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Crews create Fern Canyon fuel break to help protect Paso Robles from wildfires 

Crews clearing a section of Fern Canyon in Paso Robles.

Paso Robles Fire and Emergency Services recently completed a Fern Canyon fuel break to protect the city from wildfires. The project eliminated flammable chaparral and shrubbery from approximately six acres bordering the east end of Fern Canyon, Fern Canyon Road, and private property on the canyon rim at the end of Old Peachy Canyon Road.

The 2018 wildfires motivated the city to commit to risk assessments to identify areas that make Paso Robles vulnerable to a wildfire. Fern Canyon was identified as a location where surrounding wildfires could land, ignite, and burn into the city. Battalion Chief Scott Hallett said the project began in late spring 2019 with the assistance of Cal Fire crews and equipment. The project was completed last month with privately contracted hand crews funded by a grant obtained through the San Luis Obispo Fire Safe Council in collaboration with Paso Robles Fire and Emergency Services.

“The primary purpose of the fuel break is to break the continuity of the fuel both vertically and horizontally,” said Hallett. “Fuel continuity is an important factor in fire behavior. Continuity refers to the horizontal arrangement of the fuel, whether the fuel is closely or sparsely spaced and influences where a fire will spread, how fast it will spread, and whether the fire travels through surface fuels, aerial fuels, or both. Horizontal continuity is the extent of horizontal distribution of fuels at various levels or planes.”

The Fern Canyon project is a shaded fuel break, meaning highly flammable brush is removed but most of the trees are left, after first removing lower branches that could ignite from a brush fire. Removing shrubbery and lower tree limbs eliminate ladder fuels, those fuels that allow fires to burn vertically.

“Typically, with our fuel types on the Central Coast fires are ground or surface fires,” said Hallett. “By removing the horizontal continuity of the fuels and reducing the ladder fuels we can limit or slow the spread of fire. The work on the Fern Canyon project was completed using a small skid steer masticator and hand crews. The vegetation removed with hand crews was then chipped and the material (mulch) was left on site.”

In the event of an approaching wildfire the fuel break is an insertion point to limit the spread. The break becomes a point allowing greater success for using hose lines, dozers hand crews, aircraft and other fire fighting operations.

Paul Esmond, whose property borders Fern Canyon, said, “I’m grateful, along with my neighbors, to Paso Robles Fire and Cal Fire to participate in the Fern Canyon fire control clearance project after over 50 years of dangerous overgrowth. We and the city will sleep better knowing our town, people and homes are much safer. Thank you all the men and women workers.”

San Luis Obispo Fire Safe Council is part of a grassroots community-based network sharing the objective of making California’s communities less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

Fern Canyon Project Area

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.