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Let It Burn: Whitmore Preps For An Increasingly Hot Future

Fire is serious business. All photos by R.V. Scheide.

The problem is we just don’t have enough time. You can say that about a lot of things in life, including life itself, but I’m being more specific here. Fire season is just around the corner, and we have only a couple of months left to prepare for what portends to be yet another sizzling hot summer in which a single errant spark can set off a lethal 100,000-acre conflagration at any moment.

Here in Whitmore, in the forested foothills 30 miles east of Redding, we’re preparing for the worst. Many of the 1000 or so residents who live in the Whitmore area’s 200 square miles understand we’re living on borrowed time. It’s been more than 15 years since the last major fire in Whitmore proper, a relatively small 1000-acre blaze that burned down the bar. Sadly, it has never been rebuilt.

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During that interim, at least one major drought has occurred, with intermittent wet winters that have promoted excessive vegetation growth. Red flag fire conditions throughout the years have prohibited both logging operations and residential forest fuel removal efforts. As a result, much of the Whitmore area is dry and overgrown, a tinderbox waiting to explode.

In short, Whitmore is a disaster waiting to happen.

But some of Whitmore’s residents aren’t taking this state of affairs lying down. In the wake of 2017’s catastrophic Tubbs Fire—harbinger of the increasing number of northern California megafires predicted by most climate change models—these residents have taken action, forming the Whitmore Fire Safe Committee last May.

According to Chris Withey, a 45-year resident who’s chairman of the Whitmore Community Center and the new Whitmore Fire Safe Council, the effort began taking shape early last year after he proposed establishing the community center as an official evacuation shelter. That led to a conversation with Thomas Twist, chairman of the Shingletown Fire Safe Council, which was formed five years ago as a vehicle to apply for state and federal forest fuels reduction grants.

Thanks to an untimely motorcycle accident, I missed the Whitmore Fire Safe Council’s first meeting last May. I attended my first meeting in November, shortly after the Camp Fire totally incinerated Paradise, killing 86 people and burning nearly 240 square miles, causing $20 billion in property damage.

There were few empty chairs in the Whitmore Community Center that night, attendance no doubt buoyed by concern over the recent disaster in Paradise. The atmosphere was grim as Whitmore Volunteer Fire Company chief Bill Ellis, who serves on the board of the new Fire Safe Council, delivered a short but poignant lecture on climate change science and the predicted increase in 100,000-acre megafires in our unfolding future.

Ellis, my new local hero, titled his remarks, “How Not To Burn Up.” Noting that 4.1 million Californians live in the wildland-urban interface, he said, “We’re living in an area that’s incredibly dangerous.”

If there were any climate change deniers in the audience, they held their tongues.

January meeting of the Whitmore Fire Safe Council

To mitigate the danger, the Whitmore Fire Safe Council is developing a multi-point plan that addresses disaster communications, the creation of evacuation zones and escape routes, fire-adaptive building and landscaping methods and the removal of forest fuels from public and private property.

The lack of any sort of organized disaster communication may be one of Whitmore’s most vulnerable weak points. Although Whitmore and nearby Oak Run residents recently submitted a petition to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors seeking to construct a cell phone tower to serve the area, very few residents have cell phone coverage, and thus can’t be reached by the county’s emergency notification system.

Furthermore, many people move to Whitmore to get away from it all, and by “all,” I mean everybody else, including their neighbors. Simply constructing a land-line phone tree, by going door-to-door and asking strangers to sign up, is a hazardous proposition.

To accomplish the task, Ellis, who’s developing Whitmore’s evacuation map (the fact that it doesn’t already exist is frightening, considering what happened in Redding and Paradise), has, per the federal FireWise program, divided the area into a dozen residential districts, each one headed by a volunteer resident leader. The resident leader’s main responsibility is to develop the phone tree for his or her district.

I walked out of my first Whitmore Fire Safe Council meeting as an “assistant resident leader”—my across-the-street-neighbor took the top job. I’ve lived here for five years and have never really talked to her or her husband. Before the next meeting, I called her up and discovered (a) she’s a very nice person and (b) there are more than 50 individual parcels in our district.

Contacting many of these people, assuming they’re even living on these heavily-wooded properties, is going to be difficult.

The next meeting took place in late January and while not as well-attended as the previous meeting, the turnout of more than 30 people in Whitmore on a Monday night was better than average. The featured guest speaker was Thomas Twist from the Shingletown Fire Safe Council.

Swift described a small rural forest fuels reduction program exactly as I have imagined it. During the past five years, using a combination of state grants including California Climate Investment funds, Shingletown has developed a residential chipping program that’s available at no cost to all of its area residents. A portion of the local waste transfer station has been dedicated to forest residue; there’s no charge for dropping it off.

In the near future, Shingletown plans to obtain a truck and a trailer to assist residents who don’t have the means of transporting forest material to the transfer station.

There’s one slight hitch in Shingletown’s plan. The acceptance of CCI funds means Shingletown can no longer burn in place the slash piles that accumulate at the transfer station, as it originally did. There are seven enormous slash piles there now, awaiting the acquisition of a wood grinder that will reduce the slash to chips suitable for burning in Wheelabrator Shasta Energy Company’s biomass plant in Anderson.

This is the future projected on a far larger scale in the California Forest Carbon Plan, developed by the governor’s Climate Action Team and released last year. In theory, collecting forest residue in the field and transporting it in fossil-fueled trucks to the biomass energy plant and then burning it through a filtered smoke stack puts less carbon into the atmosphere than burning slash piles in place.

Whether or not local communities in the wildland-urban interface like Whitmore can ramp up their forest fuels removal activities to the level required by the Forest Carbon Plan is where theory bumps into reality. Even if communities do rise to the occasion, there’s no guarantee the biomass energy industry can ramp up its capacity to receive the avalanche of forest waste heading its way.

A study included in the Forest Carbon Plan found that with the state’s existing biomass energy capacity, it would take 100 years to dispose of the Sierra Nevada’s 129 million dead trees alone.

At the January meeting, Chris Withey announced that CAL FIRE had turned down the Whitmore Fire Safe Council’s first grant application in December. The council is hopeful that a $200,000 CCI grant will be approved in March, so Whitmore can get the ball rolling.

“Until then, we’re pretty much on our own,” Withey said.

Sierra Pacific set fire to this slash pile next to my house in January.

Thanks to Withey, chief Ellis, vice chairwoman Tania Greenwood (owner of the Whitmore Store with husband Ryan), secretary Sara West, treasurer Joe Mello and board members Art Tilles and Joe Rodriguez, the Whitmore Fire Safe Council is charting a clear path forward for our small town’s future fire protection.

Until then, as long as it keeps raining this winter, we do have one weapon at our disposal: fire itself.

In the past, I haven’t been a big fan of burning slash piles in place. Partly this is because such burning emits a tremendous amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases when compared to burning it in, say, a biomass energy plant. However, it is far less than the gigatons of carbon emitted by 100,000-acre megafires, which open slash burning can help prevent.

I’ve also been wary of burning forest residue on the 8-acre ranchette we live on because I don’t want to be shunned as “that guy” who set the mountainside on fire.

But recent slash burning conducted by Sierra Pacific in the Whitmore area has demonstrated to me that not only are such activities safer than I imagined them, they are an effective tool for eliminating massive amounts of overgrown forest fuels quickly.

Last month, Sierra Pacific literally lit on fire a half-mile of the mountainside forest immediately adjacent to the north side of our property. They timed the burn perfectly to coincide with the start of a week of heavy rain. Perhaps ten large slash piles, stacked up after SP selectively logged the area last year, were set ablaze.

Such burns usually come with no advance warning from SP, but Withey received a heads up and was able to warn the community several days before the fact via the Whitmore Community Action Group Facebook page.

So I wasn’t too startled when I was pulling out of the driveway one morning last month and saw the 20-foot tall pyramid of logs and forest debris piled up 50 yards from my house was fully ablaze. I drove around the outskirts of SP’s property, and saw all the piles were burning, including a stack of hundreds of small trees so enormous, it could be seen from space on Google maps.

The slash piles burned and smoldered for five days, through howling winds and torrential rain. Thousands of tons of material must have been incinerated. Gone, just like that! Moreover, the fire, on a scale far larger than I require, didn’t escape and burn the whole mountainside down.

This gave me new confidence about what can be done with fire, and the very next weekend, my girlfriend and I torched our first brush pile of the season.

It began small, with dead scrub oak and pine needles and cones. But soon we began dragging dead manzanita branches, chopped down by my Dad 10 years ago before the drought curtailed burning, into the fire. There was maybe a quarter-acre of felled manzanita; we burned half of it in less than four hours.

(The manzanita fire was quite hot. I recommend not staring into it too intensely. My eye sockets were sore for a week afterward.)

This past weekend, in advance of the rain, we burned again, igniting an automobile-sized slash pile collected from our defensible space area. As the flames raged, we gradually expanded our defensible space, lopping off branches, cutting down small trees and manzanita bushes, adding them to the fire.

We’ve got at least one major slash pile left to burn this season, which we plan to do next weekend, weather permitting.

Formerly, I used to fret how we were going to dispose of all this forest material accumulating on our property. If I rented a wood chipper, how many loads would I have to haul to the biomass plant (assuming they would take it) in my 1985 Toyota pickup?

According to Shingletown’s Thomas Twist, the Shingletown Fire Safe Council has accepted 1101 loads during its five-year existence, representing 5000 to 6000 individual burn piles.

Here in Whitmore, which is a wee bit smaller than Shingletown and five years behind, we’re working our way toward the same future. One day soon, I’ll be taking loads to the Whitmore transfer station to be chipped.

Until them, weather permitting, I’m going to let it burn.

See those smoke plumes in the distance? I live next to the one on the right.

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