Fuel breaks touted as first priority for historic Stanislaus National Forest project

Mechanical fuel reduction treatments to create more than 6,000 acres of strategically located fuel breaks near Highway 108 corridor communities have been identified as the highest-priority first step in a massive project to reduce fire threats in the South Fork and Middle Fork Stanislaus watersheds, according to a formal decision signed and dated by the Stanislaus National Forest supervisor on Monday.

Guy McCarthy | uniondemocrat.com | Mar 30, 2022 Updated Mar 31, 2022

Tuolumne County’s wooden flumes, like the one above, could be damaged by a catastrophic wildfire. One of the goals of the SERAL project is to reduce risk of fire to infrastructure, including the flumes, which are crucial for providing drinking water to communities within the county.
Courtesy photo / Byron Krempl / Tuolumne County

The project is billed as a major step forward for the largest green forest management project in the 124-year history of the Stanislaus National Forest. The project is planned on an area that totals 118,808 acres of public and private lands, including 94,823 acres in Forest Service jurisdiction, according to Katie Wilkinson, a project team leader and environmental coordinator for the Stanislaus National Forest.

No timber harvest operations or removal are authorized in this first step of the project, which is slated to cover 6,153 acres of treatments, Jason Kuiken, Stanislaus National Forest supervisor since October 2017, said in his Monday decision. Work could begin as soon as April.

Tools used to do mechanical treatment of hazardous fuels range from hand tools like chainsaws and rakes, to large machines like bulldozers and wood chippers. Examples of mechanical treatment include thinning of dense stands of trees and other fuel treatments that make an area better able to withstand fire. Mechanical treatments can also include pruning lower branches of trees, piling brush, and creating fuel breaks to encourage the right kind of fire.  

A map titled “Strategically Placed Fuelbreaks: A Crucial First Step” shows mechanical fuel reduction treatments on edges of the South Fork Stanislaus River watershed from east of Cedar Ridge and Mi-Wuk Village; to Spring Gap and Bald Mountain Helitack Base; to Strawberry and Pinecrest; to Cow Creek and Fiddlers Green, out near the Sno-Park where Highway 108 currently remains closed for winter.

The overall project is called SERAL, which stands for Social and Ecological Resilience Across the Landscape. Liz Peterson, a senior administrative analyst for Tuolumne County, said Monday that Kuiken’s formal decision to get the massive project rolling in reality “is very exciting!”

For Tuolumne County residents, “SERAL is the first proactive fuel reduction and forest health project of this size and scale in our area, which means the protection of our communities, our water supply and other critical natural resources from catastrophic fire,” Peterson said.

“For a decade, those of us who have lived here have watched how fire has devastated other communities in the Sierra Nevada that look really similar to ours, and we’re consumed with fear about what a catastrophic fire would do to our area,” Peterson said. “SERAL is a major step to bringing our forests back to a place where they can tolerate some fire but ensure fire does not devastate our forest or community.”

With the signed record of decision, Tuolumne County will start cutting fuel breaks in the third or fourth week of April, using private contractors under a master stewardship agreement with the Stanislaus National Forest, Peterson said. The county has received about $7 million in grant funding from the California Climate Investment program as well as the Forest Service to complete the work, which will be in partnership with the Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions collaborative.

The fuel breaks network approved Monday should be completed by December 2023, Peterson said. Over the next several years, Tuolumne County intends to partner with the Forest Service to complete all the work authorized in Monday’s formal decision. The county hopes to complete all SERAL work in seven years, by 2029 or 2030.

Patrick Koepele, the YSS chair and executive director of the nonprofit Tuolumne River Trust, said the Monday formal decision is “an important first step in managing our local forests to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities along the Highway 108 corridor.”

The planned network of fuel breaks from Cedar Ridge past Twain Harte and along the north side of Highway 108 past Strawberry are intended to create cells of further protection, where crews can then work on interior parts of each cell to further advance forest health goals, Koepele said.

“So, these fuelbreaks are a foundational step to the broader work and in the interim,” Koepele said. “They will help slow or stop any fires that are started while also creating a safe place for firefighters to stop and manage fires.”

The strategy also advances the YSS goal of restoring degraded forest conditions “across a very large landscape while also supporting the region’s economy and social well-being,” Koepele said. “As the work continues, we will see fire risk reduced, wildlife habitat improved, and a stronger local economy.”

Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions and Tuolumne River Trust expect to support fuel breaks construction and other future activities through the master stewardship agreement between the Forest Service and the county.

“We want healthier forests,” Koepele said, “that can support our wonderful fish and wildlife, recreation, and local economies while ensuring good water quality.”

John Buckley, executive director of Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte and a founder of the YSS collaborative, said Monday that although it’s very likely work will begin on the fuel breaks network in April or May, it’s not possible to predict how long it will take to do the labor-intensive work of hand-thinning small trees and other mechanical fuel reduction treatments.

“The only estimate for when it will be completed is that there is hope for initial fuel break work to be done by this fall or no later than sometime next year,” Buckley said. “Once that initial fuel break work is completed, then hopefully crews will be able to shift to start doing work on the remaining 7,000 acres or so of fuel breaks that are located farther away from Highway 108.”

The costs of fuel break work and other SERAL project treatments will depend on bids from contractors who will do the actual work, Buckley said. The actual cost for the first 6,153 acres of fuel breaks won’t be known until all of the bidders submit their bids, a selection is made, and a contract is signed between the contractor and Tuolumne County.

The formal decision signed and dated Monday by Kuiken ends public review or appeal opportunities, Buckley said. Unless a group files a lawsuit — which is highly unlikely for a high-benefit, low-controversy plan to create fuel breaks to protect communities — the approval decision opens the door for either the Forest Service to directly hire crews to do the fuel breaks or for Tuolumne County and YSS to apply their master stewardship agreement to hire the crews and administer the work.

Aside from the Forest Service, the county, YSS, the Tuolumne River Trust, and CSERC, other partners on the big project include Sierra Pacific Industries. It has taken more than two years of planning to get to this point.

The Monday decision allows the forest to get to work in areas identified as some of the most critical in terms of protecting infrastructure and hardening residential areas butting up against the wildland urban interface with the creation of priority fuel breaks, said Benjamin Cossel, a spokesman with the Stanislaus National Forest.

The project will cost tens of millions of dollars and the funding will come from annual Forest Service budgets, and from grants secured by partners, most notably the YSS group, Cossell said. 

The SERAL project area does not include the fire-threatened North and South Groves of 1,100 giant sequoias in the North Fork Stanislaus watershed that straddles Calaveras and Tuolumne counties in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, bordered by private lands near Dorrington, private lands owned by SPI and the Save the Redwoods League, Stanislaus National Forest lands, and no-hunting Tuolumne State Game Refuge lands in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The Stanislaus National Forest was created by Congress in February 1897. Today it covers 1,403 square miles in Alpine, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties, including 42% of the land in Tuolumne County.

For more information, see the full 10-page record of decision at https://bit.ly/3DiSecQ.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.