These are some of the sounds of a forest thinning operation around the Paradise Pines Property Owners Association in Magalia.
Chipping up woody material removed from the forest and left on the ground as mulch. The goal is to return the forest’s condition to one that more resembles the forests that John Bidwell knew.
“I like John Bidwell you know? One of the things that I read about him is that he rode his horse from Chico all the way over to the coast. To Manchester I think it is. He rode his horse there from Chico, over there and you think about that now, there’s no way. Over the Mendocino Forest? Exactly.” explained former firefighter Jim Hautman.
Hautman now helps manage forest thinning projects for the Butte County Fire Safe Council. He drove me all around Magalia - sometimes getting rained on-showing me forest thinning projects with his colleague Calli-Jane DeAnza - who is the Director of the Butte County Fire-Safe Council.
“We are trying to manage this forest. We are trying to set it up for survival and it does require to take some trees out.” DeAnza explained.
I asked DeAnza and Hautman to show me some of the council’s projects around the ridge. To explain how they are done, and most importantly, why this is important to do in a fire prone area like Magalia.
“We did a forest management plan for the town of Magalia last summer and found that the forest was 150% overgrown. Basically you want to be able to move through the forest just the way the fire would so that you are acting in that capacity of - if you can touch a tree, then the fire would burn from one tree to the next.” DeAnza explained, “We want to break up that space so there is room for the fire to come through and not ignite one tree to the next. So the analogy is that if you can ride through the forest on a horse at a full gallop and not run into a tree that would be a picture of a healthy forest.”
So you take out the small trees, the dying or sick trees and brush, leaving large healthy trees - creating a more healthy forest that has a much better chance of surviving a wildfire. ‘
The problem is that there are literally millions of acres of forest in Northern California that need to be thinned. With limited resources, how do you decide what to focus on?
“What we’ve been doing is working with our partners for our community wildfire protection plan, so we bring together a bunch of partners and then design where a project needs to take place where there is most risk for fire danger in the communities.” DeAnza said. “Then we wait for the right grant to come. And if it will fund fuels reductions or watershed or forest thinning then we write up a proposal based on what the grant’s criteria and limitations are.”
We drove up to various sites they wanted to show me, including Camp Coutolenc - part of the Paradise Park and Recreation District that was burnt during the Camp Fire.
“We can see this area did burn fairly heavily. Again the intensity coming out of the canyon, really there was not enough space between the trees to slow down and it ran into that area.” DeAnza said.
The area was severely burnt with very few trees surviving. But then just a few hundred yards up the road, can see a line where suddenly the trees aren’t burnt very badly and are expected to survive.
“And that’s this line of the US Forest Service where last spring we came in and cleared out the vegetation fuels between these healthy trees. So this road right here is part of that? That’s right, so now we see that these trees have a high survivability from the fire.” DeAnza explained. “From the design of the project, we just saw directly next to each other - one area burned very heavily, the other area burned much much less much less, and that was a direct result of that project.”
We got out and looked around. It was around 70% covered with shade, like the prescription called for, and when the Camp Fire came through - it worked as planned.
Most of the larger trees survived, and the forest was nice and open. We continued a bit further to a project that started as a Timber harvesting operation from Sierra Pacific Industries, then the Fire Safe Council took over from there.
“What we have here is a little bit more of an open canopy than what we just saw on the US Forest Service project. They were looking for a 30% canopy closure where ours was a 70% canopy closure” he said.
What he means is that only 30% of the sky was being blocked by tree canopy - letting in more sunlight than the 70% canopy in the US Forest Service project.
“And in this case it worked very well for the design of the fuel break to help slow the fire’s intensity coming directly out of the canyon. They left a lot of Oaks you can see these nice large oaks and there’s lots of species diversity.. What were seeing is a lot of healthy trees that survived the fire.” DeAnza said.
But with more sunlight reaching the bare soil, undesirable brush and bushes can come back more rapidly and add to the forest fuel load.
“The Nemesis this is the scotch broom plant. This plant will grow in the poorest of soils with the least amount of waters and out-competes the native vegetation and here it is on the edge of this great fuels reduction just waiting to take over.” DeAnza said.
So while a much more open canopy like this does help slow down a fire, it can also require maintenance so certain invasive plants, like the Scotch Broom and others, don’t come back. This is why a shaded fuel break is the most desirable.
“Having these trees here helps shade the area so not as much stuff wants to grow back as fast. Because you have a lot of shaded area. If there were no trees the brush would take over.” Hautman said.
So a shaded fuel break is a break in the ground fuel, while keeping the large trees to maintain the high canopy that blocks direct sunlight.
“Another part of what you see here is that - when they did do the thinning, they took all the latter fuels away.” Hautman explained. “So you have more of a ground fire than a canopy fire. The whole design of this is to keep the fire low intensity, on the ground, and to not travel higher in to the trees.”
Which helps slow the spread of the fire - attempting to protect the most vulnerable parts of the community - ingress and egress roadways, and just as important - protecting the communities’ water supply.
"We’re standing at the bride of little butte creek on coutolenc road and the water flows are very high right now. So all this water is going into Paradise Lake.” DeAnza explained. “The good news is the fire didn’t reach this portion of the water shed so the water coming into Paradise lake doesn’t have those concerns of the fire contamination.”
The last stop for our tour was the Paradise Pines Property Owners Association in Magalia. DeAnza, Hautman and I got out of the car into the pouring rain so Hautman could show me the Fire-Safe Council’s nearly finished project. Thinning the Forest so you can access a beautiful hiking trail - that was once hidden in plain site.
“So before, you couldn’t tell there was a trail here. So .So once they got in and were able to clean out the smaller brush and trees you can actually use the trail see the trail and move forward from here and enjoy it. Yeah! Take a horse down here!” Hautman said.