- Author: Daniel K Macon
There's still time to register for our first-ever Sierra Foothills Rancher's Fire Academy! We'll be covering topics like using prescribed fire to control rangeland weeds, planning your own prescribed fire, fire tool basics, ranching hardening, and managing livestock during wildfire. You'll learn from local and regional fire experts, UC researchers, and from your fellow ranchers! Each session is just $10 per ranch (with up to four people from each ranch eligible to participate)!
- Author: Daniel K Macon
Barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncialis L.) is a winter annual grass native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia. According to a UCANR publication, it was introduced to Sacramento and El Dorado Counties via the importation of cattle from Mexico. And it is a growing problem on annual rangelands here in the Sierra Foothills. In some ways, I think of this invasive grass as "medusahead on steroids" - barb goatgrass spikes and joints (seedheads) disperse by attaching to animals, humans, and equipment. I often see new infestations along roads or walkways. Barb goatgrass forms dense stands with a rapidly establishing root system, making it extremely competitive with other annual grasses and forbs. In some areas, barb goatgrass reduces forage quality and quantity by as much as 75 percent - and because livestock tend to avoid the plant (and graze more desirable forages), it can spread rapidly.
Carol and Andy Kramer, who operate a sheep and cattle ranch in Nevada County, have been fighting barb goatgrass for several years. Most recently, they've been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract focused on goatgrass control. Over the course of the last 9 months, Carol and Andy have been working with the Placer Resource Conservation District (RCD) and UCCE to experiment with using prescribed fire to reduce goatgrass and re-invigorate native grasses.
Research suggests that burning goatgrass for two consecutive years offers "excellent control." Sounds pretty straightforward, right?! Not so fast! Fire is an effective control method when most of the fine fuel has dried sufficiently to carry the fire, but when the goatgrass seedheads are still attached to the stem - in other words, in late spring or early summer, when everyone is starting to get nervous about fire in the foothills!
A quick aside about using prescribed fire as a range improvement tool. When I started working with ranchers in California in the early 1990s (when I was just out of college, working for the California Cattlemen's Association), prescribed fire had largely gone out of vogue. This was partly a result of increasing worries about liability, and partly, as I recall, a shift in focus and attitude within the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (which became officially known as CalFire in the early 2000s). Today, after a decade of increasingly catastrophic wildfires (and the accelerating spread of invasive weeds like barb goatgrass), prescribed fire is making a comeback - thanks to efforts of many of my UCCE colleagues, RCD staffers and contractors like Cordi Craig and Chris Paulus (who led this effort), and especially of landowners like Carol and Andy!
Obviously, with something as complicated as prescribed burning, you don't simply wake up one June morning and say, "Hey, this would be a great day to light the back pasture on fire!" Carol and Andy (along withCordi and Chris, andUCCE) began planning for this burn last winter. As fire professionals,Cordi and Chris recommended putting a "black line" around the 1.5 acres ofgoatgrass during the winter months, whenCALFIRE burn permits are not required. Carol and Andy invested in water tanks and other equipment, and spent much of the winter and early spring pile burning and creating fire lines. Working together, we also burned several adjacent units to remove ground and ladder fuels in the areas surrounding thegoatgrass site.
Then we all waited! We needed the underlying fuel to be dry enough to burn, but we also needed the goatgrass to hold onto its seedheads. And we needed the right weather conditions. With the wet, cool spring we had in 2023, these conditions didn't arrive until July - well into fire season. This meant that we also needed a permit from CalFire. I've lived and worked in CalFire's NEU unit (which covers Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties) - and worked with and around ranchers - for nearly 30 years. I wasn't aware of CalFire ever allowing a rancher to do a prescribed fire for range improvement (or any other reason) in July. But thanks to the Kramer's persistence and Cordi and Chris's experience and knowledge, we received permission to do the burn on July 13.
Carol and Andy started the fire around 9am that morning - temperatures were hovering around 80F, and the relative humidity was just over 50%. Amazingly, we had difficulty getting the vegetation to burn - even as temperatures rose and humidity dropped over the course of the morning. By midday, we'd burned all we could burn, and began mopping up (making sure the fire was completely out).
Walking through the burn, I was amazed by the variability in burn intensity. Some of the goatgrass seedheads were completely consumed; others looked like they had not been exposed to fire at all. Carol collected seedheads from before the burn, as well as singed and apparently unsinged seedheads, to see if there will be any difference in germination (we'll keep you posted). We also started thinking about next year's burn.
One of the biggest challenges in burning for a second consecutive year, I expect, will be whether there is enough fine fuel (other grasses, pine needles, dry leaves, etc.) to carry the fire through the goatgrass. Visiting the site two weeks ago, I was impressed to see native blue wildrye starting to grow in the blackened burn unit (even with very little precipitation since the fire) - we'll be anxious to see what happens once we've had a germinating rain. Even so, we are considering broadcasting a quick-growing, early maturing annual grass (like soft chess (Bromus hordeaceus) this fall so that we have more receptive fuel next spring.
I think we all learned a great deal about the logistics of using fire to manage goatgrass (thanks to Cordi and Chris) - and about the challenges of using prescribed fire during fire season. One of the side benefits, from my perspective, is the demystification of fire generally. This was not a scary burn, even though it happened in the middle of July! While this was partly due to the conditions on the day of the burn, the work that Carol and Andy did to prepare (with Cordi and Chris's guidance) over the many months leading up to July 13 made it successful and safe. We're all looking forward to next year's fire!
The Placer County Resource Conservation District (Placer RCD) is rapidly expanding their prescribed burning program offerings to improve community wildfire resilience. The Prescribed Burning on Private Lands (PBPL) Pilot Program works to reduce barriers that limit private landowners from implementing prescribed burns including understanding permitting, liability, and developing the skills and confidence to put prescribed fire on the ground. Placer RCD offers technical assistance, workshops, and demonstration burns to give landowners the resources and confidence they need to implement safe and legal prescribed burns. In addition to education, the RCD created the first Placer Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) and is developing a community equipment cache. To get involved or learn more, visit www.placerrcd.org or contact Cordi Craig at email@example.com.
We're in the process of planning more prescribed fire for working landscapes field days this fall and winter, too - stay tuned for details!/span>/span>
Lessons from our first Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes Workshop
As I wrote in a blog post in February (Working with Fire), at one time, fire and fire agencies were part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up. At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for improving rangeland conditions and preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires. Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust "civilians" with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.
Last week, we held a Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes workshop at Edwards Family Tree Farm in Colfax. Nearly 30 ranchers, forest landowners, agency staff, and NGO staff joined us for two days of learning about – and actually using – fire to manage fuel loading. During our introductory webinar the evening before the first field day, my colleague Jeff Stackhouse, from Humboldt County, encouraged us to embrace "cowboy burning." The next morning, our host landowner Allen Edwards told me, “Dan, try to shepherd that fire down to the next check line.” Jeff and Allen made me realize that using prescribed fire, in many ways, is very similar to low-stress livestock handling. This might seem like a stretch, but let me explain!
- Communication is critical! Before we struck the first match, our workshop leader (Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief and prescribed fire practitioner) led us in a pre-burn briefing. We discussed our burn plan, our safety measures, and what role each of us would play during the burn. We continued communicating during the burn, and Chris ended the workshop with a post-burn debriefing. Similarly, when we're moving sheep at the ranch – or working cattle at someone's ranch, we try to talk through our plan (even if it's simple) before we get started. Outlining expectations – and what to do when plans change – is vitally important! And we also talk when we're done - identifying the things that worked (and more importantly, the things that didn't) make us better prepared the next time.
- Don't force it – observe behavior and respond as appropriate. My predecessor Roger Ingram, who had a chance to work with legendary stockman Bud Williams, says this about our attitude when working stock:
Old Attitude: “I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want.”
New Attitude: “I'm going to LET that animal do what I want.”
This shift in attitude requires careful observation of livestock behavior – if we pay attention, the animals will tell us when they're comfortable – and when they're stressed!
Chris taught us to pay attention to what the fire was telling us. A subtle shift in the wind, or a change in fuel type or dryness, changed fire behavior. Chris and Allen prepared the burn unit to help account for these variations – pre-established check lines and the strategic application of just a little water, for example, helped us LET the fire consume the fuels we wanted to impact while protecting the trees we wanted to save.
- Movement is good! When I first started riding horses or training sheep dogs, my natural tendency when things started moving too fast was to shut down all movement. A standing horse couldn't buck me off; a dog in a lie down wouldn't chase the sheep. As I gained more experience, though, I realized that we all made progress (me, dogs, and horses alike) when we were moving. I could begin to shape behaviors and improve communication by working through those times when we were all responding to one another.
My entire previous experience with prescribed fire was with pile burning – where movement of fire is undesirable! Last week, I learned about broadcast burning – about how to keep fire moving across the landscape safely. Chris and Allen showed us how to use simple techniques, like moving fire with a pitchfork and burning pine needles. By burning down-slope and into the wind (a backing fire), we were able to keep fire safely moving through the acre-plus demonstration site.
- Never stop learning! As I've gained more experience in handling livestock (and working my border collies), I've realized how much I don't know. Stockmanship, I think, requires a lifetime of observing and learning. Getting my first hands-on experience last week with broadcast burning was similar; I am realizing how much more there is to know about fuel types, burn conditions, terrain and topography, timing, etc. – we barely scratched the surface. Like stockmanship, prescribed fire requires both an intellectual understanding of the tool AND hands-on experience in a variety of settings.
Most importantly, last week's burn seemed simple, thanks to Chris and Allen. Most of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitchforks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box. I'm looking forward to learning more!
I've known Doug Joses and his family for more than a quarter century. The unofficial mayor of Mountain Ranch (in Calaveras County) Doug has spent his entire life ranching in the Sierra foothills – raising cattle, sheep, and Angora goats. Several years ago, Doug related his experience during the Butte Fire (which devastated portions of Amador and Calaveras Counties in 2015). He also talked about his experience using fire to improve rangeland productivity in the 1970s and 1980s – he and his neighbors used fire regularly to control brush and improve forage quality for livestock and wildlife. I wasn't old enough to realize it, but fire was part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up.
At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires (and for improving rangeland conditions). Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust ranchers – or our communities, really – with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.
Perhaps landowners need to “take back” the work of using fire. Last month, I had the opportunity to observe (I would like to say “help,” but I really didn't do very much) a small broadcast burn in a patch of nonindustrial timber land near Colfax. The 2-acre site was part of a larger, multi-landowner shaded fuelbreak that included portions of Allen Edward's property. This particular patch had been masticated to knock down the brush that had regrown after the 2001 Ponderosa Fire (which Allen's previous fuel reduction work had helped to stop).
Of the various methods for reducing fuel loads, only fire and grazing actually remove fuel – mastication, mowing, herbicide treatments, etc. modify the fuel profile, but the fuel itself remains in place. The wood chips and brush scraps leftover from the mastication on this site were still flammable.
The key takeaway for me from the burn at Allen's was that fire – like grazing – can be an iterative process. A single burn – like a single graze period – won't necessarily convert a fire-prone site to a fire-safe site. Last week's burn consumed fuel on the surface, but not the deeper material that had been moistened by previous rainfall. Allen also emphasizes that two-thirds to three-quarters of the cost of the burns he's conducted so far were incurred “before we ever struck a match,” adding, “without the mastication, hand clearing, and pruning, a fire would destroy most of my trees.”
Most importantly, last month's burn seemed simple. All of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitch forks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief who is leading this effort in Colfax, brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box.
As I've talked with Allen and Chris, a new idea is forming. Like any new “tool,” landowners and managers need time to get comfortable with actually using fire on the landscape. We've used our 2-day grazing academies (started by my predecessor, Roger Ingram) as a way to help ranchers get comfortable with managed grazing systems. What about a prescribed fire academy, where landowners can get real-world experience using fire to reduce wildfire danger, improve forage production, and enhance wildlife habitat. Stay tuned!