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New grant to allow extended fuel reduction work in Sonoma Valley

The black burn marks high up on the trunks of century-old Douglas fir trees still appear fresh, though it’s been more than three years since the Nuns fire swept through this patch of forest on the Bouverie Preserve and on into Glen Ellen and surrounding communities.

The passage of time is more evident in the slender trunks of dead bay trees, dried out and stripped of foliage since the 2017 firestorm exploded across the region. Around them, dense collections of bay sprouts shoot skyward — natural regrowth that could prove ample fuel for future wildfires..

On Thursday, skilled crews climbed the steep slopes of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s 535-acre preserve to do something about that — part of a long-term effort to reduce fire risk on the property and across a wider swath of Sonoma Valley.

This week, they’ve tackled about 25 acres of oak woodland and mixed evergreen forest, some of the 95 acres of tree thinning planned over the next month and again later this summer and early fall to reduce fuels in strategically selected locations, said Jennifer Potts, a resource ecologist at Bouverie Preserve.

Workers from Great Tree Tenders in Redwood Valley, chain saws in hand, are thinning the forest, taking down dead, mid-level ladder fuels and cutting out overcrowded bay laurel sprouts so that only the dominant leaders are left to grow into trees.

The result will be a more porous forest — one without so much oily, highly flammable brush — that both wildlife and flames can more easily pass through, said Potts. The thinning takes out only trees 8 inches in diameter or less, and spares native trees, promoting larger, more fire-resistant trees that sequester more carbon.

“We’re trying to take care of our property and our neighbors’,” she said.

The crews move fast in rough terrain, working through yards and yards of thick vegetation. And it’s not inexpensive: a little over $5,000 a day to cover 10 people working sunup to late afternoon, Potts said.

But the need is great at Bouverie and around the valley, where the Audubon Canyon Ranch is one of six organizations that came together to better address fire resiliency in the wake of the 2017 wildfires

The Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative also includes the Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma County Regional Parks, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, California State Parks and the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, which, combined with ACR, own and manage 18,000 acres in the valley.

Under a more than $1 million, three-year fire prevention grant received from Cal Fire two years ago, the collaborative has mounted successive efforts to provide ecological benefit and improve fire resiliency, said Tony Nelson, stewardship program manager for Sonoma Land Trust.

This week, the collaborative announced a second grant of $319,364 from the Resilient Communities Program, a collaboration between Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to help communities address climate-related disasters.

The two-year grant will overlap the Cal Fire funding, extending the existing work at least a year. It will cover three additional projects and allow for the purchase of tanks, pumps, hoses and other equipment intended for use in prescribed burning, said Nelson.

The collaborative is separately working on a long-term plan with Cal Fire for extensive controlled burns in the area to help reduce fuel loading.

Existing projects include shaded fuel breaks like one underway at Trione-Annadel State Park this week. There, near Bennett Ridge, workers were thinning out low-lying vegetation, hanging branches and other ladder fuels to prevent future fires from climbing into the forest canopy and provide an access point for firefighters to attack a blaze.

A similar shaded fuel break was created last fall at Sonoma Valley Regional Park near the Carmel Avenue entrance and the town of Glen Ellen, which sustained extensive damage during the 2017 Nuns fire.

Crews recently completed some brush thinning in the eucalyptus grove at Jack London State Historic Park, and have been clearing flammable vegetation along access roads to both Jack London and Trione Annadel state parks.

“The main thrust of the Cal Fire grant is focused on community safety,” Nelson said.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also has given $500,000 to the collaborative for property acquisition that will broaden its impact on resiliency, though details have not been disclosed.

Jeanne Wirka, who manages the collaborative, noted that the county’s Open Space District recently thinned about 30 acres of land in the Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve north of Bouverie. To the west, Sonoma Land Trust, another collaborative partner, is managing its 236-acre Glen Oaks Ranch according to the same values, Potts said.

“Fire management and the impacts of climate change are pressing challenges that transcend property boundaries or jurisdictional lines and that require us to work together,” Nelson said in the grant announcement. “Homes and communities have their work to do, and we’re grateful that this funding will help the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative use proven methods that contribute to community safety while also promoting ecological health and resilience in our natural landscapes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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