The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) formed the California Fire Safe Council with the intent of seeing that local fire safe councils were formed with the single charge of educating the local public about fire abatement practices that can save their homes in the event of a fire.
The Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council (MCFSC) was formed in 2001 and became a 501(c)(3) corporation in 2002. We quickly saw that while the single CDF charge was certainly necessary, it did not go far enough. The communities of the San Jacinto Mountains are mostly surrounded by National Forest — a forest that has been under-managed for more than a hundred years. While that under-management was based on a misunderstanding of the role fire plays in nature and in the maintenance of habitat, it nonetheless has created havoc within both the agencies deemed responsible for the forest and for the forest itself and it's wild inhabitants.
Many people who now live in the mountain forests came here as flatlanders thinking that all these trees were really neat. We slowly came to understand we had chosen to live in a keg of dynamite. The forty-trees-per-acre (thirty-three feet apart on average) forest no longer exists in North America with rare exceptions in Mexico. We realized that we were surrounded by two hundred to three thousand trees per acre. It was with this shared knowledge that the MCFSC took a new direction.
We began to push for thinning both in the forest and inside the community. We formed a group we came to call the "Woodies." This group began with dedicated people who often conributed the use of their own chain-saws, trailers, log-splitters, and tractors. The Woodies began to remove trees on private property for individuals, donating the resultant firewood to a local agency for those less fortunate. As of the end of 2009, the Woodies have gotten grants to purchase equipment for use in their work and continue to do abatement on properties where the owner cannot afford the 1/4 to 1/3 cost of an MCFSC contractor. They have contributed more than 500 cords of firewood to the Help Center and volunteered more than 16,000 hours. In 2008, a new, similar, affiliated group, calling themselves the "Tumbleweeders" formed in the Anza Chapter.
When the massive die-off of both conifers and manzanita began, we started talking seriously with the U.S. Forest Service about thinning in the forest. As a result of that effort, the MCFSC formed a partnership contract with the Forest Service, and performed a major role in the creation of what is now known as the Pine Cove Fuel Break. That is, we worked two days a week at what we do best, and that is the thinning of (mostly) dead trees and brush to create a park-like area from three hundred to five hundred feet wide around the perimeter of the community of Pine Cove in one of the areas most sensitive to a fire coming up a canyon. Since that original effort, the Forest Service has created fuel breaks around much of the Idyllwild/Pine Cove communities.
Early in 2003, the MCFSC received its first USFS funded grant to hire contractors to work on a cost sharing basis with the property owners. A few experienced Woodies became project managers who meet with property owners, make a work plan, get bids from contractors, verify that the contractors complete the work according to the plan, document the work photographically, and authorize payment to the contractors. A typical grant covers between 2/3 and 3/4 of the cost of the abatement.
As our abatement program evolved so did our educational outreach activities. We have developed a well-received program used in the local school; our newsletter goes to the approximately 8,000 property owners in our database; from time to time, we hold public meetings with programs on fire safety. We have found the one-on-one interaction between our project managers and property owners to be a most effective educational activity.
By the end of 2009 we had removed hazardous fuel from 1,500 properties totaling almost 1300 acres. Recently we started recording the tonnage of hazardous fuel removed and found that we are removing nearly 100 tons per month. This dramatically reduces the fuel available in case of a wildfire.
The secret to our success thus far is the willingness, no, the eagerness with which our people dig into the resolution of problems within the community. In the third quarter of 2009, more than 1,000 volunteer hours were donated to the MCFSC. These hours, together with the value of the donated wood prepared by the Woodies, represent a value of $23,325 or $7,775 a month. We could not do it without the dedication of our wonderful volunteers.