Krysta and Tyler Blake moved to their family home on Ponderosa Way in 2019. At the time, the six-acre property was dense with vegetation.
“You couldn’t see through that before,” said Tyler pointing to the far end of his backyard to a line of heritage manzanita that now provides a privacy buffer from McCourtney Road.
“It was thick, ominous brush,” he said.
Shortly after moving to the property, the Blakes were contacted by county contractors working to reduce wildfire fuels within a corridor known as the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone. The $3.5 million, 1,087-acre multi-year shaded fuel break project was completed in March and is a collaboration between the County of Nevada, Fire Safe Council of Nevada County and CALFIRE.
According to county officials, nearly every inch of Nevada County, upwards of 92 percent is in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone. Fuel breaks are a tool used to slow the spread of fire, protect critical infrastructure, evacuation routes and communities and give firefighters a place to make a stand. CALFIRE has identified nine projects totaling 9,000 acres in Nevada County as key areas to be treated as fuel breaks. The Truckee Fire Protection District has identified an additional eight projects totaling 9,000 acres.
Unlike a fire break – a narrow 10 – 20 feet wide strip that resembles a dirt road – a shaded fuel break does not remove all vegetation to bare mineral soil. Living vegetation is modified so there is less fuel to burn, limiting a fire’s ability to spread rapidly and reducing the heat intensity of a fire. If done right, it’s a win-win for homeowners who want to keep the natural beauty of their land while becoming fire safe.
The Blakes are among more than 250 private property owners within the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone shaded fuel break. They eagerly took advantage of the free mastication work that could have easily cost them $4,000 or more to do themselves. With the extra help, the Blakes pushed back the brush line 100 feet from their home and put in a lawn giving their two kids, Penny and Duke, and Skye, the family Australian Shepherd, more room to play. It’s not uncommon for them to now see deer using the family’s backyard as a wildlife corridor.
“For me, it was nice because they gave me a clean slate to work with,” said Tyler Blake, admitting that the work probably wouldn’t have happened if it would have been up to him alone. Now he says it will be easier to regularly maintain the property to keep it fire safe.
“It’s manageable now,” he said.
Green waste disposal costs remain a barrier for the Blakes and they say a year-round free green waste disposal site in Nevada County would be a big help.
Located west of Grass Valley, the Ponderosa West shaded fuel break provides a line of wildfire defense for the populated tourist destination and its surrounding neighborhoods.
A fighting chance to defend historic Grass Valley from wildfire
That’s good news for business leaders who want to protect historic downtown Grass Valley, a popular destination for locals and visitors alike and an important economic driver of Nevada County’s economy. Grass Valley-Nevada City and Truckee are two of 14 cultural districts in the state.
“I am greatly concerned about what a catastrophic fire could do to our city. We must protect what we have built and the important investments we are making in our downtown areas,” said Amber Jo Manuel, Executive Director for The Center for the Arts, a venue that recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation and draws thousands of visitors annually to see internationally known performers on its stage.
On May 19, Congressman Doug LaMalfa announced that County of Nevada will receive $750,000 for fuel reduction treatment on 600 acres of overgrown private lands as part of the second phase of Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone. The hope is to pair this with additional funding that would allow for the treatment of 400 acres of adjacent BLM land as part of the Phase II effort.
“Wildfire preparedness is our number one priority in Nevada County, and the Ponderosa West project is critical to protecting Grass Valley during a large-scale wildfire event,” said District III Nevada County Supervisor Dan Miller.
“Once Phase II is completed, we’ll have an additional 1,000-acre park-like, shaded fuel break protecting our communities.”
A vision to bring back a century-old project
CAL FIRE Chief Jim Mathias grew up hunting and fishing in the neighborhoods around Squirrel Creek and Ponderosa Way in Grass Valley, a section of what now is only a remnant of what was once the world’s largest firebreak built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Ponderosa Way spanned from the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades and was originally built to protect precious timberland resources from rangeland fires.
The Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone shaded fuel break near the County Transfer Station was shovel-ready when Governor Newsom identified it along with 34 other priority projects designed to protect California’s most vulnerable communities from wildfire in 2019. While other projects have stalled, Ponderosa West is a success story and has become a road map for other communities.
“We needed to create a defensive line where we could stop the main fire. It gives us a fighting chance,” said Chief Mathias.
“It’s really one of the first of its kind,” said Jamie Jones, Executive Director for the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.
“It’s kind of served as a model for other collaborative partnerships,” she said. For 20 years, the Fire Safe Council has advocated and assisted on defensible space clearing projects and has been the on-the-ground force behind Ponderosa West.
More shaded fuel breaks needed
Nevada County has more more Firewise Communities than any other county in the state. Many of the 72 Firewise Communities have identified areas where a fuel break would directly protect their neighborhoods. Imagine a park with all the brush and grasses trimmed and large healthy trees evenly spaced out. Shaded fuel breaks help to slow down a wildfire from a crown fire and drop it to the forest floor where there is less fuel to burn.
Besides Ponderosa West, CAL FIRE has identified South County, Woodpecker Ravine, South Yuba Rim and Deer Creek Canyon as priority locations for shaded fuel breaks. The County has multiple grants in the pipeline, but finding consistent funding and enough people to do the work remains a challenge.
Because of their scale, these kinds of projects rely on cyclical grant funding that is not guaranteed. Many of the grants have requirements that pose a significant challenge such as funding requests that must be matched by 25 to 100 percent, rigid timelines for matches to align and other tough parameters.
“Implementing large projects that cross multiple landownerships is super tricky. Think about Nevada County – we have the Forest Service, BLM, State Parks, private, city and county – there are a lot of different landowners that have to work together with funding sources to get these projects done. There also has to be the local capacity to manage and actually do the work,” said Paul Cummings, Office of Emergency Services Program Manager for Nevada County.
In 2020, 4.3 million acres burned in California, the most in the state’s recorded history, more than double the previous record. In 2021, 8,619 wildfires burned almost 2.6 million acres. As of May 29 of this year, CAL FIRE has documented 2711 wildfire incidents totaling 10,861 acres on the agency’s online Incidents page.
The Jones and River Fires were too close of a call for many Nevada County residents. Homeowners are organizing and advocating for shaded fuel breaks in their neighborhoods such as the heavily wooded Deer Creek drainage connecting populated neighborhoods of Nevada City and Lake Wildwood.
“It has the potential to be the next Camp Fire. There’s a lot of homes in that canyon,” said Jamie Jones, Executive Director for the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.
Woodpecker Ravine near populated residential communities of Alta Sierra and Lake of the Pines is also high on the priority list. While Western Nevada County residents wait for grant funding to get projects rolling, a tax measure passed by voters in Truckee last fall is providing $4 million a year for fuel reduction work. That kind of revenue could go a long way to advance projects in the foothills.
“In a perfect world, we could work at the pace and scale needed and start yesterday. We could be working on shaded fuel breaks every year with sufficient revenue,” said Jones.
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Laura Petersen is a freelance writer who has spent two decades chronicling the stories of people and places in Northern California. On behalf of Nevada County, this article is part of a series examining emergency preparedness. Laura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org