When a plane flies overhead, Vicky Reeder looks apprehensively at the October sky. In August, a small wildfire burned two miles away from the home she shares with her husband Brian McFarren, three miles from downtown Nevada City at the west end of the Deer Creek Tribute Trail.
“We were all worried about it because we could see the smoke from our house,” said Reeder.
Luckily firefighters quickly controlled the blaze. The scare wasn’t the first time. In 2020, the couple was among 4,000 people evacuated during the lightning-sparked Jones Fire that burned 705 acres and destroyed 21 structures.
Reeder never would have imagined the hyper-vigilance required to protect her life and property when she first moved from the Bay Area to her quiet forest home.
In the seven years since moving to Nevada City, she can count seven close calls with human-caused fires, four of them started by nearby illegal camps. It’s a concern echoed by many living in Nevada County.
“I think every year everyone has to hold their breath and cross their fingers that we’re not going to have a major fire,” Reeder said. Despite years of work on defensible space, the recent blaze was another reminder of the dangers posed by living in the Deer Creek watershed.
CAL FIRE identifies Nevada City and the Deer Creek Watershed as a “High Priority Target Area” because of the “high structure loss potential” in its annual 2022 Strategic Fire Plan. The hefty guiding document identifies and prioritizes management strategies and tactics meant to reduce wildfire risks in Nevada, Yuba, Placer and Sierra Counties.
“It is critically important and one of the highest priority projects for 2023,” said Jim Mathias, CAL FIRE Division Chief for the Nevada-Yuba-Placer-Unit, of the Deer Creek watershed.
Deer Creek is an overgrown corridor, a trifecta of catastrophic wildfire hazards with a dangerous combination of fuel, topography and weather, set in the heart of densely populated neighborhoods with few roads in or out, making it primed to become a “fire flume.”
CAL FIRE mapping shows 4,480 buildings and an estimated 7,360 people living within the 33.6-mile stretch between Scotts Flat Dam, Nevada City and Lake Wildwood Dam.
The Deer Creek Canyon has the potential to be the next Camp Fire, warns Jamie Jones, Executive Director of Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. A wind-generated fire in the Deer Creek Canyon could have the destructive power to sweep through the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City destroying homes and critical infrastructure like the county courthouse and irreplaceable historic districts.
“If there was a fire in that canyon, we’re looking at the devastation of an entire community. Those are resources you can’t recreate overnight,” said Jones.
For two years the Fire Safe Council has worked with six Firewise Communities to secure funding to build a 1600-acre shaded fuel break in the canyon. In January, the Council applied for a $7 Million grant that would provide critical funding to build the “Deer Creek Canyon Shaded Fuel Break,” a place for firefighters to make a stand and get people evacuated safely.
“It’s the strategic placement of it. This one really impacts both the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City. It impacts a lot of critical infrastructure,” said Jones.
The Deer Creek Shaded Fuel Break would stretch from downtown Nevada City to Bitney Springs near Rough and Ready, a swath spanning the creek that runs in the center of residential neighborhoods located between Highway 49, Newtown Road, Ridge Road and Rough and Ready Highway. It would protect Nevada City and Grass Valley neighborhoods like Morgan Ranch in the Slate Creek drainage from fires moving from the west. A licensed forester would consult with each property owner and develop a treatment plan specific to each parcel.
For 20 years, the Fire Safe Council has advocated and assisted on defensible space clearing projects and works closely with Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services and CAL FIRE on a number of projects throughout the county.
Jones is optimistic that the Deer Creek project will be funded in the coming year. A 30 percent local match totaling $2.1 Million would also be required. The Fire Safe Council will apply for the next round of CAL FIRE matching fund grants and has the ability to leverage “Firewise investments” in the form of community participation and volunteer hours.
The funding can’t come soon enough for the canyon where a wind-driven wildfire event has the potential to sweep up or down the canyon between Nevada City and Lake Wildwood. In the morning, air from the bottom of the canyon heats and starts to rise as it follows the canyon upstream. In the evening, the air cools more quickly at higher altitudes, causing down-canyon winds.
“Anywhere water runs down in the wintertime, that’s where fire runs up in the summertime,” said CAL FIRE Division Chief Jim Mathias. A fire’s speed and velocity increases when the wind blows up through a creek canyon. A “venturi” effect happens, where wide parts of the canyon narrow and create a constriction or bottleneck, similar to the way a camper blows to ignite a campfire.
Wind generally blows up Deer Creek Canyon toward Nevada City. Strong wind advisories are almost always from the north and northeast.
“If you had a fire headed up the canyon, there goes Nevada City,” said Reeder.
Illegal camps and evacuation routes
Illegal campsites are a perennial fire danger in the Deer Creek Watershed. In recent years, a number of nomadic travelers have found their way to Champion Mine Road and Deer Creek from an online website that maps free primitive camping.
“We had people camping bumper to bumper. Sometimes there were over 20 vehicles,” said Reeder. Trash and human waste near the creek became a big problem but fire was the number one concern for the neighborhood. Frustration grew until Nevada County put up signs prohibiting overnight camping.
In June, volunteers came together to clean up 70 yards of garbage on the south side of Deer Creek. An emergency ban on campfires helped quell some of the fears of illegal camps but one spark in dry, windy conditions is enough to ignite a blaze that puts the entire community at risk.
“We’re all terrified. We’re all very scared of the fires happening at the creek. When a fire gets started in the canyon it has nowhere to go but upstream and downtown is at risk,” said Teri Voorhes, who lives on Jordan Street, a creekside property in Nevada City.
Religious about creating defensible space around her home, Voorhes always has bags packed for herself, pets and adult son, Robert, 24, who has disabilities and takes medications. Her mother lives at Atria Senior Living and requires an oxygen tank to breathe.
“I feel like anywhere you are these days, you have to be prepared,” said Voorhes.
Shaded Fuel Breaks help reduce the risks
Up and down the densely wooded Deer Creek watershed, a number of fuel reduction projects are in the works.
Shaded fuel breaks are a tool used to slow the spread of fire, protect critical infrastructure, improve evacuation routes and give firefighters a place to make a stand.
“Contrary to common misunderstanding, the idea of a shaded fuel break is not to remove all vegetation. The idea is to remove excess vegetation, or the amount of fuel available to burn, creating an environment of healthy trees, shrubs and diverse understory that provide rich habitat for wildlife,” said Alex Keeble-Toll, Senior Analyst for Nevada County Office of Emergency Services.
Various Firewise communities are stepping up to plan shaded fuel breaks in their neighborhoods to reduce wildfire risk while increasing an ecosystem’s resilience.
The 1600-acre proposal for Deer Creek won’t be the first shaded fuel break in the county. The groundbreaking Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone paved the way and recently, CAL FIRE provided over $3 million in grant funding for the 410-acre Woodpecker Ravine Shaded Fuel Break ( in a densely wooded area of 700 homes within the neighborhoods of Rattlesnake, Lower Colfax and Mount Olive Roads) and the South County Shaded Fuel Break, priority projects in CAL FIRE’s Strategic Plan.
“We are absolutely working with the county to coordinate the highest priority projects that will provide the best protection with the number of dollars we have available,” said Division Chief Mathias.
One-time grants are an important step to get a project started but projects cannot be sustained long-term if there is no funding to do the ongoing and essential maintenance to keep the fuel breaks free of vegetation into the future.
“We do need to come up with a way to make maintenance happen sustainably year after year,” said Mathias.
Serving CAL FIRE for 20 years, the last four as Division Chief, Mathias recognizes the great strides in public wildfire awareness, cooperation and collaboration achieved in recent years between state, federal and local agencies but would like to see more resources available for education and public assistance for folks who don’t have the financial or physical means to make their homes safe on their own.
“A lot of people don’t have the means to do the work. I believe overarching funds are needed to help out the public,” Mathias said.
“We live in a very high wildfire danger area. I think we’ve done what we can as a Firewise community. More money would really help our communities,” said Vicky Reeder.
Before voters on the November 8 ballot is Measure V, expected to generate $12 million a year from a half-percent sales tax for the purpose of wildfire prevention, disaster readiness and evacuation safety until it expires in 10 years. If approved by voters, Measure V could provide needed matching funds required by most state and federal grants for large-scale hazardous fuels reduction projects.
A unified vision for the Deer Creek corridor
Deer Creek is a patchwork of ownership. Private landowners, Bear Yuba Land Trust, Nevada Irrigation District, Bureau of Land Management, the City of Nevada City and PG&E – all have stakes in the game.
“No one location along Deer Creek will be safe from the risk of wildfire without a concerted effort to create a zone of contiguous protection,” said Craig Griesbach, Director of the Nevada County Office of Emergency Services.
Nevada Irrigation District recently completed a 300-acre project funded by Sierra Nevada Conservancy around Scotts Flat Reservoir. The Sierra Fund has a fuels reduction project on land owned by CHIRP (California Heritage Indigenous Research Project) and the City of Nevada City.
Lake Wildwood spends an average of $500,000 annually on a number of proactive efforts to protect the gated community of 2,800 homes. The community was evacuated in 2017 during the Lobo Fire and the 49er Fire in 1988.
Jeff Heyser, a Lake Wildwood resident for 25 years, is working with his Firewise committee to propose a $1.6 Million project that would create a shaded fuel break near Lake Wildwood’s drinking water and wastewater treatment plants.
“Both plants are perched on the edge of the Deer Creek canyon and vulnerable to fire. Those plants don’t just serve Lake Wildwood, they also serve the businesses on Pleasant Valley Road and in the businesses and residences near ‘downtown’ Penn Valley. Other parts of the project would help protect our community, our evacuation roads and the businesses near Pleasant Valley Road,” said Heyser.
With multiple projects by a number of land managers happening throughout the watershed, stakeholders are coming together to ensure these efforts are coordinated from one end of Deer Creek to the other. But more funding is needed to bring this comprehensive vision to fruition.
“We can increase the resilience of the watershed at a broader scope and amplify the pace and scale of the work that folks are already doing. No one entity can do the work alone,” said Alex Keeble-Toll, Senior Analyst for Nevada County Office of Emergency Services.
Planning and implementing contiguous protection, forest health and wildfire mitigation is complicated. Funding available for work on private lands may not be available for work on federal lands and some programs require absolute buy-in from all landowners within the project footprint. Often grant applications or the acceptance of them is dictated by the timing of awards and any available matching funds, says Firesafe Council’s Jamie Jones.
“Having a funding pool that can allocate resources to matching funds would be a huge benefit to the community. There are lots of programs that (more funding) can leverage and amplify to put more work on the ground,” said Jones.
With more funding, Nevada County would have the resources and wherewithal to be more strategic, work with multiple land owners and tie multiple projects together, leveraging significant federal dollars and the sweat equity investments made by Firewise Communities.
“There is a lot of great work happening, but we all know there needs to be more. We are looking at, ‘What is Nevada County’s unique role? How can we best support and add value?’ We are really actively thinking about how we can work with everybody,” said Keeble-Toll.
Currently, the need outpaces current resources and in meetings with stakeholders, Nevada County has identified over 60 wildfire mitigation projects and programs that would require an estimated $36 million annually to complete, said Griesbach. With federal grants requiring a local match of 25 percent and maintenance needs ongoing, resources are in short supply.
“The Fire Safe Council has done a lot of work to get our project this far. We may not need Measure V money for this project but it is certainly needed for other projects,” said Reeder.
Learn more about the Deer Creek Shaded Fuel Break: https://www.deercreekcanyonshadedfuelbreak.com/
Learn more about Measure V: https://readynevadacounty.org/Measure-V
Laura Petersen is a freelance writer who has spent two decades chronicling the stories of people and places in Northern California. This is part of a series of articles on behalf of Nevada County examining emergency preparedness. Laura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org