POLLOCK PINES, Calif. (KTXL) — It has been almost six months since the Caldor Fire destroyed hundreds of homes in Grizzly Flats. At one point, the fire was heading straight for Pollock Pines, a town of 7,000 people.
From an overlook off Highway 50, residents of Pollock Pines watched helplessly last August as the fire came within a couple of miles of their evacuated town.
“Everybody just all at the same time tried to get out,” said resident Sharee Sunfeather.
Sunfeather and her neighbors had reason to be afraid at the time. The fire had just destroyed hundreds of homes in a nearby town. But the flames never reached Pollock Pines.
It was evident that a project, years in the making, did exactly what it was designed to do.
“The fire really had stopped its progression here,” said Resource Conservation Districts District Manager Mark Egbert.
FOX40 met up with Egbert in a forest just south of Pollock Pines near Sly Park.
“I’m the district manager for the El Dorado and Georgetown Divide Resource Conservation Districts,” Egbert said.
The Resource Conservation Districts advise landowners and public agencies, bringing all parties to the table.
“The leadership from Cal Fire, and the Forest Service, and other entities like Sierra Pacific Industries, the El Dorado Irrigation District, the County of El Dorado, really came together and sat down at the table and said, ‘How are we going to align our priorities? How are we going to share our resources, and how are we going to get some tangible work done on the ground? Because we can’t afford to keep losing these communities,’” Egbert said.
With the help of state and federal grants, they put together a plan called Fire Adapted 50, working to make communities along Highway 50 more resistant to wildfires. Over the last few years, they have thinned out 10,000 acres of forest.
“If you don’t manage them, you’re going to have too much fuel,” said licensed forester Jim Davies.
Davies is a contractor on the project. In forestry lingo, it’s called a fuels treatment.
“So, what we did, we came in and took out the smaller trees, the sick, lame trees and lazy trees and left the larger trees,” Davies said.
“And so that helps increase the forest resiliency to drought, climate change, the effects of wildfire and other things that affect the overall health and condition of the forest,” Egbert explained.
The Fire Adapted 50 project was put to the test during the Caldor Fire.
“Firefighting crews from Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service knew the Fire Adapted 50 project area and footprint was here. So, that enabled firefighting crews to access the area and put firefighting tools such as back-burning on the ground here,” Egbert said. “And that back-burning operation is what actually intercepted with the Caldor Fire itself.”
In untreated areas of the forest, there is densely-wooded combustible material. Low-hanging branches are the ladder fuels. Fire can race up to the tops of the trees in those areas.
In treated areas, the bottom of trees are visibly scorched, but the fire was unable to get into the canopy.
“There’s no way you could put firefighting crews in there to stop the fire. So, these strategically placed fuels treatments are positioned in a way where they are adjacent to communities, adjacent to values like water infrastructure systems that we have here,” Egbert explained.
“And it gives us a chance then to come up to it and head it off,” said Diana Swart, an information officer with Cal Fire. “Actually quite proud of this project, of the Fire Adapted 50.”
“It’s the balance, right? We don’t take out too much. But we don’t want to take too little. And of course, for Cal Fire, having this fuel break is just such an advantage for us as we saw with the Caldor Fire,” Swart said.
“Those firefighting crews were actually able to make a stand here,” Egbert said.