Nevada City – Dense vegetation in the Deer Creek watershed puts the entire town of Nevada City and the people who live there at high risk for catastrophic wildfire, yet a grant awarded by Sierra Nevada Conservancy and other projects in the works are bringing hope for a safer community.
Long time Nevada County resident Richard Thomas lives in downtown Nevada City and owns a commercial business at the top of Broad Street.
“Like all local residents, I believe we’re seriously concerned about the threat of fire. The Deer Creek Canyon below us is one of our main attributes here in Nevada City and is a hazard, in that fires like to travel uphill. They’ll come up the canyon and could easily take out all of downtown Nevada City and a lot of the residential areas, as well,” said Thomas.
In March, that sense of urgency from active members of the community led Sierra Nevada Conservancy to award a planning grant to the City of Nevada City in the amount of $111,665 to develop an environmentally sound fuels treatment plan for heavily forested wildland properties, beginning the process of defending 32 parcels and 348 acres of public and private lands from the threat of wildfire.
It’s the first time in the city’s history that it has been awarded a grant of this kind.
“The city has not historically pursued grant opportunities for this kind of project. With a new city council, a new strategic plan and the continuing efforts of community members to advance the issue of wildfire safety and preparedness we have jumped into the field feet first. This will be the first of many grants and activities aimed at addressing these risks,” said City Manager Sean Grayson.
This fall, Registered Professional Forester Kevin Whitlock will conduct on-the-ground analysis of the area at risk.
Beyond the project boundaries, the entire city is considered in a high risk zone where urban development interfaces with dense vegetation on forest lands. CAL FIRE has rated the area as a “Very High Fire Hazard Zone.”
Deer Creek is an overgrown corridor, a trifecta of catastrophic wildfire hazards with a dangerous combination of fuel and topography, set in the heart of densely populated neighborhoods with few roads in or out, making it primed to become a “fire flume.”
Reducing fuels will help protect 960 homes, Nevada City’s sewage treatment plant, three schools, St. Canice event center, the popular Deer Creek Tribute Trail and popular suspension bridge and Nevada City Tech Center from the threat of a hazardous wildland fire. The project will also provide protection for a section of Deer Creek, a critical water source for Western Nevada County. But it’s not just the project area that will be protected. The entire city and surrounding areas will be protected by the work done here.
“The project currently underway on the south side of Deer Creek is a wonderful idea. I’m excited about it and I’m sure it’s going to add a lot to the long-term safety and sustainability of Nevada City,” said Thomas.
What’s at stake
“I have been trying to find an avenue to work in the [Deer Creek] canyon for a long time,” said Chris Dallas, Central Subregion Representative for Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
“This is a planning grant. Once the planning is done the idea is that they will come back to us for implementation. You have to do the planning first.”
Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) is a state agency tasked to improve the environmental, economic and social well-being of California’s Sierra-Cascade region.
Deer Creek Canyon is a patchwork of land managers including the County of Nevada, the City of Nevada City, California Heritage Indigenous Research Project (C.H.I.R.P.), Bureau of Land Management, PG&E, Nevada Irrigation District, Bear Yuba Land Trust and others being key players. Private property ownership is the largest acreage throughout the entire canyon. Reducing fuels in the Deer Creek canyon gives Nevada City a fighting chance against wildfire.
“It does create a buffer zone so if a fire comes up the canyon it will slow down and protect the town,” said Dallas. “This project is more than a fuel break. It’s forest improvement that will improve the health of the forest and reduce the risk of fire.”
SNC serves California’s Sierra-Cascade region, which includes the mountains and foothills of the Sierra Nevada and parts of the southern Cascade Range and Klamath Mountains. The region covers 27 million acres—one quarter of the state.
“My primary interests are keeping Nevada City, Placerville and Auburn from burning down,” said Dallas.
Protecting the Sierra-Cascade has become a priority because of its regional, statewide and global values. This region represents 75 percent of the state’s drinking water, 60 percent of California’s wildlife species, 50 percent of the state’s forest carbon and is important for the outdoor recreation economy with 50 million annual recreation days. It also represents 44 percent of California’s land that is considered a high fire risk and ready to burn.
Throughout rural parts of the state, forests, like the ones in the Deer Creek Canyon are overgrown with brush and small diameter trees growing too close together.
In June, SNC approved several wildfire recovery and forest resilience grants, including a grant to American Rivers for $2,363,035 to reduce fuels on 570 acres within the South Yuba River Canyon, just outside Nevada City and Grass Valley. Another project funded by SNC is Deer Creek Park, a project led by Bear Yuba Land Trust just east of Nevada City and almost complete.
“It could happen again”
During the early days of Nevada City between 1850 to 1856, the town burned down five times.
“That’s why you see the brick buildings. There’s a reason for it, the place burned down so much. It’s not that it’s never going to happen, it could happen again,” said Forester Kevin Whitlock.
None of these were wildland fires and today’s modern building codes, fire protection, fire hydrants and fire department response dramatically reduces this type of risk. However, wildfire risk is much higher today than it was during the gold rush, when much of the city’s vegetation was cleared.
During Whitlock’s forestry career he has traveled the globe to five continents and 17 countries. A changing climate and longer, dryer, costlier wildfire seasons have ramped up demand for his work.
“I never thought as a forester I’d be this busy.”
Over the next few months, Whitlock will review the 32 parcels with 12 different owners. Totaling 348 acres, properties span in size from less than an acre to more than 70. He’ll also collect data that will inform CEQA reporting by the end of 2023, preparing the city to be shovel-ready for a future implementation grant, as soon as 2024.
The planning grant includes two distinct areas – private lands in unincorporated areas and properties in incorporated areas of the city. Whitlock will deliver a vegetation management plan that meets the standards of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The plans he puts together must be approved by CALFIRE and the City of Nevada City. The city is the lead agency for the planning grant and preparing the CEQA document. The planning grant is a prerequisite to future implementation grants and makes it fundable by multiple grantors.
“I’m going to design a fuels treatment plan and I’m going to give Nevada City everything it needs to meet CEQA compliance,” he said.
Whitlock will look at a number of variables such as vegetation type, forest structure, composition, density, canopy cover, slope, dead and downed fuels, ladder fuels, wind directions, fire dynamics, biodiversity conservation and cost of potential treatments. He’ll look at archeological and cultural sites, wildlife species and native plants that grow in the project area.
“My job is to make sure we look at everything. If there’s a sensitive area, we’ll flag it out and we won’t go there.”
Nevada City will coordinate with Nevada Irrigation District (NID), Nevada County Office of Emergency Services (OES) and managers of the adjacent Nisenan property to provide a comprehensive vegetation management plan for the Deer Creek watershed and critical infrastructure located in the canyon.
Upon completion of this Planning Phase, by the beginning of 2024, Nevada City will apply for grant funding to implement on-the-ground work. The biggest challenge will be to maintain community will, funding and action after the initial work is done.
A new era for the City of Nevada City
In the City’s strategic planning process, fire risk was the most commented on item of community concern.
Between the strategic planning process, community input, the work of the multiple firewise groups in the city and the community members on the City’s Fire Safety Advisory Committee, there has been a clear mandate from the community for the city to engage in this space.
Fire Safety Advisory Committee member Nancy Weber and Councilmember Doug Fleming contributed tenacity and much of the grant writing work for the application.
Over the last year, the city has taken a number of steps to make the town safer from wildfire. Crews have begun replacing wooden street signs and stop sign posts with new reflective metal signage. They have repainted lanes and directional arrows and other street signals and begun road reducing fuels along roads as part of roadway hardening efforts. Fuels abatement has started on 440 acres of land the city owns or is responsible for maintaining.
All of this is just the start. There are applications by others for work below this project on Deer Creek heading toward Lake Wildwood.
An active project on the C.H.I.R.P. owned property on Deer Creek continues and the city is supporting an application by Yuba Watershed Institute for the Little Deer Creek Landscape Resilience Project involving the City’s water treatment plant and up Banner Mountain.
“That project effectively bookends the two high risk areas on either side of the city,” said Grayson.
The County is also working on an update to countywide evacuation mapping and planning.
“As that work continues the city will be looking to engage firewise groups for neighborhood based evacuation, safety zone, and temporary refuge area planning in the city taken in small chunks. The city will also be working on education and outreach for evacuation routes and communication pathways led by the City Council appointed Fire Safety Advisory Committee,” said Grayson.
Neighbors on edge
On the morning of September 9th, neighbors gathered at an outdoor community meeting near St. Canice Event Center and the Deer Creek Tribute Trail. They drank coffee and ate doughnuts, looked at maps and informational brochures and listened to Forester Kevin Whitlock give an update on the status of the grant.
Members of the community regularly volunteer and put in sweat equity to clear dense brush on properties like 7 Hills Middle School. They came together last year to clean up abandoned camps on Deer Creek.
Fire is on everybody’s mind.
Deadly fires like Paradise and this year’s 97 deaths on Maui, keep California Foothill neighbors hyper vigilant when it comes to creating defensible neighborhoods.
In August, closer to home, the Highway Fire ignited near the town of Washington on Highway 20 burning 45 acres and forcing evacuations. In 2022, the River Fire in the Bear River canyon near Colfax burned 2,619 Acres and destroyed 142 structures.
“Everybody’s scared to death. We have all these deadends that lead to woods at the end of town. We are all concerned that Nevada City is going to burn to the ground,” said Lorraine Gervais, a vocal member and self-proclaimed “squeaky wheel” of the Deer Creek Southside Firewise Community (DCSSFWC), a certified group started in 2019 by concerned residents like her neighbor Terri Voorhes who lives on Jordan Street.
Members of the group meet monthly and provide advocacy support and many hours of in-kind services to meet a common goal, reduce fuels in the canyon and keep their neighborhood safe. Gervais and Voorhes maintain two retrofitted old newspaper stands on Jordan and Brock streets by keeping them well-stocked with wildfire emergency information and news.
The majority of the footprint of DCSSFWC is within the planning area for the Deer Creek grant. DCSSFWC members will donate more than 600 hours of volunteer time to meet the $18,500 of in-kind match required by the grant.
Nevada County has more Firewise communities than anywhere in the nation. As of September 15, the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County is a Regional Coordinator for 94 Firewise USA Communities in Nevada County.
Many, like Gervais have gone above and beyond to take steps and expensive investments to harden their homes and neighborhood.
Preparing property for wildfire by protecting defensible space around the home and using inspection checklists provided from the city and county is one of the best actions a community member can take. Packing a go bag and mapping a strategy to get out safely during a fire is number one.
Woodpecker Ravine runs adjacent to Gervais’ home. Her family has spent tens of thousands of dollars to take down 30 trees, remove planters, pour cement paths around the house and replace wooden decks with cement and metal ones.
“We love and fear the forest. With proper clearing you can still be in a beautiful, park-like forest. I think people think of clearing and think of clearcutting. That’s not necessary. You have to change your perspective,” Gervais said.
Laura Petersen is a freelance writer from Nevada County. This article was written on behalf of the City of Nevada City. Contact her at email@example.com