Reducing wildfire fuels |

Reducing wildfire fuels

Dave Moller

Anyone who survived the 49er Fire of 1988 can describe the devastation of a runaway blaze in the wild.

Although the fire destroyed 165 homes and blackened 33,000 acres from North San Juan to the outskirts of Beale Air Force Base, brush and homes have sprung up again in the ensuing 16 years.

That mix presents new danger, and that is why the Nevada County Fire Safe Council has targeted the Owl Creek Road neighborhood for a “fuels reduction” project, aimed at removing vegetation that could endanger area residents in case of fire.

With 68 neighborhood participants, “we’re working really hard to get this done for fire season,” said Michelle Phillips, the fire council’s executive director. “(The U.S. Bureau of Land Management) has received a report that says fuels are already mid-summer (for burn intensity).”

Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Chief Tim Fike said scotch broom and manzanita are already at late June to early July moisture levels. Moisture levels for large timber on the ground and standing snags “are already way critical,” Fike said Friday.

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Most Owl Creek Road residents agreed to the fuels project and tagged the trees they wanted saved along the road. With a $39,000 Bureau of Land Management grant, J&J Vegetation was hired by the council to clear and chip six miles of roadway.

Phillips said only about 10 parcels on the road are not involved, mainly because the owners have already cleared them or they were brush-free to begin with.

Fire Safe Council board member Jim Whitaker volunteered to recruit homeowners for the project and to mark their property. “Everyone up there is concerned,” he said. “The same kind of awareness would be good throughout the county.”

Whitaker lives a few miles away from the neighborhood in Rough and Ready. He bought his land two years after the 49er Fire blackened it.

“It’s grown back,” Whitaker said. “I spend 40 to 50 hours every spring clearing the weeds” to create a defensible fire space around his home.

Whitaker also cuts limbs off of trees that are close to the ground and rakes leaves. “It has a double benefit because it also makes the property look better.”

Phillips said some Owl Creek Road neighbors were already working together to thin the area when the project started. “They just needed a little help,” Phillips said. “Fuels reduction is expensive, about $1,000 an acre.”

As soon as the Owl Creek project is done, the council will start another called the “Columbia Hill Fuel Break,” a 300-acre plot on the San Juan Ridge. That fuel break is designed to link up with the Montezuma and Bridgeport breaks to bring more protection to the area that burned in 1988.

The council also runs a chipper program where individuals can cut and stack brush and then have the council come by to chip it for free. Phillips said neighborhood organizations can also contact her office if they want the council to consider them for coordinated brush-clearing programs.

Brush clearing of any kind here is definitely needed, according to Mike Brenner, District Conservationist for Nevada County for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“This county is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Brenner said. “It boils down to private landowners taking responsibility for their property.”

Brenner said he has advised the board of supervisors that a catastrophic wildfire could destroy the water and life quality that bring people to Nevada County. “Nobody wants to live in a blackened landscape,” he said.


You can find lots of fire safety information at the following places:

– Fire Safe Council of Nevada County: Experts with programs and printed information are available at 470-9193,, or by e-mail at

– California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: Homeowners can find a large amount of information at and the fire safety education link.

– California Natural Resources Conservation Service: Learn how to fireproof your home with the booklet, “Living in the Foothills,” available at You can also pick up a copy at the Nevada County office, which is at 113 Presley Way, Suite 1, Grass Valley, right across Main Street from the Nevada County Country Club.

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