Living Firebreak, Again

Wow. Since the last visit, the crews have visited again and just about completed the living firebreak on our place. The local fire protection district acquired funding to cut a stripe 100 feet wide on both sides of the county road. The road borders our place for about 2500 feet, so a large crew of people went through with chainsaws and woodchippers cutting down and chipping all the manzanita understory and all the dead trees and all the trees under 10 inches in diameter.

Driving up from Coulterville, the road is lined with miles of piles of firewood sized logs, courtesy of the fire protection district. Definitely going to be warm and cozy for many winters to come, just need to bring up a truck to collect it all and haul it up to the cabin on the hill.

As the name implies, the firebreak is designed to limit a forest fire to one side of the road as well as provide a safe evacuation route for visitors.


Here’s a view south through the firebreak from our driveway up the hill to the neighbor’s road bordering our property.


Here’s the view south from our driveway 100 feet over from the firebreak. Pretty thick, and if it dries out in there and a fire comes though, look out. (We definitely need to thin the trees there, it is a pretty unhealthy part of our forest.)

So, thanks again, local fire protection district!


The Living Firebreak

We were contacted several months ago by the local fire protection district, which was seeking grant money to fund a fuel reduction project. Our property runs for about 2500 feet along highway 132, and the fire protection district was proposing to create a “living firebreak” 100 feet deep, on both sids of the highway, all the way from the county line to where highway 132 meets with highway 120, a mile or so up from our place.

Hell yeah, we said, and filled out and returned the form they sent us allowing them to clean up 250,000 square feet of highway frontage on our property, at no cost to us.

A “living firebreak” in this case means that every tree under 10 inches in diameter is cut down, the remaining trees are “laddered” (lower branches from the ground to about head high are cut off, to prevent making a “ladder” allowing a grass fire to get into the tree crown), and all dead trees are cut down, all fallen trees are chopped up, and all of it is thrown into a chipper and the resulting wood chips broadcast onto the ground.


Okay, so wow. They spent a day last week cutting down little trees and piling them up in a strip from one edge of our driveway, along the highway which is the western boundary of our property, to the neighbors’ road which meets the highway and is the southern boundary of our property.  So a swath 100 feet wide by about 700 feet long.

Then this morning, starting at 6AM, they were back with a couple of guys on chainsaws, a guy running a big chipper, a couple guys hauling cut stuff from the piles to the chipper, a CalFire truck, and 2 flagmen directing traffic.

Holy cow! And it will take them another 3 or 4 days just to grind their way along the whole 2500 feet of our property!

Thank you fire protection district!

Cedar sure is beautiful. And I got lots.

It rained all last night and the creek is swollen down by the burn pile. One reason it only took all day and all night to burn is that as I was going through the debris pile, I was pulling out all the larger cedar logs and loping off the branches and piling it up to save for later. Had I not set aside the logs, the fire would have been slow cooking for a week (and smoking out the neighbors…)

cedar1Among the advantages of cedar versus, say, pine, is that the log of a young cedar tree does not taper like a pine. The logs are a pretty uniform diameter on both ends.

The other thing about cedar is the wood itself is beautiful. I couldn’t help but admire the fresh stumps as works of art.

I’m going to be salvaging as much of the larger pieces of cedar as possible for future art or landscaping projects.

It also looks like firewood won’t be an issue for several years to come.

As always, the problem up here is how to move the volume and weight of material for working with, storing and burning.

Meanwhile, there is a lot more debris and dropped trees to clean up.


Finally, back on the hill.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in New York, visiting the kids and sampling the delights of the season. But I was chomping at the bit to come up to the cabin.

There was snow on the ground from the last storm, and the mountains in the distance were covered in white. I spent the day burning some piles of wreckage from when the tree guys were out cutting down all those big cedars. There is still a lot more to pick up, pile up, and burn down.

carlyAs I climbed wearily up the road at dusk, I made two discoveries.

The pleasant of the two was that the solar powered hanging plastic bird thing my youngest daughter gave me for christmas was lit up and changing colors.


Best present ever!

The less pleasant was when I was looking out over the neighborhood next door and suddenly said to myself: hey, what happened to the six big tall cedars at the base of the hill next to the road and PG&E lines?

This morning, I made a tour of the property line down there and saw 10 or 12 tress cut down through the tender mercies of PG&E.They were close enough to the power lines down there that it was a fair call by PG&E and there is thankfulness they paid for the tree person to come in and drop them and chop them.

Those were big trees, and now they are all splayed out broken on the ground.

Wow, what a lot of work it’s going to be to cut them into pieces and chip them or burn them or something.

Mind Blown. Heart Broken.

I used to wonder if watering trees around the cabin was a bad idea.

Did it make them expect water and therefore have shallower root systems? Did it weaken them against drought if nobody watered them? Etc and so on.
logging3In the case of the great California Conifer Massacre of 2016, the pines around the cabin which have been watered the last few springs and summers are healthy and bearing pine cones, while the surrounding pines are going from green to gold to brown and dead at a frightening pace, mere days in some cases.

I noticed that some of the dying trees were sparkling as with dew in the morning sun. It was from the sap flowing to ward off the bark beetles.

I was just down at the bottom of the hill by the road, and there are five 100 foot tall pines by the electrical lines which need to come down.

logging2Steve Costa’s crew started work a couple days ago.  They’ve already taken down some of the cedars I marked in May. Logging is really hard on the ground here, the soil is clay dust and the tractors just tear it up. It will take a couple years for the place to heal.

The bark beetles seem to be moving east across our place, munching their way to Yosemite. I got up here Friday and have spent the last couple of days tromping around and checking out the extent of the damage here.

It’s just mind-blowing and heartbreaking. We’re going to lose at least half the pines and cedars, hundreds and hundreds of trees which will need to be cut down and disposed of.

Estimates of the number of dead trees in the whole state are now up to around 70 million.

How will that fact manifest down the road? Salvage logging will probably cause lumber prices to hit an all time low. But what about the loss of 70 million carbon storehouses removed from the environment over the next couple/few years?

The area has evolved against a backdrop of periodic fires, and if this time the burning is caused not by flame but by lack of rain and a beetle smaller than a grain of rice, the conifers will still bounce back over time and by design.

I know this in my head, and can see the little pines and cedars bursting up towards the sun, sometimes an inch or so tall, all around me as I trudge around whole groves of dying trees. But, dang!

It’s hard to foresee what our place is going to look like in the next couple of years. It’s hard to foresee the changes to California.



News From the Neighborhood

One of our neighbors from down the hill across the road, Karine, came up the driveway walking her dog Sage, a big old mellow german shepherd.

The big news in the neighborhood is that Don and Barbara, an older couple who have 5 acres at the bottom of the hill bordering our land, sold their place and are now living in a nice house in Sonora in a little neighborhood owned by the Seventh Day Adventists. They had been getting on in years and the keeping the place up was too much for them.

Their house and land had been purchased by a fellow who runs a rock climbing and back packing guide company, and on the weekends it houses a dozen or so young people who work as guides, field staff, etc.

I had no idea! They are the quietest neighbors a person could ever hope for. But it all fit in. I’ve been heading down the hill over into the neighborhood to bring back water from our 6 acres down there, and have been surprised by how many cars were parked in what I thought was still Don and Barbara’s place.

That also explains the slack line strung between two trees by the garage. Don and Barbara’s slack lining days are long behind them, may they prosper and be happy in their golden years, bless them.


On the topic of wild life, this has not been a particularly special visit in the way of birds, but definitely up there for rabbits (small adorable bunnies and the weird and ancient human looking Jacks) and deer. I saw a couple of young bucks one morning, and a couple of does and their fawns another morning. The fawns were terminally cute, like living rubber bands hopping rapidly along after mamma.

Every morning around 6:30AM, the sound of chainsaws whining can be heard from near and far, punctuated by the crashing and thudding of big trees going down. The huge number of trees killed by drought and bark beetle has led to a spring and summer of logging to remove all the dead timber.

We’re still waiting for our tree guy to schedule our own few dozen deaders.

But really, the big news is the blackberries are starting to get ripe! I was bringing 10 gallons of water back and had to stop and catch my breath and there before me is, well, yes, a wall of thorns, but some of the thrones had ripe blackberries!

Elsewise, getting along famously on the human powered water supply. 2,500 gallons of the good stuff is coming up Saturday via the local potable water deliver truck. I spent a couple hours this morning cutting a road through the manzanita (die! die!) for the truck to get right up to the water tank. Oh yes. Still no word back from my plumber/pump/well guy.

You start to appreciate every toilet flush from a whole different angle when you carry the water up hill for each and every one. Oh my oh my yes.

Come on , Saturday!

Dead Trees

I shook the paint can and sprayed a couple of big orange dots on the last cedar tree and sighed.

That made 27 of them, dead or dying,  just in this one part of the 75 acres.

Our tree guy, Steve Costa, and I toured the area yesterday and surveyed all the dead trees. The orange dots were so his crew would know which to cut down.

Steve explained that the drought had weakened the trees, which had then been invaded and killed by the Cyprus bark beetle.

All across the state, an unprecedented number of conifers have been killed by the drought or bark beetles. One estimate puts the number of dead trees at 58 million.