State and feds acknowledge Lake Hills fire danger
Attorney Rick Linkert’s Lake Hills home could quickly be overcome by the type of fire that last weekend’s drill assumed. He and his neighbor Jim Stevens live on El Sur Court, their tiny back yards abutting the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.
Linkert took a media tour of the training area as the drill took place, and said he appreciates the effort and attention directed at the threat to his neighborhood — a validation of 10 years of pleading to three generations of state park superintendents, begging them to address the flammable brush, dead trees and down branches that have built up between the lake and his neighborhood.
Saturday’s exercise caught the attention of the current generation of park management — SRA Superintendent Matthew Green, who took the helm in March, and Bureau of Reclamation Area Manager Mike Finnegan.
Village Life spoke with both men, who said they support fuel load reduction. Finnegan stopping short of promising immediate action but indicated that he had crews on the ground, and if the danger in Lake Hills is real residents should expect a fuel-load mitigation effort this summer.
State parks and Reclamation manage the park under a 25-year joint agreement signed in January that also covers Lake Natoma and the extensive state recreation area in the steep canyons between Auburn and Foresthill, which also pose a huge fire danger.
The current, higher Folsom Lake water level exacerbates the risk in Lake Hills by creating secluded coves that make ideal party spots. Residents report that shoreline bonfires are common in the summer, as evidenced by fresh fire rings well within ember-popping distance of dry grass.
“For us it’s not a question of if, it’s when the next fire rolls through here,” said Linkert, standing on his deck Sunday morning.
He reached up and touched the branches of a sprawling live oak, whose trunk is in the park but canopies his yard and deck. “If this stuff goes, we’re done for,” he said, gesturing to the wood siding and extensive deck that adorn the house, one of the first in Lake Hills, constructed 1966 by a prior owner as a lakeside retreat.
“There was just scattered oaks out there then,” he said. “We could even see the lake.”
The dry grass, brush and the prevailing lake breeze are perfect conditions for a firestorm disaster, Linkert explained, adding that quick response by Cal Fire and the El Dorado Hills Fire District has saved Lake Hills on multiple occasions.
An eight-acre fire in 2001 required 20 engines, hand crews, a helicopter, three air tankers, and a bulldozer to contain, he said, putting fire crews in harm’s way in El Sur Court back yards as a last stand to protect the homes. “Hard work and a shifting wind prevented the holocaust that we all feared would occur.”
Linkert traces the root of the problem to state and federal policies that have treated all fire as an enemy until recently, even those occurring naturally, while failing to replicate the role of fire in clearing out fuel density and fuel ladders.
In a series of letters to park superintendents over the last 10 years Linkert describes “a veritable wall of trees immediately adjacent to our homes,” and laments that local fire agencies and residents have been prevented from clearing the brush and ladder fuels.
He accuses the park service of spending millions on environmental consultants but doing nothing to address the fuel load since 2005, while threatening criminal prosecution of residents who take matters into their own hands.
“EDH Fire and Cal Fire are now concerned to the point that they are now conducting what is essentially a ‘Run for Your Life’ drill,” he said.
Linkert and his neighbors fervently deny that they’re more concerned with their lake views than fire protection.
“Just take out the ladder fuels, leave the tree canopy,” said Linkert’s neighbor Jim Stevens, who lives on a corner rise with the state park on two sides, just 10 feet from his house at one point.
For many years Stevens and other residents have quietly maintained defensible space in the park. Local fire officials encouraged the practice just as quietly, and some state park officials were also aware of their actions.
In 2002 equestrians saw Stevens cutting a dead snag and reported him. Park rangers showed up at his doorstep in force to cite him. The district attorney followed with misdemeanor charges for destruction of state park plants and vegetation.
Linkert, who’d been told by local fire officials to emulate Stevens’ actions, was outraged, and offered to defend his neighbor. Thus began his 10-plus year odyssey for fuel load reduction in the park.
Stevens’ case was eventually settled by a $500 donation to the Folsom Powerhouse Museum and a promise to lay off the chain saw on state property. After a year the charges were expunged.
“But I still cut the weeds a couple times every year while it’s still green out here,” said Stevens, showing off his defensible space.
He insists he’s not concerned that he might be cited again, explaining, “I can’t have dry brush 10 feet from my house. There’s a dead limb on the fence now, like a bomb waiting to go off.”
Green called that the incident, which occurred 10 years before he took office, an exception. “We’ll get 2.5 million people in the Folsom and Auburn parks this year,” he said. “Last weekend we had three DUIs, a couple assaults and 10 ‘in custodies.’ We aren’t looking for people cutting dead tree limbs.”
He questioned Linkert’s contention that party fires were routine. “If that’s true we’re sure not hearing about it,” he said. “We want to respond, but you have to report it to us.”
The state park performed the last meaningful fuel reduction in the area — the Lake Hills Shaded Fuel Break Project in 2005 and 2006 — which required an extensive environmental review, some of which might still pertain, volunteered Green.
Senior Park & Recreation Specialist Jim Micheaels predates Green, and has been a frontline contact for Lake Hills residents in the past. Reached by phone, he explained that the Shaded Fuel Break Project created separation between the ground and the tree canopy, and offered his agency’s support for the continuation of the project “if someone can find resources to get it done,” he said.
“We’ve worked with HOAs that have paid contractors to do vegetation modification in the recreation area,” Micheaels continued. “If the community has resources for fuel reduction we look forward to working with them.”
He also confirmed that some park neighbors have been caught clearing vegetation in the park to improve their view; some were prosecuted.
He stopped short of accusing Stevens of cutting a view, but questioned the wisdom of building houses 10 feet from the park boundary. State park and reclamation teams routinely work together on “nuisance” or “hazard” trees along the park boundary, Micheaels said. “Please don’t cut trees in the park.”
He encouraged Lake Hills residents to report any illegal party fires to state park dispatch at (916) 358-1300, and to call Reclamation for nuisance tree removal.
Reclamation Area Manager Mike Finnegan acknowledged that under the new managing partner agreement, “Responsibility for the pre-suppression work and fuels load management falls on Reclamation.” He was sympathetic to Lake Hills residents’ concerns, and said, “We need to attend to it and respond.”
A comprehensive fire suppression plan for the entire corridor is lacking, but plans for specific areas, including Lake Hills, have been prepared.
An agreement to contract with Cal Fire for fuel load suppression and other work has been held up for a couple of years over legal issues, he said.
Finnegan made it clear that he wants Cal Fire on the job. “We had federal funding available for this purpose and they are the most knowledgeable and professional in this field,” he said. “We would love to get that settled, and we are still working on it. Both agencies’ intention is to work through it and funnel some federal money to them to address some of the threat situations.”
In the interim Finnegan said he’s deployed a full-time California Conservation Crew in Auburn. He stopped short of making any promises to Lake Hills residents but said, “It’s possible, based on the immediacy of the issue you raise, that we could redirect them.”
When, Mike? “We’re not going to wait another year or so while we update some comprehensive plan before we take action on this. We have options to address it now. If we can redirect work here, we’ll do it.”
That can’t happen soon enough for attorney Linkert, who volunteered his services as a pro-bono mediator for the negotiation between Reclamation and Cal Fire.
He has considerable experience in wildfire litigation, defending clients sued by the state and federal government for fire suppression costs and natural resource damages.
In the current litigious climate Lake Hills residents are not only threatened by fire escaping from the park but must also fear financial ruin resulting from fire escaping from their property into the park, he said.