Berry Creek fire-prevention project stymied by red tape

BERRY CREEK, Calif. (AP) — Two years before a deadly fire leveled Berry Creek and killed at least 11 people, the community was selected to receive an $836,000 state grant for pruning vegetation and clearing fuel from potential fire spots.

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But the forest management project was never completed because of red tape, said local officials, who now wonder whether clearing the area of potential fuel might have changed the fortunes of Berry Creek, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

“I can’t guarantee that it would’ve stopped the fire, but it would have given them a place to fight it,” said Bill Connelly, a Butte County supervisor representing the district that includes Berry Creek.

The grant was meant to go toward vegetation thinning and pruning projects near Bald Rock and Rockefeller roads — key evacuation routes — and Lake Madrone, an area that became ground zero of the North Complex Fire.

The delay, Butte County officials said, was due to stringent environmental reviews, despite this being exactly the kind of fire-prevention work at the forefront of the state’s wildfire conversation.

It’s impossible to know whether the grant could have saved Berry Creek from a disaster like the North Complex, which has burned more than 273,000 acres (about 110,000 hectares) and been blamed for 15 deaths.

But Calli-Jane DeAnda, the executive director of the nonprofit Butte County Fire Safe Council, said she recently watched a video showing green, living trees spared by fire in an area around Madrone Lake that had been cleared of potential fuel, thanks to a similar 2011 grant the community obtained from the state.

Both Connelly and DeAnda said the environmental reviews were too cumbersome and too time-consuming for a nonprofit to tackle. They required archaeological studies, landowner permission slips, bird surveys and more — making the process arduous to the point of inaction, even in disaster-prone Butte County.

A frustrated DeAnda has long called for a streamlining of such environmental requirements. Connelly said he wants the state to change the law to leave the review process required under the strict California Environmental Quality Act to be left to the counties.

“We have to get help,” Connelly said. “We need to get relief from the state to allow our fire-safe council to do that.”

Asked for a response Thursday, a representative for Gov. Gavin Newsom said the governor signed an executive order selecting 35 fuel-management projects in some of California’s most fire-vulnerable communities for CEQA waivers during his first year of office. The Berry Creek project was not on that list.