Members of the California Conservation Corps. and the Smith River Hotshot Crew were hard at work Thursday making the Gasquet community more resistant to wildfires.

Using chainsaws and other tools, the hot shot crew and CCCs removed bayleaf, coffeeberry, incense cedar huckleberry and other shrubs as well as fuel that could allow fire to climb into treetops.

The two crews are working on the Gasquet Fuel Break Project, which includes the removal of shrubs and “ladder fuels” within six strategically-placed fuelbreaks around the community, according to a press release from the Smith River Collaborative. About 300 acres will be treated over three years, according to the press release.

On Thursday, the CCCs and hot shot crew worked to maintain a fuelbreak that’s been in place since 1994, said Sheila Balent, lead fuels planner for the Smith River National Recreation Area. Much of the work on Thursday was done within sight of Gasquet homes as well as the community’s water supply.

“The intent of a shaded fuelbreak is to make sure (a wildfire) stays as a surface fire,” Balent said. “’Firefighters can put it out easier if it’s a surface fire versus a crown fire, climbing the ladder fuels.”

Once the CCCs and hot shot crews cut back the brush and put it into covered piles, the U.S. Forest Service will burn the piles later in the season, usually after it has rained, Balent said.

Other participants in the project include the Del Norte County Roads Division, which started the project in June. Work crews from Alder Conservation will also pitch in, according to the press release. The Gasquet Fuel Break Project is spearheaded by the Smith River Collaborative and funded by a $276,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to Del Norte County as well as matching contributions from the implementing partners, according to the release.

The Smith River Collaborative is a joint venture between the Six Rivers National Forest, Elk Valley Rancheria, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Del Norte County, The Del Norte Fire Safe Council, the American Forest Resource Council as well as the Klamath Forest Alliance/EPIC, the Smith River Alliance, the Klamath Siskiyou Wildland Center and Friends of Del Norte, according to the press release.

“This is about community safety,” said coalition Co-Chair and District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen in a written statement. “It’s no secret that there’s a vast amount of work to be done in our public forests. The highest priority must be to reduce fuels around our most at-risk communities and Gasquet is just such a community.”

On Thursday, Grant Werschkull, who is also a co-chair for the Smith River Collaborative as well as an executive director for the Smith River Alliance, pointed out that Gasquet is surrounded by National Forest Service land, and has a high potential for wildfire.

Balent noted that the shaded fuelbreak the CCCs and Hot Shot Crews were working to maintain was instrumental in curtailing a wildfire in 1996.

“In 1996 the Panther Fire burned into it and it helped slow the rate of spread and helped firefighters be successful in putting that fire out,” Balent said. “That’s why it’s so important to this community. That’s why the Collaborative picked this place. That’s why it’s so important we keep it maintained.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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