Just over a month ago, the homes at the end of Via de la Vista in Inverness sat right up against a serious fire hazard: a drought-afflicted bishop pine forest. Now, the underbrush, a thicket of lichen-covered bushes, gives way to a thin layer of wood chips stretching more than 100 feet from the homes. The absence of fuel could stop a wildfire in its tracks.
A group of Seahaven neighbors funded their own fuel break between Tomales Bay State Park and their residences, staking out defensible space that they say is key in protecting their community from a potential wildfire next door. The project, paid for by contributions from 30 property owners amounting to $42,000, bypassed some of the regulations that come with public funding, and is set to be largely finished this week.
“This is a perfect example of collaboration among private owners,” said Carlos Porrata, a former Tomales Bay State Park ranger and one of the residents involved in planning the fuel break.
The project was devised by local forester Tom Gaman, who has consulted for California State Parks. It consists of six acres of so-called shaded fuel break, meaning that trees are limbed up but not removed and underbrush painstakingly cleared by hand and chipped on site.
Now, the line between the thick forest of the state park and the private property next door is stark. “Tomales Bay State Park is pretty much a jungle,” Mr. Gaman said.
The fuel break is located in a strategic spot, positioned at the top of a drainage that runs down to Shell Beach.
“We’re working right at the top, where if a fire came from the park, it would likely go up the hill,” Mr. Gaman said. “There’s a good chance it would end up somewhere in this vicinity.”
A four-man crew from the Inverness Gardening Service removed primarily huckleberry and coffeeberry bushes, leaving oaks, hazelnuts, wax myrtle, madrone and small bishop pines. Ismael Gutierrez, who runs the company, has been doing tree work in West Marin for 30 years, including for the National Park Service and the Inverness Public Utility District. He’s heartened by the renewed focus on defensible space.
“This year, whenever I see a phone call come in, it’s about fuel reduction, fire breaks,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Everybody’s coming together.”
The project isn’t the first of its kind to protect Seahaven. In 2007, a narrower fuel break stretching from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Shell Beach was completed by IPUD, inspired by recommendations from Mr. Gaman and other scientists after the 1995 Mount Vision fire. But after several years, the break became overgrown, and now, Mr. Gaman said, it’s impossible to discern where the line was.
Help seemed to arrive last summer in the form of funding from the new Measure C parcel tax. The Marin County Fire Department allocated $30,000 toward restoring the neglected fuel break, but restrictions got in the way: The funds could only be spent on public land, and all work would require an analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act. Before the Seahaven fuel break could be fully restored, the funds ran out.
In the end, the county reclaimed just three small sections of the fuel break earlier this year— one section around the Shell Beach parking lot and two near private property. The work was far from complete, and a number of homes were left vulnerable. “They didn’t really address the critical fire danger up at the top of the hill, in the bishop pine forest,” Mr. Gaman said.
So in February, Mr. Gaman, Mr. Porrata and Seahaven residents Felix Chamberlain and Phil Jonik began planning for work on private property, which they knew would help them avoid some of the regulatory hurdles faced by the county. They also hoped to demonstrate proactive forest management to officials they say have neglected to address conditions in the state park and the Point Reyes National Seashore.
They approached Michael Barnett and Rob Helmer, who own the last two homes on Via de la Vista, directly adjacent to the state park and not far from the seashore.
“They both jumped at it because everyone who lives up there knows there’s way too much fuel in that area,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “We’re using the generosity of these two private landowners to put this fuel break as close to park property as we can, because sadly neither park is proactive enough to really get a hold of what needs to be done in that area.”
Mr. Chamberlain helped plan and drum up support for the project. In April, he sent out fundraising emails to everyone in the neighborhood, and he collected checks from homeowners. The $42,000 he raised is all going to Mr. Gutierrez; in the coming seasons, the group hopes to write grant applications to fund maintenance of the fuel break.
“Our feeling as a group is that we created this, and now we’ll write grants for the money to maintain it,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “We did the heavy lifting as a community, and this is going to benefit a lot of people.”
Mr. Gutierrez started the work in early August, after waiting for the end of spotted owl nesting season. The team obtained a permit from the state park to work in a few areas of public land within 100 feet from homes. The new fuel break, though relatively short, is much wider than the original 2007 break. At some points, it provides up to 400 feet of buffer between the neighborhood and the forest.
The Seahaven neighbors hope their effort sets an example for the county and the state park, to encourage those agencies to connect the dots and fill in the original fuel break.
“As a community, this is what we’ve done on our own,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “You need to step up and you need to replicate what we’ve done along the Seahaven border all the way to Shell Beach. Connect these three areas that they did in January with that $30,000.”
Cyndy Shafer, the natural resources program director for California State Parks, said officials were involved in the fuel break work earlier this year, and the agency will continue working with the community. “We have a lot of shared interests around wildfire safety and forest health,” she said.
While the county was cutting the small fuel breaks in January, one Seahaven resident had already begun creating one on his own land. Gray Brechin, who lives down the hill on Sir Francis Drake, read a report on the state of the forest prepared by Mr. Gaman for State Parks, and hired Ramirez Tree Service to begin clearing brush around his house.
He was inspired in part by a forgotten 800-mile fuel break, the Ponderosa Way, that once ran the length of the Sierra Nevada. The break was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. “I’m trying to find out how they did that when I was only able to build a few hundred yards to protect my property as well as my neighborhood,” Mr. Brechin said.
A conflict over privacy and noise concerns with a neighbor put a stop to Mr. Brechin’s project, but the area that was cleared has allowed easier access for Mr. Gutierrez and his crew, which is using the partially completed break as the eastern border of their work.
Mr. Gaman said the break will benefit the health of the forest. Bishop pines, which only grow in a handful of isolated pockets on the Pacific coast, have been living on the west side of Tomales Bay for at least 6,000 years. They naturally regenerate after fire, but the patch of woods near Seahaven last burned in the 1930s. Decades without fire have contributed to an unhealthy forest that is ultimately more dangerous, Mr. Gaman said. The trees that sit on drier ground are in bad shape, and many are falling victim to pests like bark beetles and diseases like pitch canker.
The seashore does not have its own dedicated fire management officer, and Marin County Fire has taken the lead on wildfire response and prevention there. Neither the seashore nor the state park have made prescribed burning a management strategy, which Mr. Gaman said leads to poor forest health over time.
Officials are in the early stages of planning a more proactive vegetation management project for all of Tomales Bay State Park, which Ms. Shafer said is a “top priority.” The plan could involve prescribed burning, or various manual treatments, and must undergo a California Environmental Quality Act review later this year.
“It’s really going to be done for the health and resiliency of the bishop pine forest, and that’s going to have some benefits for fire prevention as well,” Ms. Shafer said.
In the meantime, the private fuel break will give the pines a fighting chance against the overwhelming underbrush, Mr. Gaman said. “Those trees are competing with the shrubbery for water, and so during this drought period they’re dying in droves,” he said. “We have an opportunity here to really improve forest health in the bishop pine forest.”