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Modern-day lumberjack James Cheopo works on a fallen tree trunk just off Road 274 above Bass Lake Monday morning. (Photos by George Lurie)

Timber! Tree Mortality Mitigation Project Begins On Road 274

BASS LAKE — Motorists on Road 274 could experience 20-30 minute delays for the next several months as crews conduct the largest tree mortality mitigation operation in the county’s history.

Beginning Monday, June 3 and continuing through Aug. 1, some 5,600 dead or dying trees will be cut down and removed along Road 274, which borders Bass Lake’s scenic north shore.

The scope of the project covers the area between Road 331 near the old Bass Lake Courthouse to Central Camp Road on the southeast end of the lake.

The project is a joint effort being overseen by the Madera County Sheriff’s Office’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the U.S. Forest Service.

Funding for the work comes in part from a $500,000 grant from Cal Fire.

The county will be reimbursed for the remainder of the project cost, currently estimated at between $1.7 million and $2.5 million, via disaster relief money from the state.

Since 2010, an estimated 149 million trees have died in California’s national forests due to conditions caused by climate change, unprecedented drought, bark beetle infestation and high tree densities.

“A lot of people wonder why the Sheriff’s office is involved in a project like this,” says Sgt. Joseph Wilder, who oversees MCSO’s OES. “We’re kind of like the funnel point of the disaster money coming from the state.”

Blue Ridge Services, an engineering and consulting firm based in Mariposa that specializes in solid waste management and removal, is managing the subcontractors working on the project.

The actual tree removal work along Road 274 is being performed by North Fork’s Central Sierra Pest Control & Tree Service, the low bidder on the project.

Chainsaw-wielding crews will be working just off Road 274 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, says Lloyd Hanebury, a field manager for Blue Ridge, which has overseen recent tree mortality mitigation projects in both Mariposa and Madera counties.

Hanebury credited District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, as well as Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, for “working really hard” to make the project happen.

“Tom has been there with us at every step of the way,” Hanebury says. “He’s taken a really personal interest in seeing that this project happens, and the Sheriff’s Office and Forest Service have also been amazing partners.”

Luke Owen

Drivers traveling between Oakhurst and North Fork on Road 274 should plan for up to 30-minute delays during work periods, Hanebury says, although in many cases, “the wait shouldn’t be any more than 15 or 20 minutes.”

“Because this project involves the U.S. Forest Service, we’re operating under an even higher level of scrutiny than usual,” Hanebury adds. “We’ve got monitors out here watching all day long to make sure everything is done safely and within the scope of the project.”

“Our primary concern is keeping everybody safe. This kind of work is one of the most dangerous jobs out there.”

Brandon Garcia spent Monday morning flagging traffic along Road 274.

“This is my first day on the job so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Garcia said. “So far, people have been pretty courteous. No one has complained about the wait.”

Garcia says he and other crew members drink a lot of water and Gatorade to beat the heat. “I’ve had a lot of time to enjoy the view, too.”

The crews working the chainsaws, according to Hanebury, “are all from this area. So a project like this is going to give a big boost to the local economy.”

Luke Owen and James Cheopo are both safety-certified, veteran tree removal specialists who spent Monday morning working a stretch of roadway near the Bass Lake dam.

“Some people might want to know if we hug the trees before we take them down,” Owen joked. “Maybe we should.”

Brandon Garcia

All trees designated for removal have been spray painted with blue and orange markings. Some will end up in North Fork at the Old Mill site, to be used as fuel when the North Fork biomass plant becomes operational.

When possible, crews will attempt to drop the trees away from the roadway.

“In some cases, we’ll have no choice but to bring them down on the road,” Hanebury says. “Many simply won’t fall anywhere else.”

So, for the next two months, motorists along Road 274 are likely to get an additional opportunity to enjoy the spectacular views.

An update on the progress of the project will be available every Friday, according to Sgt. Wilder.

“People can text ‘tree work’ to 888777 to receive weekly updates.”

Drivers need to be prepared to slow down in the traffic control areas, Sgt. Wilder adds.

“They may not see any of the tree crews working but need to remember that there’s still guys out there in the bush cutting down trees.”

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