UKIAH (KPIX 5) — Just three days after California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a wildfire state of emergency, 35 high-priority fire safety projects are underway around the state. The largest one of those projects in Mendocino County is specifically designed to save an entire city from disaster.

“There is a school. There is a nursery school, there’s a city park,” said Battalion Chief Michael Maynard with the Cal Fire Mendocino Unit. “The economic base of the county is right here.”

Maynard is talking about the city of Ukiah, visible just downhill from the western edge of the city. On this steep muddy hillside in a family’s backyard, the Chamberlain Creek inmate crew spent a rainy Monday trying to protect Ukiah, sawing and dragging its way to a critical fire break.

“They’re really just cutting a swath,” explained Maynard. “We’re shooting for 100, 150 feet.”

The fire break is just one tiny piece of a project with very high stakes: keeping a catastrophic fire from escaping the wildlands around town and burning through the city.

Maynard grew up in the area and he’s spent his entire career with Cal Fire imagining what could be done to protect his hometown from the kind of fires that have marched into Santa Rosa, Redding and Paradise.

Like those towns, Ukiah’s geography and proximity to wildlands puts it in tremendous danger. The state’s map of wildfire risk shows the city surrounded. Fire breaks, like the one being created here today, are a critical strategic asset if fire were to approach the city.

“The goal is to keep a fire on the ground,” says Maynard. “We want to remove all the ladders feelings so that nothing gets up into the canopy and goes tree to tree.”

At more than 26,000 acres, this is the largest of the state’s 35 emergency fire safety projects, all expedited by Governor Newsom’s state of emergency declaration. But something else has changed recently in Ukiah.

Maynard says the past three or four years have changed a lot of people’s minds in the area. The kind of fuel reduction plans that once stirred controversy now have people jumping in line.

“Now, people jump right to the conclusion and sign up and give us access to their property with no questions asked,” he said. “They trust that it’s part of the big picture, and it’s a community based project.”

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