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Plumas and Lassen counties were devastated by the month-long Chips Fire that started July 29 and burned more than 75,000 acres of forest.
During the course of the Chips Fire, several communities were evacuated, major roads were shut down and several campgrounds were forced to close for the season.
Part-time residents who normally stay in town throughout the summer packed up their bags and left early. Residents who battled through the smoke endured health problems such as tiredness, difficulty breathing and red eyes.
Local businesses lost thousands of dollars in revenue, causing some to go into layoff mode.
Summer events such as the Street Rod Extravaganza and the Lake Almanor Fall Century Ride were cancelled.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the counties affected, which allowed for the use of more state resources to help battle the fire.
Wild animals were forced from their natural habitats and left to find homes in more stable areas. A small female bobcat was found hobbling alongside the road where mop-up operations were being conducted. The cub, who was later named Chips, was examined and found to be suffering from second-degree burns on all four of her paws.
The affects of this fire were not only physically and emotionally draining, they were financially draining. More than $55 million was spent fighting the fire, and local entities such as lumber companies, the sheriff’s office and businesses estimated a combined loss of more than $27 million.
With the amount of damage caused, community members have raised concerns that the Forest Service is not properly managing the national forests.
Prior to the containment of the fire, promises were made by Earl Ford, Plumas National Forest supervisor, that officials would give the public opportunities to tour the devastated burn area and offer suggestions on how to manage restoration.
The first such tour was held Oct. 13, followed by three community meetings held in Greenville and Quincy throughout the next week.
The main purpose of the tour was to hear from community members: What did they believe were restoration priorities for the fire area?
“We want to make this an open transit of ideas and we will do our best to incorporate them as we go along,” said Michael Donald, district ranger for Mt. Hough Ranger District.
Four stops were made along three main roads going through the fire area.
With the addition of Caribou Road, the Forest Service decided that these would be the first roads to treat for safety hazards.
During the first stop on Ohio Valley Road, Ford discussed the varying complexity of damage made by the Chips Fire. This stop showed very low-intensity burns.
Only 20 percent of the burned area was severely impacted, unlike in the Moonlight Fire, which had more than 50 percent of high-severity burn.
He explained that the difference between the two fires was primarily due to the high winds and hot weather that kept pushing Moonlight Fire forward at a rapid rate.
According to Ford, three-fourths of the Chips Fire burned on Plumas National Forest, and the other quarter burned a combination of Almanor, Lassen and privately owned forest.
Plumas forest has extremely step terrain, whereas Lassen has much flatter ground.
According to Ford, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told PNF officials he wanted them to be as aggressive as possible with the restoration. “We want people in the field by December,” said Ford. “The longer we wait, the more value we lose.”
A team has been assembled to assess what areas of the forest need to be addressed before winter.
The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team has already started its assessment, which consists of land treatments (weed and archaeology site protection), road/trail treatments (storm-proofing, stream crossings and trail stabilization), protection/safety treatments (signs, hazard tree felling, storm patrol and response) and monitoring.
“We have decided which trees are coming down and have marked the areas with a blue ribbon. We have to follow specific guidelines to do this logically.
“We will identify what trees will die and which ones will green back up. If the support of the tree is compromised, it will be marked for removal,” said Ford.
The next stop was made past Ohio Valley, to Clear Creek. The purpose of this stop was to view examples of some high-severity burn.
Unlike the previous stop, the entire area consisted of completely torched vegetation. The grounds were covered in ash and only a few patches of life could be seen throughout the area.
There were many Pacific Gas and Electric Co. lines that had trees burn up next to them. PG&E has permission to remove those trees without speaking to the Forest Service first.
Donald explained that some areas in the forest are PG&E’s responsibility to maintain. He said those areas would be identified and PG&E would be held accountable for removing the wood.
“We compel PG&E to buy it, and in turn, they will try to sell it,” said Donald.
“We want to get this timber out as fast as we can,” said Joe Smailes, an ecosystems operations team leader with the Plumas National Forest.
He explained that the Forest Service’s first priority is to remove completely dead trees and to pick up roadside hazards. If trees are alive but Forest Service personnel think they will die, they will be removed. Their plan is “mark, fall, sale. Bam, bam, bam.”
They will be focusing on main roads and trees that are likely to hit the roads. The minimum size of trees cut will be 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
Trees that are cut but not sold will be left in place for the public to use.
Biomass will be removed and taken to the closest cogeneration facility to be converted into electricity.
Prior to the tour, Plumas and Lassen officials got together to discuss the best way to tackle the restoration.
According to Donald, it was decided that they would tackle the easiest “hanging fruits” first and then follow a four-tiered plan on how to complete the salvage. “We will look at the cost and time ratio, and decide what we can get done with the resources we have.”
The next stop was along Bear River Road. This area showed a “mosaic” burn pattern, where one tree might be severely burnt but the one right next to it was hardly touched.
Ford explained that most of the burn areas looked like this, and reiterated that only a small portion was torched beyond usability.
This stop allowed an opportunity for Colin Dillingham, ecologist, to share information on the wildlife in the forest.
He was very positive that the highly burned areas would actually benefit the animal life in the forest. “A lot of species move into these high burnt areas,” Dillingham said.
The rare black-backed woodpecker will likely be migrating to the areas devastated by the fire. According to Dillingham, they prefer nesting in the highly burned areas.
“I foresee an increase in wildlife because of the fire. It is a fantastic forage area,” he said.
Ford said that some steep, high-severity areas won’t be treated. “It is not economically viable to treat those areas.” According to Dillingham, these areas will be left as habitat areas.
“Little patches of high-severity burn also make good hunting grounds for owls,” said Dillingham.
Some of the areas affected by the fire contain protected activity centers for spotted owls. Out of 23 centers, only three were lost during the fire. The Moonlight Fire, however, damaged 22 out of 23.
The last stop was made at Butt Lake. Contrary to popular belief, this area is still very much intact. The burn was very minimal.
After spending the afternoon on the lake, and enjoying the fall scenery, guests had the opportunity to give suggestions to the Forest Service.
All 27 in attendance had the opportunity to speak. Rather than suggestions, the consensus was that the Forest Service seemed to have a good grip on things, and that the community needed to be more informed on the fact that the forest is still intact — not everything is burned.
One person in attendance asked how the public could be certain the Forest Service is in fact doing what it says it will be doing. Ford decided updates would be placed on the Plumas National Forest website for every step they take.
“We need to make sure we treat this land aggressively, knowing we do not want to come back 10 to 15 years from now and have to do this all over,” said Ford.
A suggestion form has been added to Plumas National Forest website so residents can tell the Forest Service what their priorities are for the Chips Fire restoration.
To submit priorities visit fs.usda.gov/plumas. Under “Features” click “Read on” in the Chips Fire Restoration section, and lastly click “Public Feedback Form.”
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