The Amazing Story of a 16-mile Shaded Fuel Break

The Amazing Story of a16-mile Shaded Fuel Break

14June 2005


A 16-mile long, 1,500-foot-wide shaded fuel break projectin Nevada County, California, is an example of how a good idea and dedicatedpeople sometimes know no bounds.

The project is spearheaded by the Nevada County Resource Conservation Districtin California. Work is already under way, little more than a year after the planwas hatched.

“It’s moving along at a rapid pace, more rapid than expected,” DavidVertin, district board member. “The timeline was 5 to 10 years, but it’sgoing to be less than that.” Indeed, District Manager Lesa Osterholm saysthe project may be completed within three years. Local, state and federalcooperation is strong. The district worked hard to address local concerns andbuild consensus for the project, and that led the way to success.

Forestry committee got the ball rolling

At Vertin’s suggestion, the district established a forestry committee inFebruary 2004. As a member of NACD’s Forest Resources Committee, Vertin isfamiliar with the partnerships and programs that are helping to accomplishforest health and fuels reduction work.

Robert Ingram, a professional forester and board member, was named to chair thecommittee, and Vertin serves as the second board representative. “Fromthere, we invited every agency we could think of to participate,” saysVertin, who operates an environmentally sensitive logging company. Partnersinclude the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management,USDA Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, theFire Safe Council of Nevada County and Nevada Irrigation District.

With that kind of expertise, it didn’t take long to identify the fuel break.”All the experts at the table thought it would be a good idea,” Vertinsays. Nevada County was still working to establish a fire safe plan at the timethe committee was formed. “We thought, ‘If the fire plan was in place,what would they be doing?’ One of the things would be to build a shaded fuelbreak, at least where firefighters could go to in a wind-driven event, wherethey could set up their lines and have a good chance of slowing the firedown,” he says.

“Whatever we discussed about forestry, fuel load reductions came up. Weidentified funding sources and set education as a major goal,” addsOsterholm.

The communities of Nevada City and Grass Valley would be protected, along with awildland-urban interface area to the east. Three watersheds – the Yuba and Bearrivers and Deer Creek – will also be protected.

“Once we developed the project area, we talked about type of prescriptionsneeded, and we came up with a flexible, optional plan,” Osterholm says.Osterholm made a presentation to the County Board of Supervisors, who grantedapproval and support. “Then the supervisors themselves held town meetingswith their constituents. We attended those as well,” Osterholm says.”We were kind of out there in force, all the agency people knew what otheragencies were doing. We had a wealth of information about what landownersneeded. Everybody has different needs, and we were armed with tremendousprograms. What people needed, we had programs for them.” There was someearly opposition, but those concerns were addressed, and community support grew.”By October, we had things rolling,” says Vertin. More than 20 percentof the project had been completed by the end of 2004, and work steaming along.

Funding has come from several sources, ranging from residents who covered theirown costs to NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program and state Departmentof Forestry funds. The BLM and Forest Service have provided funds for work onprivate property adjacent to public lands.

EQIP funds totaling of at least $300,000 have been provided to landowners forcost sharing on forest stand improvement and forest health priorities. Fuelsreduction work qualifies under those priorities. EQIP cost-sharing is typicallya 50 percent match, but some landowners quality for up to 75 percent.

The California Forest Improvement Program will provide an estimated $1 millionfor 90 percent cost sharing. There’s a 20-acre minimum and a requirement that aprofessional forester provide a work plan, but landowners of smaller parcels cancombine to meet the minimum acreage.

Federal and state cost-sharing have boosted work on private lands. The BLM hadalready treated many of its land in the checkerboard ownership pattern of thecounty. It’s hoped that work will also extend to the Tahoe National Forest.

On another front, the local Fire Safe Council has been active in promotingcreating defensible spaces around homes. Grants have helped the council to dothat work for free for senior citizens, disabled or low-income residents.

Lessons learned, challenges ahead

The fuel break project took off rapidly, but lessons learned will endure,district officials say. “We have learned that collaboration is reallyimportant,” Vertin says. “People sometimes blame inaction on lack ofmoney. Well, no matter how much money you have or don’t have, collaboration isthe way to go. What we forget is that a lot of times these folks in the agencieswould like to be doing a lot more, and when they come to a committee meeting andwe say we need a fire break, they’re listening.”

His advice for districts is to complete a plan and not worry about moneydetails. Once the fuel break plan was in place in Nevada County, things tookoff. “We have some residents who heard about it, embraced it and went aheadand did it without cost-share.” The district wasn’t aware that statefunding would be available, but when the state upped its contribution for fuelsreduction in the wake of last year’s major fires in California, Nevada Countybenefited because it had a plan in place.

“Definitely start a forestry committee,” Osterholm advises otherconservation districts. “When you develop your projects, get out front andlet people know, and when adversity comes, go visit with them,” she says,adding that Vertin deserves credit for his outreach and promotional efforts.

Looking ahead, both Vertin and Osterholm know that maintenance will be achallenge.

Funding won’t be available for maintenance. Some areas will need more attentionthan others, but any future thinning will be easier now after the initialtreatments.

“The last phase of this is coming up with information to give landownersthat offers alternatives for maintenance.” That can include everything frommastication to grazing with goats.

Contact David Vertin at 530-265-5348. Contact Lesa Osterholm at

NACD booklet was the first step

As a member of NACD’s Forest Resource Committee, David Vertin helped direct NACDstaff to produce a booklet that would encourage conservation districts toestablish or broaden forestry activities. Then he took the booklet home to theNevada County Resource Conservation District in California and went to work.

“Trees Are the Answer, a Template for Conservation District ForestryPrograms,” was published in December 2003 and distributed to conservationdistricts around the country. Financial support was provided by the USDA ForestService State ant Private Forestry. Among the booklet’s suggestions is toestablish a district forestry committee.

“I got ahold of five copies of those booklets and gave them to all ourboard members,” says Vertin, president of the district board. “Wereviewed it and decided to start a forestry committee.” That was inFebruary 2004. Within a few months, the committee and district had spearheadedthe 16-mile fuel break featured in this special report.

“That booklet got things going,” says Vertin. Actually, Vertin gotthings going, says District Manager Lesa Osterholm. “Dave deserves creditfor helping to broaden our work in forestry. He’s been the force behind gainingpublic support,” she says.

Vertin is a big believer in conservation district forestry potential. Demand for”Trees are the Answer” was high, and demand exceeded printed copies.Vertin is so committed to the cause that he is personally working to line upfunding for a second printing. Until then, the bookletis available on NACD’s Web site.

Source: ForestryNotes


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