A Firebreak Runs Through It

In the wake of the most catastrophic wildfires in California’s history, Donald Trump accused state officials of shoddy forest management and recommended that the state’s dying forests should be raked. “Very important,” he said, to take care of the forest floor. Oddly enough, the New Deal’s enemies accused WPA workers of raking the forest as a synonym for boondoggling the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

Popular Science Magazine, 1934

Popular Science Magazine, 1934
Black line on this map shows the location of the 800-mile fire break then being built to create the man-made barrier, which will be known as Ponderosa Way.

President Franklin Roosevelt knew a good deal more about forestry than his current successor. He described himself as a grower of trees, and historian Douglas Brinkley, who called him the Forester-in-Chief, ascribed the inception of the Ponderosa Way to him. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, and in 1934, CCC workers began to cut a north-south firebreak and access road—by some accounts up to 800 miles long—through the rugged foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. The Ponderosa Way project employed 16,000 CCC men building bridges, laying culverts, and grading the road to create a barrier to keep wildfires in the scrubby lower elevations from reaching timber at mid-elevations. It was the CCC’s largest project in California.

CCC Enrollees Help to Control a Fire near Angeles National Forest, California

CCC enrollees work to control a fire, 1935
Angeles National Forest, California

FDR regretfully ended the CCC’s immense labor force in 1942 during the mobilization for World War II. The decline of the great California firebreak began almost immediately. In 1949, the federal government turned it over to the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which showed scant interest in maintaining it. At one point, the Ponderosa Way partially reverted back to federal jurisdiction, but no public agency much wanted the orphaned firebreak or remembered the purpose for which it had been so painstakingly built. It became discontinuous and, in many places, disappeared.

In 2007, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attempted to get some other agency to take responsibility for it. The CDF in Butte County told the BLM that what remained of the road might be useful for public access but it did not consider it vital for fire protection. Local resident Richard Faulkner, who at the time was living in the woods outside town, told a local newspaper, “For years now there hasn’t been any maintenance on this road of any kind. I want them to fix the road and maintain the bridge. I think it is very important from a fire standpoint.”

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River
CCC bridge built in 1935. The deck was destroyed by the Butte Fire in 2015 and never repaired.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

When the Camp Fire, considered the worst wildfire in California in more than a century virtually erased the town of Paradise last month, few knew that the lengthy CCC firebreak transected the town. Like so many other public works bequeathed to us by the New Deal, it is a relic of a lost civilization that we neglect at our own peril. Whether the Ponderosa Way could have saved the town or offered an evacuation route may never be known.

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.
After the road deck was destroyed by fire, Ponderosa Way leading up to it was abandoned. It fell into disrepair and was deemed unsafe.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.
Pony truss bridge built in 1935. It is still open to traffic.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

9 comments on “A Firebreak Runs Through It

  1. Very powerful and important story. The irony of it. Paradise Lost has left a deep impression upon me and I will be writing further about it.

  2. Phenomenal article with a powerful implication for those tempted to let New Deal projects drift into oblivion or lose their utility, not to mention their inspiration.

  3. John Gonzales

    I would like to know what happened to these properties that contained Ponderosa Way in Amador County as I have an address on that road yet some landowners say you cannot pass through?

    Is Ponderosa Way in Amador County a private road or public not maintained ?

    Is there any documentation that allows right of passage when you are a landowner on Ponderosa Way between two Public Roads ?

    From my piece I am told I can only turn right out of my driveway but not left because a land owner refuses passage.

    What happens in case of Fire ?

    Ponderosa Way was built with public money the access should be allowed for owners along a stretch between to public streets.

    Is there documentation to back this up ?

    Any help would be appreciated.

  4. Stephen Sayre

    I am sure some Magalia residents evacuated the Paradise ridge during the Camp Fire using the old Ponderosa Way to go north away from the fire. There are different names for portions of Ponderosa Way now; but part of it in Butte County includes the Doe Mill Road bridge over Butte Creek, which was recently rebuilt, probably by the county using federal grant money.

  5. Jennifer Cooley Beavers

    This is fascinating information! The stretch of Ponderosa Way near my house is still in use as a fire access road, fire break, and recreational trail. I wonder how many miles of the road are still being used?

  6. Denise Brooks

    I live here on Ponderosa Way, North fork of the American river. The road is in awful shape and the bridge is closed for repairs until Oct 2022. So it is not open to thru traffic. I advise 4 wheel drive just to get to the river.

  7. Where can I find an accurate map of Ponderosa Way? I know a 280 foot bridge was constructed for this effort between Yuba and Nevada County at Rice’s Crossing. Who has ownership of the land? Can citizens clean up the fire break themselves?

  8. Ponderosa Way, that name is familiar. I spent a lot of my youth exploring old sections of that road where it passed by my grandma’s cabin. We still maintain our section of the firebreak and I donated many of my school vacations dragging brush to burn piles: I’m waiting for my gov’t check still (as my uncle pointed out in a letter to BLM and CalFire, the land owners were supposed to maintain the break and get reimbursed).

  9. Lookout Ranch

    I’ve lived in the foothills all my life and always wondered about the prevalence of roads named Ponderosa Way up and down the Sierra. I had a theory that it had been a contiguous Gold Rush era road, but I could never find anything on it. When I mentioned my theory, people would tell me it was probably just a coincidence that there are all these Ponderosa Way roads up and down the Sierra. Today, seeing something about Ponderosa Way in Tehama County, I googled ‘Ponderosa Way California,’ and all these stories about the CCC project came up. So now I know. Thank you, a piece of California history is filled in for me.

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