Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, March 18 @ 4:59 p.m. / Environment, Fire

Smith River Collaborative Reps Say Their Fuels Reduction Efforts Contributed To Minimal Structure Loss During Smith River Complex

Firefighters work on the Kelly Fire, one of several blazes that burned as part of the Smith River Complex last summer. | Photo courtesy of Inciweb

Nearly four months after fire officials declared the Smith River Complex controlled, members of a local collaborative said the minimal structure loss can be largely attributed to their fuel reduction efforts.

Grant Werschkull and Donna Peppin, representatives of the Smith River Collaborative, gave a breakdown of their successes along with projects the group is currently working on to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors last week.

It was the Smith River Collaborative Joint Chiefs, Pappas Flat and Big Flat projects that protected the communities of Gasquet, Washington Flat and Little Jones Creek during last summer’s wildfire complex, according to Peppin, natural resource specialist for the Six Rivers National Forest.

The Joint Chiefs projects involved fuels treatments on 342 acres of federal lands and hundreds of acres of private land near the Washington Flat wildland-urban interface. Del Norte County and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation successfully applied for National Wildlife Federation grant dollars to treat about 400 acres.

The Smith River Collaborative worked with the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and Elk Valley Rancheria to conduct a prescribed burn in the Pappas Flat near Gasquet.

The Smith River Collaborative also did fuels reduction work on about 600 acres near Big Flat and will treat 600 more acres on private land and 200 additional acres on federal land.

“One of the 12 lightning-caused fires from the Smith River Complex occurred in this Joint Chiefs Project area,” Peppin wrote in her Power Point. “It was contained on Aug. 15th during initial attack due to the fuels treatments.”

The Smith River Collaborative is a joint venture with the Six Rivers National Forest that got its start through a National Forest Foundation grant Werschkull, co-executive director of the Smith River Alliance, wrote back in 2016.

Werschkull co-chaired the collaborative with then-District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen.

The Collaborative’s partners include the Elk Valley Rancheria, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Del Norte County, the Del Norte Fire Safe Council, the American Forest Resource Council and environmental groups Friends of Del Norte, the Smith River Alliance, Klamath Siskiyou Wildland Center and the Klamath Forest Alliance/EPIC.

Last week, Werschkull pointed out that several of the partners are often at odds with each other.

“What Gerry and the Forest Service and I recognized is we needed desperately for them to work together in order to get outcomes,” Werschkull said.

Those outcomes include the Del Norte Wildfire Protection Plan, which was updated in 2020 and identified areas most at risk along with critical assets and resources. According to Werschkull, that was an important tool for obtaining funding.

Werschkull also mentioned the Gordon Hill Project, which included thinning around the Camp Six Repeater Site near Gasquet. A lot of environmental documentation and many years of collaboration went into implementing that project, according to Werschkull.

“It was the recipe in terms of ‘How do you treat timber stand improvement? What do we do with roads? How do we survey for endangered species?'” Werschkull said. “Once you have that recipe dialed in that allowed us to apply that to future projects very efficiently.”

The Smith River Collaborative’s current projects include treating 1,326 acres in the Knopki Creek area. According to Peppin’s presentation, this project is being implemented in partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation. Disaster Relief dollars from the 2020 Slater Fire is being used and the Collaborative received

National Fish and Wildlife Federation dollars for that project.
The Collaborative is also using NFWF dollars for fuel reduction efforts near Gasquet, Hiouchi, Pappas Flat and on lands managed by the Yurok Tribe, Peppin said.

The Smith River Collaborative is also working on initiating fuel reduction efforts near Pacific Power’s transmission lines.

“Especially with a new funding proposal we’re working on, that will complete efforts in the Pappas Flat area, which really is strategic in backing up the treatments that Pacific Power did during the fire and reinforcing those [treatments],” Peppin told supervisors, adding that the Smith River Collaborative is going through the federal environmental permitting process to do fuels work in the Rowdy Divide area later this year. “The next project after that is what we’re calling the Holiday/Monkey area and that will treat the fuels, again, from the bottom and top of the power lines on that side of the Patrick Creek area.”

At the Board’s March 12 meeting, District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who represents Hiouchi and Gasquet and other communities along U.S. 199, pointed out that aligning a variety of opinions took a heavy lift.

Howard said he’d like to see a member of the Board of Supervisors return in a leadership role with the Collaborative since Hemmingsen is no longer a county supervisor.


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