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The Summit Road-Highland Way Corridor project will create a shaded fuel break by removing small trees (less than 8” diameter), while healthy trees will be retained; large dead or dying hazardous trees will be removed. By removing this vegetation, a future wildfire will burn with less intensity, a slower rate of spread and a decreased potential for fire to climb into treetops – making fire suppression easier and evacuation during a wildfire safer. Where large trees are not present or there are large gaps in the tree canopies, small trees and/or shrubs will be retained, spaced about 15 feet apart. All of the cut material will be chipped and broadcast back onsite. If grant funding is successful this fall, it is anticipated the project will occur during the spring and summer months of 2021.
What is the Summit-Highland Way Corridor Project?
It is the initial step in creating a long overdue safe evacuation route by utilizing 5.6 miles of shaded fuel breaks along Summit Road from Mt. Bache at Highland Way continuing along Summit Road to Highway 17.
Who is organizing this project?
In the spring of 2020, a concerned group of mountain community members, began discussions that included Santa Cruz County officials and John Leopold, the Santa Clara FireSafe Council, CAL FIRE, and the Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation District and was organized by the SC Mountain Alliance. Their shared purpose culminated in an agreement with the Loma Prieta School district to create and fund a much-needed demonstration project along Summit Road by the school and around the school property. The demonstration project was completed in the spring of 2020.
Click here to watch a short 3-minute video about the demo project around the Loma Prieta School.
Why is it important to get landowners and community support for the Summit- Highland Way Corridor project?
This coalition of agencies, organizations and volunteers will apply for grants to fund the Summit-Highland Way Corridor. A successful grant application for a shaded fuel break along the corridor on both sides of the road requires support and participation by the landowners and the community.
What is a shaded fuel break?
A shaded fuel break is a forest management strategy used for mitigating the threat of wildfire in areas where natural fire regimes have been suppressed, leading to a dangerous buildup of combustible vegetation. Constructing a shaded fuel break is the process of selectively thinning and removing more flammable understory vegetation while leaving the majority of larger, more fire tolerant tree species in place. A shaded fuel break provides safer ingress and egress in the event of a fire emergency.
How will the shaded fuel break impact the road corridor visually?
The Summit Road corridor will not look the same. While most of the larger trees that provide shade for the road will be left in place, dead wood and underbrush along the road will be removed.
What are hazardous trees and will they be removed?
As was shown during the CZU Complex Fire in August 2020, falling hazardous trees create a problem along an escape route during a wildfire. Hazardous trees also prevent firefighters from fighting a wildfire when using the road as a “break”.
Will all of the trees/shade be removed from the road?
No. A shaded fuel break is intended to leave the larger trees that shade the road in place while eliminating the understory that is more likely to contribute to the severity of a fire.
Will the understory grow back in, hence recreating the problem with fuel loading?
Yes, the understory will grow back. The shaded fuel break will have to be regularly maintained to keep fuel loading under control. Participating residents are asked to maintain the fuel break by cutting back understory vegetation periodically.
Besides a shaded fuel break, are there alternatives for mitigating the fire threat along Summit Road? If so, what are those alternatives?
Alternatives include using other forestry management strategies like controlled burning or a smaller, unshaded fuel break (removing all vegetation). However, these alternatives are not preferable. Another option is to leave the roadside as is by doing nothing which would not mitigate the current threat or consequences of a fire in the area.
Does the possibility exist of doing a smaller demonstration project prior to the full-scale project?
Yes. A demonstration project was completed along the Loma Prieta School property on Summit Road last spring.
Can the cut be focused on the removal of diseased, dead and dying wood rather than live trees and bushes?
Not necessarily. Live vegetation has the potential to contribute to the severity of a fire as much as dead wood by acting as ladder fuels, especially as they lose moisture in the summer and fall months.
What machinery will be used?
Chainsaws, chippers and hand tools will be used for most of the process.
Will an Environmental Review of some sort be prepared for this project?
Yes. Due to state and local government involvement, this project is subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A CEQA review will occur prior to project initiation.
What is the funding source for this project?
There is currently no funding for this project. State and possibly federal fire prevention grants are currently being sought. Funding can be difficult for these projects. Once the project is completed, participants will be asked to cut back regrowth as funding for maintenance is even more challenging.
How will day-to-day operation work?
Contracted vegetation removal specialists provide daily traffic direction and safety signage. Cutting will begin on one side of the road and move sequentially. As fuels are cut, they will be chipped and left onsite, with chip piles spread to a depth of 6” or less.
What about springs and sensitive areas?
The shaded fuel break is a selective process that would allow for variations in the size of the swath to avoid sensitive areas and riparian segments that hold more moisture and do not greatly contribute to fire.
Which methods will be used for eliminating the cut materials?
Material will be chipped and left on site. Material too large to be chipped (the trunks of large dead trees) will be left on the ground.
Is this project plan part of a commercial timber harvest? No, cut material will not be milled or sold.
Written by Andy Hubbs, Forester, CAL FIRE San Mateo- Santa Cruz Unit