.

JIM MCDOUGALD: No question, Shaver would have been a lot more difficult to defend.

VENTON: Cal Fire's Jim McDougald, assistant fire chief in Fresno County, says he knew about the work at Rock Haven and knew his crews could go in and bulldoze a fire line safely. Stopping the fire there made it easier for firefighters to protect the rest of the town of Shaver Lake about a mile away.

MCDOUGALD: And I don't know that we'd have been that successful if it wasn't for the fuel break and the work that had been done on the logging and stuff like that around it to reduce the fuels.

VENTON: Rock Haven and Shaver Lake got lucky. The work they did ahead of time paid off and saved homes, possibly lives. Dozens of other forest towns in these mountains have yet to do the same.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Venton.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN DUGRE'S "LIVING LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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