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Reducing Fuel

In a joint effort, Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Madera County Road Department came together to begin thinning dead and dying trees on forest land in the Mountain Area.

An estimated 160 cedars and pines, along with a few oaks were felled last Thursday in Cedar Valley, which was the first of several needed tree mortality removal projects. The area was ranked high on the priority list because of having only one way in and out for emergency responders and residents in case of an emergency.

Once the Mt. Bullion inmate crew, three Cal Fire engines (Ahwahnee, Rancheria, and Oakhurst), and two U.S. Forest Service crews from area stations (SNF 314) finished in Cedar Valley, they moved on to Bass Lake, felling another 80 trees.

The targeted trees had the potential to block roadways, should they fall from wind, snow, or naturally.

“That we’re working with the forest service is a great collaborative,” Cal Fire Unit Forester Len Nielson said. “It gives us the opportunity to reduce hazards along Madera County roads. We hope this will be an ongoing venture, but I’m just not sure how much longer Cal Fire can assist, because emergency response duties are first and foremost. It is fire season and can be a very busy time of year for both Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.”

While the problem is ongoing, the projects are not - due to the lack of funding and available qualified fallers.

“We’re hoping the county will receive some disaster declaration funding that they’re currently working on, and that some of the monies will be freed up for these types of projects,” Nielson added. “In my opinion, Mariposa and Madera are the two hardest hit counties in the state when it comes to dead trees, and that will have an effect on the infrastructure of our community.”

“The land can only support so many trees per acre,” Cal Fire Prevention Specialist Karen Guillemin-Kanawyer explained, “and there are too many trees per acre to support a healthy environment. There’s just too much competition for the water, the soil and sunlight. Add the drought and bark beetles to that, and we have this kind of situation.”

This kind of situation refers to the high tree mortality rate.

“Last year there was a 10% morality rate with trees,” Guillemin-Kanawyer said. “This year, it’s a 20-40% mortality rate, and even if we get an El Nino this winter, the mortality rate will be even higher next year. We need multiple years of good rain to make a difference.”

“We need at least three good years of average-to-above-average rainfall to reduce the impact of this situation,” Nielson added.

With lack of normal rainfall and low snow pack for several years, combined with the longer, warmer months, the trees have become more susceptible to disease and insects.

“They are being devoured by millions of native beetles, each about the size of a grain of rice. The insects are overwhelming the defenses of water-starved trees, attacking in waves and multiplying at a frenzied pace,” Nielson said. “Trees that are green and look healthy can already be infested. It’s just a matter of time before they show signs of mortality.”

In this extremely dry season, with dead trees dotting the forest lands, reducing this fire fuel and hazards along the roadways is critical to protecting the community.

Fallers

Several firefighters have specialized training, one of which is tree falling, which comes with three rankings - A, B, and C; those with Class C have more expertise falling trees with larger diameters and higher difficulties.

Falling trees is a science with each tree holding its own challenges. It can prove fatal because so many things can go wrong. Wind can suddenly blow the wrong direction, there may be unseen tree defects, or unexpected debris coming at these fallers once the tree falls.

“If we have a tree leaning towards the road, we can pull the tree in the direction we would like it to fall ... in a direction where it will have minimum impact and do minimum damage,” Captain Clark Daley, with the Rancheria Cal Fire station, said. Daley holds a Class C.

Before any cutting is done, a game plan is formulated. The tree and its surroundings are studied. What is the natural lean of the tree? Are there any wires or structures nearby? Which direction results in the least damage? Sometimes the tree is hit with the back of an axe for sound. If the tree sounds hollow, a bore cut is made to check for rot or other defects.

Once the assessment has been completed, the faller uses a chainsaw to make a front or face cut; he starts the back cut and places a wedge in it to secure the tree from going backwards. The faller then pounds small plastic wedges to directionally fall the tree.

“What we’re doing now is so important,” Daley continued. “Right now we control these trees ... but when they’re on fire, these trees control us.”

Note: The wood from these trees is available to the public, once you have a U.S. Forest permit. These can be purchased at the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau for $10 a cord, with a minimum of two and maximum of ten cords; (559) 658-7588.

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