Inmates work on fire break

   A two-mile long fuel break is being created in Ramona’s West End—the first one for the area—to serve as a “community defense zone” in case of fire.

   The break starts at the Lemurian Fellowship off Highway 67, goes south paralleling Kay Dee Lane, then crosses Kay Dee Lane to head west to Rockhouse Road and back to Highway 67.

   The project is being orchestrated by CalFire and funded by a Hazardous Fuels Treatment (HFT) grant from the U.S. Forest Service. The work is being done by inmate fire crews from the women’s Puerta La Cruz Conservation Camp in Warner Springs, under the direction of a CalFire captain.

   Since the work began in the spring, about a mile and a half has been completed with one-half mile left to do.

   “But the hardest part is coming. There are more homes in a more sensitive area,” said CalFire Capt. David Janssen, a forester who got clearance for the project under the state’s Environmental Quality Act.

Janssen explained that the nature of a fuel break has changed dramatically since the law was enacted in 1973.

   “We used to make a break 300 feet wide and take it down to bare soil to try to keep brush from growing back in the area,” he said. “Today we know more about fire science and ecology and we make a plan according to the species out there. We remove about 75 feet or a little more, which is enough to keep a fire from jumping or running and picking up speed. We feather the edges to make it more natural and leave clumps along the way for wildlife habitat.

   “Firefighters can fight a fire along a fuel break, and if you’re fighting a fire from the air, a break is like a big neon light that says, ‘Make the drop here.’”

   The area is cleared in a way that doesn’t distrub the roots and allows brush to grow back, “but in three to five years, it’s only going to be ankle high, or knee high at best,” he said.

   Ramona’s other fuel break is in the San Diego Country Estates and was put in as the area was being built, “and the forest service is looking at doing another one further west,” Janssen said. “Many others are under consideration, such as Clevenger Canyon, which is on the left side of Highway 78 as you come into Ramona, and one from Sutherland Dam to 78.”

   But it can be a long road from deciding to create a fuel break and actually doing it.

   “We have to do an intense database search to be sure that we will not be doing environmental damage,” Janssen said. “We have to evaluate the area to see if it is an archeological site or if there are there endangered species there. It can take six months to a year to get clearance to cut brush.”

   And it’s a lot of hard work.

   When the West End fuel break was started in the spring, two or three of the 16-women inmate fire crews were there every day. Lately there may be only one crew because the others are busy with varying fire-related tasks.

   “Our goal is to use these inmates from the Corrections Department conservation camps so we can train them how to go out on fires and do other missions like this one,” Janssen said. “They are learning how to operate chainsaws and clear brush. We are trying to give them skills they can use when they get out.”  

   CalFire has fire crews in three male camps and two female camps.

   The West End fuel break was originally intended to be part of a vegetation management project designed by the Ramona West End Fire Safe Council, which received a $150,000 U.S. Forest Service grant to clear brush and thin vegetation. Phase one of the plan called for cleaning out interior access roads and phase two was the fuel break.

   However, when council members realized they did not have enough money to do both, CalFire Battalion Chief Greg Griswold with the Ramona Fire Department stepped in to see if he could get a HFT grant to create the fuel break. The exact cost of the break is unknown at present because the funding is coming from a HFT grant issued to three counties: San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside.

   Property owners involved in the West End fuel break have given permission for the work to be done on their land, but there is no cost to them.

Kristi Mansolf, chair of the West End Fire Safe Council, is thrilled that CalFire is completing the council’s plan.

   “Now if a fire comes in from the east, this should help cool it down and give the firefighters an area to stage in,” she said. “Before, in an area with dense growth that hadn’t burned in 40 years, there were no options.” 

   
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