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California's Redwood Coast is Burning
By Michael O'Faolain

Article Last Updated: 06/26/2008
An eerie diffused orange daylight greeted Brooktrails Redwood Park area residents Thursday morning, the fifth such smoke-filled sunrise in as many days. California's Redwood Coast is burning.
The wildfires started early this year-in May-in Santa Cruz County, home of Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California's oldest State Park. Established in 1902, it is home to the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. The park consists of over 18,000 acres of old growth and recovering redwood forest, with mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats. While one of the May fires was near the park, so far it has remained untouched.

At the south end of the coastal redwood habitat, lightning-sparked fires are now burning toward's Big Sur in Monterey County which includes Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park which also features redwoods, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows-plus open meadows. Towards the north end, last weekend lightning sparked literally hundreds of wildfires including one in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park now contained. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is California's largest redwood state park including the Avenue of the Giants containing some of the world's tallest trees.

Along the same area in Mendocino County near Willits sits one of California's older "urban-forest interface" communities, 6,000+ lots subdivided in the late 1960's as Brooktrails Vacation Village and containing it's own "Brooktrails Redwood Park", a 2,500 area greenbelt of second growth redwoods, also with mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats. The developers paid a forestry professor at Humboldt State University to begin a study of the interface. He coined a term for this interface: "hyleopolitan."

Though most of the Brooktrails lots sold, when interest rates jumped in the mid-1970's, few people actually built their vacation homes. The developers and their forestry consultant left. Today around 1,600 houses and apartment buildings are home to 4,500 permanent residents. Brooktrails Redwood Park, the Brooktrails Fire Department, and water and sewer services are managed by the Brooktrails Township Community Services District. The Brooktrails Fire Department is a volunteer fire department except for it's paid chief. Over the years, Brooktrails has enforced a strong brush, grass, and undergrowth abatement program. Inmates of the state correctional system working with CalFire and housed at the Parlin Fork Conservation Camp in the nearby Jackson State Demonstration Forest have been working to eliminate similar fire hazards in Brooktrails Redwood Park.

Nonetheless, after an unusual thunderstorm in the north coast area on Friday and Saturday (June 20 and 21, 2008) this hyleopolitan community dodged a bullet. In the early morning hours of Saturday June 21, quick action by the Brooktrails Fire Department and CalFire crews put out a fire started near homes along Ridge Road in Brooktrails. Brooktrails Fire Chief Daryl Schoeppner was able to get CalFire to divert six airdrops en route to other fires along with two fire crews to help extinguish that fire. Because that CalFire equipment and personnel was not yet committed to one of hundreds of fires started by that overnight storm, the several families who were evacuated while the fire was being extinguished could return to undamaged structures. But other communities in Mendocino County have not been so fortunate.

By mid-morning that Saturday fire crews suddenly were facing hundreds of wildfires across Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Having already declared a state of emergency, Governor Schwarzenegger Sunday ordered the California National Guard to assist in combating the wildfires. Tracey Boudreaux, fire information officer with Cal Fire, stated Sunday night. "Resources are still strained state-wide. We are filling our request orders as resources become available. We are advising residents in our rural communities to remain prepared for evacuations if the need should arise."

At a special emergency meeting of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Monday afternoon, Sheriff Tom Allman said that 131 fires had already burned 8,500 acres.

"This is unprecedented," said Allman, who declared a state of emergency in the county as of 2:22 p.m. Sunday. "We have four areas of evacuation at this point-Orr Springs Road (going west out of Ukiah), Leggett on Foster Mountain, Mountain View Road (from Boonville to the Coast) and east side of the Cherry Creek Subdivision (off Highway 162 to Covelo). We've worked with the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds to house livestock. We also have an evacuation order west of Ridge Road where there is a 3-acre fire threatening structures."

"We broke all previous 911 records," Undersheriff Gary Hudson said. "On Saturday we had 480 calls and the record before that was 280. If you all remember every 911 call from unincorporated areas come through our center first and my hat is off to all the dispatchers."

While statewide, in anticipation of the thunderstorms CalFire had started shifting equipment and personnel from the south, the same lightning storms set fires in the interior of Northern and Central California spreading resources too thin. By Wednesday evening the CalFire web site indicated the following:

Total Fires: 1,032
Acres: 132,235
Contained Fires: 232
Personnel Committed: 11,989
Fire Engines: 941
Hand Crews: 271
Dozers: 291
Water Tenders: 360
Helicopters: 42
Air Tankers: 6
The air tankers number was low primarily because heavy hanging smoke prevented the use of that resource. Which reminds Brooktrails residents that Mendocino County was able to retain a tanker only through an intensive State budget battle, part of the ongoing fight over continuing State budget deficits. California has never been able to reconcile the populist "Prop 13" anti-tax tradition with its high-risk reality.

So, as public fire service commanders decide where to put resources, property owners have hired private firefighting crews and leased helicopters to help fight fires on their own land.

"We understand the state's problems, but we can't wait for our lands to make their way up the priority list," said Mike Jani, chief forester for Mendocino Redwood Co. of Ukiah.

Thirty-one lightning-caused fires are flaring across a 228,000-acre strip of company timberlands running along the rugged Mendocino-Sonoma coastline. Company crews and state firefighters are coordinating firefighting efforts, but more personnel and equipment are needed. The company has rented a private firefighting helicopter to dump ocean water on a fire near Rockport on the north Mendocino Coast.

"We have two 20-man private crews arriving from Montana, and we may bring in more," Jani said.

Brooktrails residents don't have that resource. They did approve a special tax for their fire department. But it isn't enough to create a fire department capable of handling multiple lightning strike simultaneous fire starts in the greenbelt area. And there are limits to what preventative measures can be taken.

"Homeowners can reduce the threat of property loss from a fire by removing and reducing vegetation within 30 feet of each structure, or to the property line, whichever is less," states the Fire Departments web site. The irony is that the Vacation Village lots are typically 60' by 100'. With a 30' by 60' house on the lot, vegetation removal would remove the main reason people live in Brooktrails. It is, after all, a redwood forest environment.

The weather forecast for Friday night through Sunday morning includes thunderstorms-again, very unusual weather for the area. In addition to the need to stay out of fog-like smoke, residents will be holding their collective breaths hoping to avoid the lightning.

Friday morning an eerie diffused orange daylight will greet Brooktrails Redwood Park area residents reminding them that over 25,000 acres in Mendocino County are on fire. Others on the Redwood Coast, from Big Sur to the Oregon Border, will share that experience.

California's Redwood Coast is burning.

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