A recently awarded multimillion-dollar grant from CalFire will allow resource conservation districts in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to work on improving the health of local forests, lower the risk of wildfire and mitigate climate change.

The projects, which are designed to build off each other, are two of 17 funded by CalFire from a statewide program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

With two separate project grants, both resource conservation districts are working together to reduce potential wildfire fuel loads across 968 acres of forest and to reforest about 80 acres of private and public lands in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Why it’s significant we partner with Santa Cruz County is much of the fire risk is at the southern border between the two counties. A fire in Santa Cruz County could easily cross boundaries,” said San Mateo Resource Conservation District Executive Director Kellyx Nelson.

The two grants total about $5.3 million and will cover costs for landscape management, removing fuel loads and restoring forests, which experts say will enhance carbon storage. Nelson said it’s a significant investment — the largest grant her office has received from CalFire — but it is not nearly enough to entirely mitigate the risk of climate change.

Conservation Project Manager Sheena Sidhu said a large part of the project is reducing fuel loads. This means removing unhealthy or dead trees.

“In this area trees that have been affected by Sudden Oak Death or drought can cause a huge fuel load,” Sidhu said. She explained that the dying trees can trap heat, leading fire to spread rapidly.

Shidu said the RCD is still in the planning process but estimates that work will begin in January 2021.

Several agencies are involved in the project, including Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Big Creek Lumber, California State Parks, Girl Scouts of Northern California, Peninsula Open Space Trust, San Mateo County Parks, Sempervirens Fund, Save the Redwoods League, and private landowners.

“There are different practices needed depending on the property. There is no cookie-cutter approach to every inch of forest,” Nelson said.

The Coastside is considered to be a Wildland Urban Interface, meaning it’s an area of development near wildland that can pose a risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“It’s a unique risk when the large fuel load is adjacent to developed areas where there are homes and structures,” Nelson said. “This is why it’s important to manage these forests to reduce the risk to the forests themselves. The forests are a part of our culture. They are beautiful and home to endangered species, so it’s vital to manage them.”

This is one piece of a larger state effort, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed $1 billion for the next five years to go towards active forestland management.

Nelson said the San Mateo Resource Conservation District is always looking for people who want to get involved. The RCD can be reached at info@sanmateorcd.org.

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