Ponderosa West, the Grass Valley Defense Zone Project, closer to reality

NEVADA CITY, Calif. July 12, 2019 – On Tuesday, Nevada County Supervisors approved resolutions related to the Ponderosa West project. One of 35 priority projects recommended by CAL FIRE to Governor Newsom, the project will create a shaded fuel break of approximately 1,300 acres on the west side of Grass Valley.

The BOS unanimously voted to approve three resolutions proclaiming a Local Emergency, accepting a grant from CAL FIRE’s Fire Prevention Program in the amount of $2,536,477, and securing a contract with CAL FIRE for $1,000,000.

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More than a fuel break and definitely not a clearcut

The planned shaded fuel break is labeled a defense zone running from the transfer station to Rough&Ready Highway. In case of a fire, a defense zone allows firefighters to safely anchor firelines and defend structures. Due to the scarcity of fuels, fire intensity drops and even a transition from a crown fire to a less destructive ground fire is possible. Some 3,000 residents in the area will benefit from the shaded fuel break.

Unlike a fire break, where all vegetation is removed and only bare mineral soil is left, a shaded fuel break strategically removes undergrowth, brush and dead fuels. Besides reducing the fuel load, the remaining trees and plants benefit from better growing conditions, including more water availability. Soil and air temperatures are kept cooler by leaving trees to shade the area.

Calystegia stebbinsii, CDFW photo by Daniel Burmester.

The presence of rare and endangered plants on public lands has been mapped and crews will not disturb these sites. CAL FIRE is working with the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society as they have done on a previous project at Nevada County’s Transfer Station.

The endangered Stebbins’ morning-glory is present in the area and thanks to the collaboration between the agency and the non-profit the number of plants has increased significantly.

The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County will reach out to the private property owners within the project area to secure letters of authorization. They will work with homeowners to identify any trees or landscaping residents wish to retain. The website https://www.ponderosawestproject.org/ has been created for the project, updates and mailing list signup are available at this URL.

The North Fork project near Colfax. Photo YubaNet

Creating a shaded fuel break on over 120 private and public properties is a major undertaking. Public meetings for residents in the area are planned and work will begin this summer. Participation in the project is voluntary for property owners CAL FIRE Forester Steve Garcia said. Once reluctant residents see the work done on neighboring parcels they might change their minds and participate, he added.

During the BOS meeting, CAL FIRE Division Chief Jim Mathias said he would commit one Washington Ridge crew a day to work on the project,  if the crews are not assigned to an active wildfire. Each crew has 12-15 crew members and a CAL FIRE Captain to supervise the crew. Work on private property in the project area will be done at no cost to the homeowners.

One of two projects in the NEU Unit

The Ponderosa West project is one of two projects in CAL FIRE’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer (NEU) unit. The other project is located between Auburn and Colfax on the North Fork of the American River.

Photo YubaNet

During a recent tour with California Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Jessica Morse, CAL FIRE’s project lead Chris Paulus, showcased the results of the careful use of different management tools.

With the help of National Guard, CAL FIRE and private contractor crews, this shaded fuel break also preserves rare species and contributes to watershed and forest restoration.

History of the Ponderosa Way firebreak

The largest project undertaken by the CCC in California was the construction of the nearly 800-mile Ponderosa Way firebreak and truck trail. The project, first proposed by the regional forester in 1929, was made possible only by the extra labor provided by the CCC. (The project was funded by the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) program, which was established in April of 1933 and almost immediately became known as the CCC.)

At the project boundary near Colfax. Photo YubaNet

The CCC operated in California from 1933 to 1942. According to CAL FIRE history, “All told, the CCC-WPA laborers constructed over 300 lookout towers and houses, some 9,000 miles of telephone lines, 1,161,921 miles of roads and trails and erected numerous fire stations and administrative buildings in California.

After an initial survey in the fall of 1933 by Associate Regional Forester Clarence E. Dunstand and Associate Silviculturist A. Everett Wieslander, CCC crews from State and National forest camps began construction of the firebreak. J.E. Elliott, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, was placed in charge. By May 1934, 440 miles of the predicted 768 miles had been completed. Starting in the north at the Shasta Bear Lookout, the Ponderosa Way eventually ended in the south at the Kern County boundary. [source: National Park Service]