Since late July, thousands of acres of forest land have been burning roughly 13 miles northwest of Cave Junction, often retracing the lines of the 2002 Biscuit Fire that burned almost 30,000 acres of forest in Del Norte County.
“The only thing that stopped the Biscuit Fire from spreading here was that the wind quit blowing,” said Dan Leavitt, facilitator of the Del Norte Fire Safe Council, on Friday by phone. “If it wouldn’t have quit blowing it would not have stopped until it reached the Sacramento River.”
The likelihood of the current blaze, dubbed the Labrador Fire, spreading to forested communities like Gasquet and Hiouchi is slim, but recent projects have made those communities more safe for the next time that fire comes close to home.
The Hiouchi Mountain Firebreak project, on the small mountain north of Hiouchi, is being completed this summer, creating a protective barrier for the community from any wildfires coming from the north or northeast.
The vital importance of the 100-foot-wide, 2,500-foot long fuel break along Hiouchi Mountain Road was recognized as a “Top Priority Fuel Reduction Project” in the 2005 Del Norte Fire Safe Plan, which was created by the Fire Safe Council to identify and prioritize projects to reduce wildfire risk in the county.
Leavitt noted that the Hiouchi Mountain Firebreak, which starts at the top of Ashford Road, is just one of several semi-circle fuel breaks recently built or planned for the near future in order to prevent the spread of fires to and from Hiouchi, Gasquet and homes on Low Divide Road.
“They’re all supporting each other,” Leavitt said.
Dan Peeples owns roughly 200 acres atop Hiouchi Mountain, the hill just north of the development that includes the Hiouchi Hamlet, Hiouchi Diner, Hiouchi Motel and Hiouchi RV Park.
In the early nineties, when Peeples started inquiring with the county government about creating a residential subdivision on his property, he worked closely with then-county planner Ernie Perry. Even then, Perry mentioned the importance of some type of conservation easement that could be used to build a fire break through Peeples’ property.
A fire threat map in the Fire Safe Plan shows Peeples’ land colored dark red, meaning a “very high” risk for wildfire. The federal government designated Hiouchi as a “Community At Risk” in 2001.
In 2005, the conversation easement on Peeples’ property was finalized, and it included a clause that the county would provide “vegetation management of the hillside…to mitigate any identified wildland fire hazard,” according to county reports.
Driving down Hiouchi Mountain Road, there are still a few piles of branches and brush that must be chipped to finish the project. The road passes by a 2,500 gallon fire water storage tank — one of several that was installed in 2004 to help protect Hiouchi from wildfires. The tanks, another project identified in the Del Norte Fire Safe Plan, were funded by the Del Norte Resource Advisory Committee.
Peeples is happy to play a role in an important piece of fire safety infrastructure for the forested towns of Del Norte, but he said all credit should be given to Perry, his staff and the current county planning department.
“This project is really important,” Peeples said, during a recent tour of the fire break. While looking down at Peeple’s fantastic view of the Hiouchi Forks of the Smith River, he pointed upriver and said: “Someday, there’s going to be a fire that comes down that canyon — it’s going to be a big deal.”
The chunk of property that overlooks the Forks is now designed to be a staging site and landing area for firefighters and helicopters in the event of a fire. Using his own heavy equipment, Peeples leveled out the primitive heli-pad.
The fire break project was funded with $9,000 of federal funds coming from Secure Rural Schools, Title III funding, a federal program designed to help counties that historically relied on timber revenue for county government expenses.
The majority of the brush-thinning and vegetation-clearing was completed by the Alder Camp work crew.
Work crews from the Bar-O Boys Ranch also contributed to the project, funded by $43,000 in Title III funding for a Community Service Work Camp: educational fire-safety projects that will be completed on Peeples’ conservation easement.
The county was able to purchase much of the equipment at a major price break from surplus Rural Human Services Tsunami Work Crew equipment, and the county road department will be able to use the gear in the future.
Leavitt said that the current Labrador Fire near Cave Junction had the potential to spread to Del Norte, but that the winds have worked in the county’s favor.
Should the next fire be less favorable to Del Norte, at least Hiouchi will be a little more protected.