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Firebreaks planned for Trinity ridgeline

By Christian Kallen

With the fire disasters of the past five years still top-of-mind for many Sonoma County residents, the board of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space) authorized $3.8 million in grants for vegetation management projects, including over a quarter million for a local system of firebreaks on the Gordenker Ranch property north of Highway 12. It’s the site of a historic organic turkey ranch, a vineyard, a bee-friendly farm, and a robust cannabis garden, as well as the presumed point of origin for the devastating Nuns Fire of 2017.

The 18 grant projects also include a project on the Trinity ridgeline between Nuns Canyon and Trinity Roads ($227,774), as well as infrastructure reduction on Bennett Ridge ($28,550), a fuel reduction project on Gehricke Road east of the city of Sonoma ($999,750), and two other projects elsewhere in the First Supervisorial District.

The “Trinity Ridgeline Fuel Break project proposal was submitted by Sonoma Resource Conservation District and aims to manage some of the fuel buildup in this area, associated with the Nuns Fire, and provide better emergency access and treatment options in the case of future wildfire events,” said Kim Batchelder, vegetation management coordinator for Ag + Open Space.

Erich Pearson, co-owner of Sparc cannabis company and a farming tenant on Gordenker Ranch, is managing the Trinity Ridgeline Fuel Break project. He knows firsthand the devastation that wildfire can bring — to the wooded slopes of the Mayacamas community, to his own productive agricultural facilities, and to the residents of Trinity Oaks, a 150-house development all but wiped out by the Nuns Fire on the night of October 8–9, 2017.

Pearson worked with Aaron Fairbrook of Sonoma Resource Conservation District (RCD) on the grant proposal. “After performing a site visit and looking over maps, it was apparent that the project scope met the funding goals of the Sonoma County Vegetation Management/PG& E settlement funds and could potentially be a good fit,” said Fairbrook.

The Trinity ridgeline project will convert four miles of old fire road on 500 acres into firebreaks crisscrossing the property, created by clearing 30-footwide swaths of fuels on both sides of the roads between Nuns Canyon Road and Trinity Road.

“The Gordenker property has a lot of existing older fire roads that had been left unmaintained,” said Pearson. “So, the road is there, the cut in the mountain is there, but years’ worth of brush and trees have grown and fallen — vegetation has taken over those roads.”

The fuel reduction crews will work by hand, overseen by RCD staff. Pearson and others will help out by providing the skid-steer loaders to create piles for burning the debris next winter, and for spreading seed and straw in the newly created fuel break. By using manual labor and by following existing roads, the project is California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliant.

“Grant agreements are for 18 months, and we hope to have the grant agreements executed for the 2022 grantees by the beginning of May, so they can begin work immediately,” said Batchelder.

The funds for these grants come from the settlement award from PG& E of $149 million, $25 million of which was allocated for vegetation management.

“It is important to note that one of the other items the Board [of Supervisors] approved … was the development of a micro grant, whereby we aim to provide technical assistance and support to unsuccessful project applicants,” said Batchelder. He also noted that in 2021, 95 proposals had to be rejected as they were not CEQAcompliant; the technical assistance grant “will help these community groups be more competitive when applying for future grants.”