Fuel break to be revived in Tomales Bay State Park

David Briggs
The Marin County Fire Department will remove dead trees, thin unhealthy ones and clear some vegetation along an overgrown fuel break running along the boundary of Tomales Bay State Park. A recent report flagged the area for fire danger.  

A forgotten fuel break along the border of Tomales Bay State Park will be revisited this fall, thanks to funding from the new countywide parcel tax dedicated to fire prevention. The fuel break, which was first established in 2006, was recommended following the 1995 Mount Vision Fire as a key way to protect the communities of Seahaven and Inverness. 

Marin County Fire has allocated $30,000 toward re-establishing the break, which originally stretched 100 feet wide and ran a mile between the Shell Beach parking lot and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, following the contour of the abutting residences. Christie Neill, a county battalion chief, said the focus will be on recreating the third of the original footprint that fell on state park lands. Additional funds will be necessary for the remainder. 

For years the state parks department has allowed the area to go unmanaged, but the fuel break made the short list for county projects in 2020. Increasingly, Marin County Fire, which took over responsibility for fuel mitigation in the Point Reyes National Seashore two years ago, is picking up the slack absent significant federal and state fire management.  

The fuel load in Tomales Bay State Park is dire, according to local forester Tom Gaman. “Hazardous and extreme forest fire weather conditions occur during periods of low relative humidity and low fuel moisture content when winds drive fire. There are many points in the park where ignition of a forest fire could occur,” he wrote in a forest inventory report he prepared last year for State Parks. 

The report described how the bishop pine, tan oak and coast live oak populations in the 962-acre park are unhealthy and dying, a result of drought years and several pests and diseases, including bark beetles, pine gall rusts, pitch canker and sudden oak death. There are similar conditions in bishop pine forests along the California coast, including on an estimated 3,570 acres on both sides of the Inverness Ridge. 

“Much of the [state] park is covered with standing dead and fallen trees, woody debris, a dense impenetrable understory of native shrubs, and deep organic ground layers of litter and duff which inhibit forest regeneration and contribute to heavy surface and ladder forest fuel loads,” Mr. Gaman wrote. “Absent some natural or human intervention, there is insufficient natural regeneration to sustain the bishop pine and tan oak forest.”

Lack of fire has played a role in the declining health of the forest, the report said. Bishop pines, which have grown on the Inverness Ridge for 6,000 years or more, live for only around 100 years, and they need occasional fire to regenerate, releasing seeds when they burn. The last large-scale fire striking Tomales Bay State Park burned 800 acres in 1932. 

The report’s lead recommendation was the prescribed burning of strategic areas. It also suggested mechanically removing dead trees, using goats to reduce shrub cover, and creating large, shaded fuel breaks along access roads, trails and the southern boundary of the park.    

The recommendations are on hold while State Parks searches for funding, said Cyndy Shafer, a Bay Area program manager.

Meanwhile, Marin Fire will use some of the new money available through Measure C, from a pot of $320,346 the department has for projects through next July. The fuel break was chosen for funding alongside two defensible space initiatives in Marin City and San Rafael. (All fire agencies, including the smaller ones on the coast, have their own pots of funds for local projects and defensible space.)

The fuel break was chosen, in part, because it was “shovel ready,” Ms. Neill said.

According to a California Environmental Quality Act notice of exemption that State Parks filed in May, the work will include removing dead trees and thinning trees with poor vigor, thinning shrubs, pruning branches up to 10 feet above ground, removing all downed woody fuel greater than one inch in diameter and cutting grass down to four inches. It’s described as a “shaded” fuel break, meaning that some vegetation will remain. 

The original break, which had the support of the nearby property owners, was a project of the Inverness Fire District. Mike Meszaros, a former fire chief, said the district obtained around $200,000 for the effort, which took multiple years to complete. Maintenance continued for some time, he said, but now the corridor is overgrown. 

To date, the break remains the primary forest management effort in the state park. It was first recommended in a report following the Vision Fire, which will mark its 25th anniversary in October. 

In 1996, a group of scientists convened by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin that included Mr. Gaman, a fire ecologist, a geomorphologist and a wildland resource management consultant published a report titled After the Vision Fire, which documented the effects of the fire and made recommendations for future land management

Prescribed burning was a key strategy. “It is not really a question of ‘if’ the remaining bishop pine forests in Inverness will burn, it is a question of ‘when.’ An alternative to wildfire is to prescribe fire and to burn under optimal conditions following a carefully planned prescription,” the report states. 

The report detailed methods for homeowners for managing the wooded areas of their properties, including those that burned. It also suggested improvements for ingress and egress throughout each of the neighborhoods in Inverness and the creation of several corridors “that could reduce the threat of uncontrollable fire.” 

The proposed corridors were along the boundary of Tomales Bay State Park, on Vision Road and on a portion of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard between Chicken Ranch Beach and Ottinger’s Hill. 

In 2001, the Inverness fire department established a fuel break on Vision Road, using $46,000 in federal monies. Vegetation was cleared 10 to 30 feet on either side of the road along a one-mile stretch between the intersection with Madrone Avenue and the boundary of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The importance of clearing vegetation there was underscored by the fact that the road serves as an emergency access route to the ridge. 

Richard Plant, who owns one of 16 residences on Vision Road, said the work in the early 2000s was excellent but that all the vegetation has grown back, despite maintenance by Pacific Gas and Electric around power lines and the fact that he and his neighbors pour money into creating defensible space around their homes.

Of particular concern to him and other residents is the fire road at the top of Vision, which lies within the park’s jurisdiction. Two electrical fires have started on that stretch within the last year.

Gregory Jones, the fire management officer for the seashore, said the park service plans to turn additional focus to that area. Yet the seashore’s fire management has dropped off in recent years. Twenty years ago, the park had a team of 30 fire ecologists, planners and firefighters. Now, there is only Mr. Jones and his colleague, who are responsible not only for the seashore but also for four additional Bay Area park units. 

Two years ago, Marin County Fire took the lead. The county agency is now officially responsible for reducing fire hazards and responding to wildfires in the seashore. Under a five-year agreement, the National Park Service is paying the county to complete 50 days of fuel mitigation work each year, with those days split between the seashore, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Muir Woods National Monument. 

Ms. Neill said that over the past two years, county crews in the seashore have focused primarily on clearing dead vegetation on the area of the ridge between Limantour Road and Paradise Ranch Estates, where the majority of homes burned in the 1995 fire. 

The work is extremely labor intensive, Ms. Neill said. The county’s seasonal fuel reduction crew costs around $8,000 a day, and is mostly engaged in the mechanical removal of trees and brush. Some wood piles that were scheduled to be burned this spring are still sitting on park service land, at the top of Drakes View Drive, since the seasonal work was delayed due the pandemic. 

In fact, prescribed burning is rarely used as a management strategy in the seashore. Although the park’s 2004 fire management plan allows for up to 2,000 acres of prescribed burning and 1,500 acres of mechanical treatment annually on seashore-managed lands, just 20 acres were burned in the last four years. Mr. Jones could not provide the acreage for the years before that.   

“There’s a huge forest health issue,” Ms. Neill acknowledged. “Certainly, we want to introduce prescribed fire in places where it makes sense and where it’s safe to do ecologically.”

Mr. Gaman emphasized burning as a critical strategy to protecting the communities of Inverness from widespread fire. In Tomales Bay State Park, revamping the fuel break is a good start, he said, but without further management, “nothing could stop a fire.” 

He went on, “It’s important that we do something. Nature doesn’t have its tools if fire has been prevented for 100 years. Fire is a cleansing tool in a forest, and it has not happened for a long time here.”