In Inverness, neighbors finance a fuel break

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Just over a month ago, homes at the end of Via de la Vista in Inverness faced a serious fire risk: a drought-stricken bishops pine forest. Now the undergrowth, a thicket of lichen covered bushes, gives way to a thin layer of wood chips extending over 100 feet from the houses. The lack of fuel could stop a forest fire in its tracks.

A group of Seahaven neighbors funded their own fuel cut between Tomales Bay State Park and their residences, staking out a defensible space they say is critical to protecting their community from a possible wildfire nearby. . The project, funded by contributions from 30 homeowners totaling $ 42,000, bypassed some of the regulations provided with public funding and is expected to be largely completed this week.

“This is a perfect example of collaboration between private owners,” said Carlos Porrata, a former ranger at Tomales Bay State Park and one of the residents involved in planning the fuel break.

The project was designed by local forester Tom Gaman, who has been a consultant for California State Parks. It consists of six acres of so-called shaded fuel cut, meaning the trees are shaken but not removed and the undergrowth is thoroughly hand-cleaned and chipped in place.

Now the line between the thick forest of the state park and neighboring private property is clear. “Tomales Bay State Park is pretty much a jungle,” Mr. Gaman said.

The fuel cut-off is strategically located, positioned at the top of a drainage that goes down to Shell Beach.

“We are working at the top, where if a fire came from the park, it would probably go up the hill,” Mr. Gaman said. “There’s a good chance he’ll end up somewhere in this neighborhood.”

A four-man team from the Inverness Garden Service removed mostly blueberry and coffee bushes, leaving oaks, hazelnuts, wax myrtle, madrone and small bishops pines. Ismael Gutierrez, who runs the company, has worked in trees in West Marin for 30 years, including for the National Park Service and the Inverness Public Utility District. He is encouraged by the renewed emphasis on defensible space.

“This year, every time I see a phone call, it’s about fuel reduction, firebreaks,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Everyone comes together.

The project is not the first of its kind to protect Seahaven. In 2007, a narrower fuel cut stretching from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Shell Beach was completed by IPUD, based on recommendations from Mr. Gaman and other scientists after the Mount Vision fire in 1995. But after several years, the break became overgrown, and now, Mr Gaman said, it is impossible to discern where the line was.

Help appeared to come last summer in the form of funding for the new Measure C package tax. The Marin County Fire Department allocated $ 30,000 to restore the fuel cut. neglected, but restrictions got in the way: Funds could only be spent on public land and all work would require analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act. Before Seahaven’s fuel cut could be fully restored, funds ran out.

In the end, the county only recovered three small sections of the fuel cut earlier this year – one section around the Shell Beach parking lot and two near private property. The work was far from complete, and a number of houses remained vulnerable. “They didn’t really address the critical fire danger at the top of the hill in the bishops pine forest,” Gaman said.

So in February, Mr. Gaman, Mr. Porrata, and Seahaven residents Felix Chamberlain and Phil Jonik began planning work on private property, which they knew would help them avoid some of the regulatory hurdles they faced. the county is facing. They also hoped to demonstrate proactive forest management to officials who they said neglected to address conditions in the state park and Point Reyes National Seashore.

They approached Michael Barnett and Rob Helmer, who own the last two houses on Via de la Vista, right next to the state park and not far from the waterfront.

“They both jumped on it because everyone who lives up there knows there’s way too much fuel in that area,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “We are using the generosity of these two private owners to place this fuel break as close to park ownership as possible, as unfortunately neither of the parks is proactive enough to really understand what needs to be done in this area.”

Mr. Chamberlain helped plan and mobilize support for the project. In April, he sent fundraising emails to everyone in the neighborhood and collected checks from homeowners. The $ 42,000 he raised all goes to Mr. Gutierrez; in the coming seasons, the group hopes to write grant applications to finance the maintenance of the fuel cut.

“Our feeling as a group is that we created this, and now we’re going to write grants for the money to keep it going,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “We’ve done the heavy lifting as a community, and it’s going to benefit a lot of people. ”

Mr. Gutierrez began work in early August, after waiting for the spotted owl nesting season to end. The team obtained a state park permit to work in a few areas of public land within 100 feet of homes. The new fuel station wagon, although relatively short, is much wider than the original 2007 station wagon. In some places, it provides up to 400 feet of buffer zone between the neighborhood and the forest.

Seahaven neighbors hope their efforts will set an example for the county and state park, to encourage these agencies to connect the dots and refill the original fuel cut.

“As a community, this is what we have done on our own,” said Chamberlain. “You have to step in and you have to replicate what we did along the border from Seahaven to Shell Beach. Connect those three areas they did in January with that $ 30,000.

Cyndy Shafer, director of the natural resources program for California State Parks, said officials were involved in the fuel cut work earlier this year and the agency would continue to work with the community. “We have a lot of common interests around forest fire safety and forest health,” she said.

As the county cut small fuel cuts in January, a Seahaven resident had already started creating one on his own land. Gray Brechin, who lives down the hill on Sir Francis Drake, read a state of the forest report prepared by Mr. Gaman for state parks and hired Ramirez Tree Service to begin clearing around his House.

It was inspired in part by a forgotten 800 mile fuel break, the Ponderosa Way, which once ran through the Sierra Nevada. The pause was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. “I’m trying to find out how they did this when I was only able to build a few hundred yards to protect my property as well as my neighborhood,” Brechin said.

A conflict over privacy and noise issues with a neighbor ended Mr Brechin’s project, but the area that was cleared allowed easier access for Mr Gutierrez and his team, who uses the partially completed break as the eastern border of their work.

Mr Gaman said the break will benefit the health of the forest. Bishop pines, which grow in only a handful of isolated pockets on the Pacific coast, have lived on the west side of Tomales Bay for at least 6,000 years. They regenerate naturally after a fire, but the patch of wood near Seahaven last burned down in the 1930s. Decades without a fire contributed to an unhealthy forest that is ultimately more dangerous, Mr Gaman said. Trees that rest on drier soil are in poor condition and many fall victim to pests like bark beetles and diseases like black canker.

The waterfront does not have its own dedicated fire management officer, and Marin County Fire has taken the lead in wildfire response and prevention there. Neither the shoreline nor the state park have made prescribed burning a management strategy, which Gaman says leads to poor forest health over time.

Officials are in the early stages of planning a more proactive vegetation management project for the entire Tomales Bay State Park, which Shafer says is a “top priority.” The plan could involve a prescribed burn or various manual treatments, and is due for a California Environmental Quality Act review later this year.

“This is really going to be done for the health and resilience of the Bishops’ pine forest, and it will also have benefits for fire prevention,” Ms. Shafer said.

In the meantime, the private fuel break will give the pines a chance to fight against the overwhelming brush, Mr Gaman said. “These trees compete with the shrubs for water, and so during this period of drought they are dying en masse,” he said. “Here we have the opportunity to truly improve the health of the forests in the Bishops’ pine forest.”


A local defensible space project has been completed in Seahaven, on the border of Tomales Bay State Park. Residents say the area was densely overgrown and a county plan to redo a previous hiatus stalled after Measure C funding for it ran out. – Photo by David Briggs


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