Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell said that the fire hazard posed by Bear Canyon, a steep drainage that comes right up to the north edge of Garberville, has been significantly reduced thanks to a brush-clearing project that took place over 10 days late last month.
The work has “removed the ladder fuels,” Fennell explained, referring to the thick ground vegetation that, if ignited, can allow a wildfire to get into treetops, go airborne and spread rapidly.
The $2,000 to $3,000 project, funded through a U.S. Forest Service grant, has cleared out a four-to-five-acre area immediately below establishments on the north side of town such as Fennell’s office, the hospital, the library and a senior housing complex, confirmed project coordinator Chris Ramey, who works out of Cal Fire’s Fortuna office.
A PG&E substation is also nearby, as is a liquefied natural gas storage facility and residences.
Ramey said the workers who did the clearing, an inmate crew from the Eel River Conservation Camp, pulled out brush and cut limbs and small trees, but left alone trees with diameters greater than four inches.
The work “disconnected the horizontal and vertical continuity of fire fuels but retained the overstory canopy,” he explained. “It won’t stop a fire but it will assist with fire suppression.”
In other words, by slowing a fire’s progress, the clearing work should give firefighters a chance to get the upper hand if a fire breaks out in the area.
“It’s created a degree of defensible space,” Ramey said. “It will provide fire personnel an opportunity to get the upper hand on any fire that comes through.”
Aside from Bear Canyon’s proximity to Garberville and the fact that it has long been choked with vegetation, the fire risk in the area has been deemed particularly great due to a possible ignition source: homeless encampments in the canyon’s bottom.
“People have been camping out there and several fires [have been] started in the area,” Fennell explained in an interview late last year.
Ramey said that while the project “has been on the radar for years,” it took a while for a fire reduction project to actually take place for a number of reasons.
One, the canyon is private property, so permission from landowners — three or four, in all — had to be obtained. Two, different governmental entities were involved with the planning — the Humboldt County Public Works Department, for example, processed the paperwork related to the landowners’ approvals. Three, because of the canyon’s steepness, there was a concern that removing too much vegetation could lead to a landslide, or at least increased erosion.
That fear explains why last July Ramey walked the canyon with Jim Falls, a Eureka-based geologist with the California Geological Survey. In a five-page memorandum he wrote after his site visit, Falls said that “maintaining tree canopy for stability [would be an] important factor for the project.”
“Canopy retention will decrease the delivery rate through raindrop interception during intense, early storms, and roots will provide additional internal strength to the soil column,” Falls wrote.
Nonetheless, Falls said that tree cutting on a small scale — or, more precisely, some cutting of small trees — could take place. “Some of the smaller tree clusters may be thinned out to reduce potential fuel loading,” he said, advising the retention of “tree stems larger than three to four inches.”
Noting that last month’s project didn’t cost the affected landowners a dime, Cybelle Immitt of the public works department said that by creating “a buffer to slow a fire down” it has resulted in a “huge public benefit for the town.”
Bill Eastwood, the local representative on the Humboldt Fire Safe Council who was also involved in planning the project, agreed. But he also said that more work needs to be done in the canyon.
The project just completed “would allow a fire to be controlled or contained” in most cases, Eastwood said. “Under bad conditions I’m not so sure.” By bad conditions, Eastwood said he meant dry winds out of the northeast that could push flames directly into the town.
Ramey did not deny the need for more fuels reduction in the canyon.
“The money available was not adequate to treat the entire area. We chose to treat the area we could get done with the funding that was available,” he said.