© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Neighborhood that survived the Creek Fire shows potential for slowing wildfires near communities

A forester in a gray jacket and jeans stands smiling in a forest of trees that are charred on the bottom but green on top
Kerry Klein
Consulting forester Julianne Stewart stands on the half of Rock Haven that received forest thinning treatments.

On the part of the community of Rock Haven that received forest thinning treatments, the Creek Fire lost enough intensity to spare mature trees and historic homes.

On the outskirts of the town of Shaver Lake, in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Fresno, a left turn off of Highway 168 will take you into a small community on a wooded hillside.

It’s a cluster of homes known as Rock Haven. Julianne Stewart explains the cabins here date back to the original town of Shaver Lake, which was relocated and flooded when the San Joaquin River was dammed in 1927. “Most of these homes are about 100 years old, many of them have been handed down through generations from the original owners,” she said.

Stewart doesn’t live at Rock Haven. She’s a Registered Professional Forester at a consulting company. She’s been managing the trees on this rugged property for years, and she points out a stark dividing line on a hillside that became pivotal during the Creek Fire. “There's the green, there's the not so green,” she said.

To the left is an ash-covered slope punctuated with the charred husks of trees, denuded of needles and leaves, and on the right, green trees that look normal aside for char marks on the trunks that subside about 10 feet off the ground. The cabins are completely untouched. The difference was in how the forest was managed on each side. “That was the boundary line from what was treated before the fire to what was treated after the fire as part of cleaning up,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty stark.”

A few years ago, Stewart helped the residents obtain state funding to thin their dense stands of trees, but the funding covered only a little less than half of the 160-acre property. So when the Creek Fire roared through the area last fall, the untouched half was devastated, but the treated half slowed the blaze. The fire still crept through, but it stayed low to the ground and didn’t have enough fuel to burn the defensible space around the houses.

Not only that, firefighters also used the property to help protect the community of Shaver Lake. It’s an example of how forest management can help mitigate the effects of catastrophic megafires, which threaten lives and destroy hundreds to thousands of homes each year. “I'm so happy that these cabins are still here,” said Stewart, “and as a forester, maybe even more importantly, that we have this much green healthy forest still here that’s going to be here for wildlife doing everything that it needs to ecologically.”

Stewart’s work at Rock Haven, which she refers to as treatments, involved removing dead trees and closely packed living ones, as well as the underbrush and lower branches known as “ladder fuels” that could help a fire climb from the ground to the canopy.

After the treatments were finished, Stewart says the forest at Rock Haven was a far cry from just five years ago, when it was completely overgrown. “I think we can probably see close to 300 feet in some directions right now,” she said. Back then, however, “Visibility would have been probably closer to 20 feet, just incredibly thick.”

Charred trees rise out of steaming bald hillside
Julianne Stewart
On the untreated half of Rock Haven, dead and charred trees have been felled, piled and burned so that new seedlings can be planted.

Thick forest is beautiful, but it’s unsustainable in times of drought when densely packed plants are competing for resources, and it makes for a dangerous amount of fuel in a region that’s overdue for wildfire.

Rock Haven was critical in the early days of the Creek Fire, according to Jim McDougald, a CalFire Division Chief who at the time was assigned to Fresno and Kings Counties. When the blaze thundered to Shaver Lake, it first hit land surrounding Rock Haven that had also been treated, and it slowed. Then, because Rock Haven was so well cleared, and it already contained roads, CalFire firefighters could haul in a handful of engines and bulldozers.

For a day or so, McDougald says, they used Rock Haven as a home base, utilizing dozers and small burns to widen the highway and set up a protective border around the cabins and the wider community of Shaver Lake. “Having the ability to put that line around it and having those dead trees out of that community helped us do our jobs,” said McDougald. “It helped the whole community, of course.”

The work at Rock Haven was funded through the California Forest Improvement Program (CFIP), a cost-sharing program managed by CalFire. Across four decades, CalFire has awarded more than $75 million in CFIP grants to projects to make forests healthier and ready for wildfire. And McDougald says the Rock Haven project is a clear CFIP success story. “You bet, very very successful,” he says.

The treatments at Rock Haven didn’t come cheap: They cost nearly $2,000 per acre, a price that would be untenable at a forest scale. “The large landscape is very difficult. It’s so big,” he said, but McDougald argues better management is feasible—and urgent—in priority areas near communities. “It doesn’t have to be the whole landscape, but if you do things in strategic areas, you can reduce the impacts and provide firefighters opportunities to start picking these fires up.”

Julianne Stewart agrees. “As soon as the fire starts, everyone can tell that’s an emergency,” she said. “I think that the emergency is existing right now, and I think we need to respond as if it were an emergency right now.”

Looking out over the devastated half of Rock Haven, Stewart says it’s hard to not feel a sense of personal loss. “It's a pretty huge disappointment to me,” she said. “On any day of the week, I would much rather see a healthy functioning forest that is providing all the goods and services we count on it for. So it makes me really sad.”

But she’s also motivated to restore the forest here in a healthy way, helping big trees mature without being outcompeted for resources by faster-growing ground cover. With a new round of CFIP funding in hand, Stewart is ready to plant 16,000 seedlings to start a new ecosystem of pines, cedars, firs and giant sequoias.

“As foresters, you kind of are committed to a piece of land. You’re never done. No matter what,” she said. “We just have our biggest challenge cut out for us now, where we’re starting from ground zero really and trying to re-establish a forest.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
Related Content
  • Escape From Mammoth Pool is a new podcast from KVPR. It's the true story of how 242 people—and 16 dogs—survived one of the fastest-moving, most intense wildfires in California history, as the Creek Fire closed in on their campground at Mammoth Pool Reservoir over Labor Day weekend 2020. Produced by Kerry Klein for KVPR—NPR for Central California.