MoonShine Ranch In Mariposa County Conservation Projects Save Home, Blue Oaks And Historic Gold Rush Town From Wildfire
The 2017 Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County burned from Lake McClure, above, across nearly 82,000 acres, destroying 63 residences, 67 outbuildings and 1 business structure. Brush clearing and conservation projects on MoonShine Ranch helped firefighters stop the fire, save the ranch and nearby historic Coulterville, a gold mining town founded in 1850. Investigators found discharge of firearms on public land caused the fire.
October 15, 2018 - Lake McClure from the ridge above MoonShine Ranch in Mariposa County is a breathtaking sight—a landscape of blue oak woodland, dotted with pines, chamise and other native shrubs.
Although fire has historically been part of this foothill ecosystem, decades of fire suppression and vegetation growth clogged the 350-acre ranch.
Landowners Stephen and MaryAnn Huff needed help taming the overgrowth to create a fire-safe home site and promote a healthier landscape.
Stephen, recently retired, had time to invest in ranch improvements. MaryAnn, a University of California Cooperative Extension master gardener, is no stranger to landscape restoration.
The Huffs, like hundreds of other foothill landowners, turned to experts for help with fuels management projects, tree removal and advice on finding conservation funding to get their land on healthier environmental footing.
(Left) Experts credit good brush removal around blue oaks on MoonShine Ranch in Mariposa County for a healthy under-burn in many areas. This allowed firefighters to stop the advance of the 2017 Detwiler fire onto the ranch and into the nearby town of Coulterville.
Restoring the ranch
“Stephen and MaryAnn care very much about restoring the health of their oak woodland,” said Robyn Smith, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and its partner Mariposa County Resource Conservation District.
It’s a busy four-person team at the county's local partnership office that in 2017 found ways to help the Huffs and more than 270 other local landowners faced with a tree mortality crisis.
They were contending with dead and dying trees due to drought and pest infestation and needed help addressing the problem.
The die-off throughout the county has created hazards for people and critical infrastructure. The wildfire threat in the state's 10 most hard hit counties—including Mariposa—is extreme.
Planning for fuels reduction
“The Huffs knew there was way too much woody fuel on their property and that fire hazard reduction was critical for protecting the land they loved,” said Smith, who worked with the couple to develop fuels reduction and conservation plans and help find funding.
MaryAnn’s Master Gardener program training focused a lot on defensible space, she said, and the couple started by clearing and landscaping around their home with fire safety in mind.
“Stephen spent months working to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire by painstakingly thinning and cleaning up the overgrown oak woodland on the surrounding hillsides,” Smith said.
Their hard work paid off in July 2017 when the fast moving Detwiler Fire raced from its ignition point near Lake McClure up the canyon toward MoonShine Ranch.
“The Huffs rushed home from Sonora when they heard the fire was heading towards their home,” said Smith. “They could only hope their efforts would protect the ranch.”
As the wildfire advanced, MaryAnn evacuated. Stephen, aware of the risks and prepared to help firefighters make a stand, stayed behind to protect their home. The Huffs’ home was given an “A” rating by CAL FIRE for the defensible space created during their brush clearing and conservation work. Huff crossed his fingers and hoped it was enough.
In addition to cleaning out vegetation and preparing a clear space for firefighters to safely stage trucks and equipment, the couple had also improved ranch roads and water systems, including installing a back-up generator for well pumps and maintaining a 10,000 gallon pond on the property. Together these improvements made it easier for firefighters to save their home and provided safe spaces for regrouping during the fire.
Benefits of forest resilience
But, there were some unexpected benefits. Because firefighters safely staged on the ranch and fought the advancing wildfire from there, they prevented it’s spread into the town of Coulterville and helped hold the Detwiler Fire to about 82,000 acres.
David Mecchi, president of the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District, who also assisted with fire rehabilitation in the area around MoonShine Ranch, noted well-managed blue oak woodlands can be a key to controlling many wildland fires in the Sierra Nevada foothills through proper vegetation management.
Blue oaks are slow growing, long-lived native trees that have natural ability to withstand low- to medium-intensity wildfire, but have had regeneration issues over the last 100-plus years, said Smith.
“There are very few young blue oaks left,” she explained. The majority of foothill stands contain mature trees 100 to 400 years old.
Value of Blue Oaks
She cited changing land management approaches, competition with annual grasses and overgrowth of shrubs, shade intolerance and loss of acorns to livestock and wildlife as factors contributing to the problem of stand decline.
But foothill development has posed the biggest threat to the species.
“Although younger trees will re-sprout if cut or damaged by fire, it’s the loss of mature trees that often results in forest-type conversion to oak savannah and open grassland,” she said.
“Blue Oak ecosystems are endemic to California, and their preservation is crucial to maintaining oak woodlands’ biological diversity," said Len McKenzie, of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society, who has studied the species decline.
In general, oak woodlands provide habitat for more than 300 species of wildlife, he said. Blue oaks are an important part of that ecosystem.
The county resource conservation team, led by Smith and Mecchi, with added assistance from BluePoint Conservation Science consultants, "pulled out every strategy known to humankind, and a few that aren’t,” said Curtis Tarver, acting state conservationist for NRCS in California. He presented Smith and Mecchi with a state "Outstanding Conservation Planning Team" award in Sacramento last November.
“What this team has accomplished borders on the miraculous,” said Tarver. “They somehow developed the capacity to help hundreds of landowners and secured funding for over 200 of them. They developed conservation plans that prescribed thinning of damaged forests, replanting trees and other vegetation, and scheduled erosion control practices to protect watersheds.
“They found a contract forester to join their team, recruited volunteers, wrangled funding, secured training to cover unfamiliar aspects of the work and developed a team approach to conservation planning," he said.
In accepting the award on behalf of the Mariposa County team, Smith said, “We know the people in this community, and saying ‘no’ to one of them simply wasn’t an option. We knew we had to find a way.”