MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA, 06/22/2022 – The Mendocino County Fire Safe Council has received more than $3.5 million in grants for wildfire safety over the next three years, in a round of funding its director hopes represents “a new normal” for the scope of the council’s work.
In a Wednesday morning meeting of Neighborhood Fire Safe Councils around Mendocino County – with volunteer attendees representing places including Cherry Creek, Signal Ridge, and Brooktrails – Executive Director Scott Cratty answered questions about the grants and facilitated a community roundtable. Questions ranged from how to conduct a fire drill in your community to how long California Environmental Quality Act reviews – one of the council’s primary responsibilities on its projects – remain viable.
Cratty’s position was created in January of 2020, shortly after the council landed some bigger projects than the occasional ones that supplemented its prior 16 years of primarily education-focused work. The Council also brought on Bobbie Delgado to manage critical services it has become known for, like defensible space assistance and community chipper days; a grant from the California Fire Safe Council let the organization hire Emily Tecchio as county coordinator. In addition to this core team, a network of project managers can be relied upon for assistance, including a few retired CalFire captains.
“The scope of what was just awarded in a couple of months is really cool, and we’re going to be really busy,” Tecchio said brightly in the meeting, scrolling through a map of the newly funded projects across the county that she “whipped together” that morning. (Not to be confused with a more complex and comprehensive map of fire safety work countywide, forthcoming next month in collaboration with CalFire).
There was a competitive application process for the largest of the council’s new CalFire grants, which will provide $2.5 million for safer evacuation and firefighter access in selected areas near Yorkville (Elkhorn Road), Laytonville (Cherry Creek), Lake Mendocino (Vista Del Lago), and Willits (Ridgewood). Crews will remove branches and brush that encroach on key access roads to make them safer during an emergency and create a fuel break to keep fires from advancing.
“Nearly 2,000 residents and daytime workers will receive enhanced protection from this particular fuel-reduction project,” the council explained in a news release.
The other two CalFire grants were awarded directly to the council; one will provide $600,000 primarily for scientific studies to conduct CEQA reviews and obtain environmental clearance for future prescribed-burn and road-clearing projects CalFire plans to implement. This project spans over 10,000 acres in the county. The other project is a $435,000 award for environmental clearance and fuel breaks, as well as CEQA reviews to prepare for prescribed burns, in the East and West Hills of the Ukiah Valley.
“These will help protect the entire valley’s population of 13,000, as well as critical infrastructure and essential services, by slowing or preventing wildfires that might otherwise reach into the city itself,” the release detailed.
This award will also fund roadside clearing along Orr Springs Road east of Comptche, which is a primary access route – and one of the few existing options for an east-west fire break across Mendocino County. An alternative to this road would be “creating a substantially more expensive and environmentally disruptive off-road fuel break.”
To accomplish its work on all these projects, which will span 22 different sites, the council works closely with residents, Neighborhood Fire Safe Councils, and local fire departments. Neighborhoods with councils advocating for their needs often see good results in terms of fire safety, Cratty told The Voice.
“Working together we can get a lot done to help our communities adapt to, and learn to survive and thrive in, the wildfire-prone environment we live in,” he said. “In a lot of the places where people have made the effort to organize and help define what needs to happen, help is coming.”
Another key role neighborhood councils play is connecting with people who live near project sites to obtain permission to use their land.
“We are depending on all of you out there, as these projects fire up, to really kick in and help us put pressure on the neighbors and get these agreements in,” Cratty said in Wednesday’s meeting.
The role of the landowner agreement is different depending on the project, he told The Voice.
“For a CEQA review that might be letting a contracted botanist, forester and/or archeologist look for sensitive sites or things that would need protection before work is done,” Cratty explained. “For a fuel reduction project that might mean allowing us to remove small trees and brush up to some maximum trunk size and letting us limb-up other trees for 10′ clearance off the ground.”
The council’s largest award from CalFire also involves an educational outreach component with neighbors: interested community members can witness home inspections for real-life demonstrations of what home conditions are the most dangerous – and what can be done to make them safer. The council plans to conduct 300 of these inspections. (Hosting them locally can also be a good alternative to fire drills, Cratty pointed out to one attendee who lamented that a drill had been canceled in her neighborhood).
Cratty believes defending our homes is one of the most important steps locals can take in preparing for the possibility of a nearby wildfire. The council provides six steps to getting ready on its website, as well as a video series on how to harden your home and create defensible space.
“Mainly, do something, take some little step every week to get yourself and your home ready,” he advised. “When you begin to feel your home and family are becoming prepared, move on to help your community by joining or starting a neighborhood group.”
Mendocino County District 3 Supervisor John Haschak joined the meeting Wednesday morning, following a Board of Supervisors meeting the night before that included a long debate over a possible sales tax measure to fund fire safety efforts in the county. Ten percent of the quarter-cent tax – if it makes it to the ballot and is subsequently passed by voters, both question marks at this stage – could fund $400,000 of the fire council’s research into fire safety strategy, he shared.
More information about the work and services of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council is available online.
Kate Fishman is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Kate’s work here or email [email protected]. TMV maintains editorial control. You can reach her with news tips at [email protected] or at (707) 234-7735.