Fuels Treatment Progress

Forest Service land managers are making progress on 445 acres of fuels reduction on the Grindstone Ranger District and about 350 acres on the Upper Lake Ranger District.

Fuels reduction projects like these are examples of the kind of work and partnerships that the Mendocino National Forest will be building on to meet the agency’s ambitious plan to treat millions of acres over the next 10 years.

  • Blowdown in burned area

    Before: In this before photo, high winds had blown down standing dead trees, also called snags. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Radoslaw Glebocki.

  • Fuels rearranged after mastication project

    After: In this photo taken after a mastication project, fuels on the ground are compacted and rearranged. One masticator can move through roughly three acres per day, depending on tree diameter and terrain difficulty. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Radoslaw Glebocki.

“Given the postfire and environmental conditions among other challenges, every accomplishment is worth celebrating,” said Upper Lake District Ranger Frank Aebly. “I am proud of the work our fuels and fire crews have been able to do in their slow season.” 

Fuels are any material that can burn. Excess fuels are increased amounts of vegetation beyond historical norms or that if burned uncontrolled can cause undesired effects. Factors like vegetation, wildlife habitat, terrain, and resources determine which types of fuels treatments land managers can use. 

The goal of fuels treatments is to reduce fuel loadings. When fuel loads are low, wildfire burns at a lower intensity. In the event of a wildfire, areas treated for fuels give firefighters a safer place to build lines to contain a wildfire.  

Hand thinning and mechanical thinning in Lake Pillsbury basin

Thinning is a type of treatment land managers use to reduce fuels. Thinning is the removal smaller diameter trees and shrubs. With less competition for nutrients and water, remaining trees can grow larger and be more resilient to stressors like drought, insect infestation or fire. Used to reduce tree density, thinning can be treated manually by hand or mechanically with heavy equipment.

In the Lake Pillsbury basin, crews conducted hand thinning on 70 acres in the Booth Crossing Fuel Break project to help protect the Pillsbury Ranch from fires coming off the forest and the forest from potential fires from the Ranch, while at the same time creating a corridor for elk migration. Over 190 acres of hand thinning in the Westshore project was completed this year. Hand thinning treatments provide added benefits to wildlife, creating new foraging habitat for tule elk.

And on approximately 62 acres, mechanical thinning is underway to treat dense fuels stands near the Pillsbury Homesites tract. Contractors are working on this project as well as the Elk Mountain Hotshot Crew who are doing hand thinning in an adjacent unit.

Mastication along M5 Road

On the Grindstone District, another fuels treatment project is underway in an area of about 445 acres. Contractors began mastication along the M5 Road earlier this year. The project area is in the Ranch Fire footprint, which burned over 280,000 acres on national forest lands.

  • Open stand of trees after mastication

    Brush has been cleared in this stand along the M5 Road. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Brian Combs.

Masticators are shredding, chopping or grinding small-diameter trees (less than 12 inches diameter at breast height) and shrubs into smaller pieces. While mastication doesn't remove fuels, it rearranges and compacts them in ways that make them less prone to fire ignitions. The total number of acres to be treated will be limited to those areas with accessible slopes and will not include any riparian areas to protect sensitive stream habitats.

When used properly and in the right situations, mechanical equipment can provide targeted outcomes, such as increasing spacing between tree crowns and redistributing or compacting fuels on the ground. Equipment is typically limited to slopes that are 35% or less.

In a stand of native California black oak, the overgrown understory has been cleaned up, providing habitat for deer and other wildlife. California black oaks also provide important cultural benefits for Tribes. Fuels treatments in these oak groves can improve the quality of acorns, an important food source for Native Americans.

  • California Black Oaks on M5

    Open spacing after mastication in this stand of native California black oaks, one of the few hardwood tree species in the forest, on Pine Ridge along County Rd. 42. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Radoslaw Glebocki.

The M5 Road mastication project will also tie in with other fuels treatment projects happening on neighboring private lands.

“A cross-boundary approach is important for protecting the communities we serve,” said Grindstone District Ranger Loren Everest. “I want to align our fuels treatments efforts with those of our neighbors.”

Partnerships are key

Fuels managers on the Upper Lake Ranger District are also looking to partnerships and collaboration to accomplish much of the needed fuels reduction work. Currently agreements are in place for work with CAL FIRE, Clear Lake Environmental Research Center, and the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance (TERA).

In February this year, the TERA crew started working on Forest Service lands on fuels reduction projects under an agreement that will incorporate tribal ecological knowledge into management practices.

“This is an exciting moment that has been years in the making to have the TERA crew working with us on their ancestral lands,” said Aebly.

Fire crews spend their slow season removing hazard trees

Over winter and spring, Mendocino’s fire crews were hard at work falling hazard trees, an ever-present safety concern in a burned forest. Hazard trees are dead or dying trees that pose a safety risk to visitors, forest employees and critical infrastructure (i.e., buildings, roads, picnic tables, and restrooms). Fire, drought, or insect infestation can weaken and kill trees. No matter where you are in the forest, it’s important to be always aware of your surroundings.

In some cases, such as the Letts Lake campground, fire crews have taken down hazard trees only to identify new trees that have been weakened or stressed from ongoing drought and insect infestation. That campground was recently reopened thanks to the crews’ hard work.

  • Letts Lake campground

    View of Letts Lake Campground and hazard trees, March 2022. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Laura Leidner.

In early July, a fire crew from Payette National Forest traveled down on an assignment to help clear some of the hazard trees. The six-person crew cut 37 trees in just a few hours on the M3 Road near the Lower Nye trailhead. One tree that had fallen was over 40 inches in diameter. Large-diameter trees like this one require advanced chainsaw certification.

  • Clearing tree from M3 Road

    Engine 622 from the Weiser Ranger District, Payette National Forest, cut 37 trees in two hours on the M3 Road near Lower Nye trailhead on Mendocino National Forest. One tree blocking the road was over 40 inches in diameter. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Vincent Mariano.

A hazard tree falling and piling contract along roads is nearly complete on the Upper Lake Ranger District. This 175-acre project was funded by Forest Service and CAL FIRE grant funds in partnership with the Clear Lake Environmental Research Center (CLERC).

  • Bartlett area hazard tree piling project

    Hazard tree falling and piling work completed in the Bartlett area. USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Hinda Darner.

What’s on the horizon for fuels and hazard tree work?

Additional contracts for hazard tree work have been funded to reduce hazard trees along roadsides for nearly 500 acres along the M1 Road near Lake Pillsbury as well as along the roads to Deer Valley and Pine Mountain. The additional contracts are funded in part through a wildfire disaster relief package passed by Congress in the wake of recent wildfires. The other funding sources for the contracts are the Forest Service’s hazardous fuels program and a CAL FIRE prevention grant through a partnership with CLERC. 

A Post-Disturbance Hazardous Tree Management project to reduce public safety hazards near roads, trails and facilities is going through the environmental planning process and may soon offer another tool for Mendocino’s land managers to address safety concerns. 

Finally, the forest’s environmental planning team has proposed a forest-wide prescibed fire and fuels management strategy to address fuel loading and improve forest health and resilience across the landscape.  

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