Supervisors apply for $1.3 mil. in state grants to create evacuation routes on county roads
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – After the most expensive and deadly fire year in the state’s history, counties with dense forests of dying trees have already started efforts to prevent a repeat this year. Tulare County, which leads the state in tree mortality rates, took several actions this month to continue cutting out dead trees from forest lands to the east without cutting out large swaths of its local budget for fire service and roads.
At its Feb. 6 meeting, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors authorized applications for $1.3 million in grants from state disaster and fire prevention funds to remove 552,000 dead trees across 2,000 acres in the wildland areas.
The County is proposing to cut down trees along roadways that would serve as evacuation routes in the event of a major wildfire as well as using those roads to create fire breaks to prevent wildfires from spreading. The funding will pay to remove standing dead trees within 300 feet of center line along county roads in four areas:
- Parker Pass along a 5-mile portion of County Road M-50 above Pine Flat. The total area will cover 365 acres at an estimated cost of $193,450.
- Seven miles along the northern half of the Western Divide Highway near Ponderosa. The total area will cover about 510 acres at an estimated cost of $270,300.
- Seven miles along the southern half of the Western Divide Highway near Ponderosa. The total area will cover 510 acres at an estimated cost of $270,300.
- Eshom Valley Road from Hartland Christian Camp’s boundary to its administrative office and along Pierce Valley Road to where it dead ends at Worman Mills Road. The total area will cover about 580 acres at an estimated cost of $580,000.
The sites were selected based on how close they are to private property, traffic volumes and at the intersections of projects that meet the needs for Tulare County Roads, Tulare County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire. Trees will be chopped down and either chipped, piled or burned. Some trees may be removed by private logging mills and taken to market.
Eric Coyne, deputy CAO, said Tulare County has already removed approximately 3,500 trees along County roadways in the areas of Balch Park/Bear Creek, Eshom Valley/Hartland, Posey, Sugarloaf and Panorama Heights using $200,000 in county road funds in Phase I and II of its Tree Mortality Project, most of which was covered by a $200,000 grant from Cal Fire in 2016. Tulare County has also been reimbursed for $35,000 and expects another $39,000 in reimbursements from the California Disaster Assistance Act administered through the Office of Emergency Services. The remaining $121,716 in roads funds will be covered through a special $6 million fund, the Local Assistance for Tree Mortality (LCAM) grant program, created by the Governor and State Legislature for the 10 counties with the highest tree mortality rates. Tulare County is eligible for $550,378 from the grant program. Those funds are available to reimburse the county for costs on all work done between July 1, 2017 and Jan. 31, 2020.
There is a catch, as LCAM can only be used to reimburse counties for contracted costs for part-time, extra help or private contractors. In its application, the County has said it will shift tree removal projects to CalFire Inmate labor, California Conservation Corps, extra help hand crews and private contractors. In the same motion, Supervisors authorized $90,000 to purchase two, four-wheel drive trucks equipped with specialized utility beds designed to securely hold saws and other tools needed for right of way maintenance and tree removal.
In a separate motion, Supervisors authorized the Tulare County Fire Department to apply for $800,000 in grant funding from CalFire’s California Climate Investments Forestry Health Grant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These funds would be used to create defense zones and remove standing dead trees in the community of Camp Nelson and the wildland area of Slick Rock as a way to reduce fuel for future wildfires which further chokes air quality in an area with some of the worst in the nation. The money can also be used to cover the 25% match the county will need to qualify for LCAM funds.
The area around Slick Rock, known as the Tule River Watershed, is particularly fire prone including four moderate to large fires, most notably the Pier Fire which burned 36,000 acres last August. “Lack of fire, past timber harvesting, pest infestation and extreme drought have increased consumable levels. This coupled with existing timber and brush has increased fire susceptibility ratings to moderate and high over 60% of the watershed.”
The County capped expenses that are not reimbursable from the emergency funding at $250,000. The county’s commitment of local funds to front projects and the state grants are critical to preventing major wildfires from happening in its wooded backyard. The U.S. Forest Service announced in December that an additional 27 million trees, mostly conifers, died throughout California since November 2016, bringing the total number of trees that have died due to drought and bark beetles to an historic 129 million on 8.9 million acres since the drought began in 2010. More than a quarter of the trees are in Tulare County, or just over 25 million spanning across 831,000 acres. The next highest county is Fresno County at 21.1 million dead trees. Four-fifths of the state’s dead trees are located in the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests, which intersect in northeastern Tulare County.