Removing dangerous wildfire fuels is hard, expensive work. Here’s how one California tribe is making it happen.

03 November 2021

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USA – Sherry Treppa thinks back on the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018 as a devastating call to action for her community.

The chairperson of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake tribe describes how the flames “came right down on the reservation boundaries and nearly wiped out the whole town, and a lot of our tribal members’ homes.”

The fire, the third-largest in California history, was kept at bay by firefighters. But one house burned, and Treppa remembers evacuating tribal members, a defensive action that she said isn’t something the tribe can afford for every future threat. Stronger action to weaken the impact of future fires, she said, must happen now.

“The more we wait, the more risk we have,” Treppa said. “Every year, we just kind of hold our breath.”

In Northern California, Lake County has seen devastating impacts from recent fires. County officials estimate that 60% of its land has burned since 2015.

Other communities hit by wildfires in California have looked for ways to boost their prevention efforts. Some have responded by creating teams specifically tasked with clearing out the excess of flammable growth in a forest, like grass and brush, that feeds these massive blazes.

These teams, sometimes called “fuels crews,” are often staffed by firefighters and other workers, who clear forest fuels by hand or through other methods like prescribed burning.

But assembling a fuels crew is an expensive task for districts. And as firefighters are frequently called to combat active blazes during seasons of fire, they are difficult to staff.

For Lake County, an area with an older population that is also among one of the poorest in the state, getting a fuels crew off the ground has been particularly challenging despite the desperate need.

“We don’t have high wages,” said Mike Ciancio, the Northshore Fire Protection District’s chief. His agency’s coverage area includes Lake County. “It’s hard for us to get people to come up here to the rural counties to work.”

In his district, he knew it would take at least a year to apply for grants and get funding for a fuels crew. But with next year’s fire season a looming threat, he didn’t want to wait.

So, Ciancio reached out to Treppa. The two have since created a plan for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake tribe to fund the fuels crew’s first year of operation. In total, it will be contributing $662,000.

As a whole, California has struggled to ramp up its wildfire mitigation efforts. Its goal is doing 500,000 acres of fire prevention work per year by 2025. New efforts from state officials, like Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $1 billion commitment to wildfire prevention and the creation of a new state workforce to handle its mitigation, aim to expedite the process.

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