Posts Tagged: prescribed burn
The massive die-off of conifers in the Sierra Nevada between 2012 and 2018 was predictable and unprecedented. Sadly, it is also likely to happen again, said UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor Susie Kocher.
To help landowners manage forests in a way that minimizes the risk of such catastrophic tree die-off and the threat of uncontrolled wildfire, Kocher and two colleagues produced a 20-page publication that summarizes current research on tree mortality and outlines actions that can be taken to make the forest more resilient. The publication, Mass Tree Mortality, Fuels, and Fire: A Guide for Sierra Nevada Forest Landowners, is available for free download from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources catalog.
Written by Stanford graduate student Devin McMahon (now graduated), UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension forest health specialist Jodi Axelson and Kocher, the publication presents the extent of the die-off in the Sierra Nevada, and describes different factors that contributed to the vast loss of tree life – including land management practices, weather patterns and geography. It includes detailed reporting on the mortality's impacts on fuels and fire risk so landowners and managers can understand and develop strategies to prevent similar destruction in the future.
While about two-thirds of California's 33 million acres of forests are public lands held by state and federal government agencies, the rest is in private hands. Large companies manage millions of acres for commercial timber production, but about 9 million acres are owned by individuals. Nearly 90% of individuals own 50 acres or less; 87,000 landowners have 10 acres or more of forest.
“That's a really large number of people,” Kocher said. “That's one of the reasons why it is so difficult for landowners to manage land to improve forest health and reduce fire risk. It's not economical to do forest management on small areas.”
It's also very complicated. As natural processes play out over time in a forest with mass mortality, the fire risk changes dramatically.
“In the new publication, we help people understand the nuances of forest management so they understand what actions are most appropriate throughout the whole cycle,” she said.
Assessing and addressing the fire risk
The publication provides an overview of fire risk reduction. A table lays out the seven components of fire risk – fuel load, fuel moisture, fuel continuity, probability of ignition, weather conditions, topography and vulnerability to fire – along with mitigation actions for each that landowners can take.
Intentional, controlled burning, or prescribed fire, is often the most effective way to decrease fuel loads and future risk from fires, the researchers wrote. Other management actions include masticating – chewing up brush and branches with specialized equipment – felling and removing dying and dead standing trees, and thinning live trees.
The authors conclude with a glimmer of hope for the future of California forest lands. “Carefully planned forest management can reduce the amount and continuity of fuel on the landscape and limit the risk of destructive fire after tree mortality.”
When conditions are right, winter can be a good time to conduct prescribed burns for forest management, says Rob York, UC Cooperative Extension forestry specialist.
“A huge issue we have in California is fire severity. We know from research that prescribed fire can be a very good tool for reducing fire severity,” York said. “For forest landowners or foresters who want to do their own prescribed burning, winter burning can be a good entry point.”
York is based at the UC Blodgett Forest Research Station in Georgetown, where he developed a series of eight short videos demonstrating how fire can be used on landscapes during the colder months. The videos feature controlled fires conducted at the station on Dec. 6 and 9, 2020. More videos in this series will be posted during the upcoming year.
Among the factors covered in the videos are climatic conditions and site selection for winter burning.
Wet or snowy weather in the fall may seem to shut the window for prescribed burning, but York said often the snow melts away and fuels dry out enough to do a winter burn.
“The idea is to be ready when the fuels dry out,” he said. Thinning trees and masticating underbrush are ways to prepare the forest for a burn.
When selecting the day of the fire, relative humidity, temperature and wind speed and direction are important considerations.
“Relative humidity should be low. You want the cloud cover to be very low. A sunny day helps dry out the fuel,” York said. “In the winter, you want that drying and heating power of the sun to help the fuel be consumed.”
Among the factors to consider in selecting locations for winter burns is the aspect. The sun's warmth is optimized on south-facing slopes.
“That's what we're looking for,” York said. “Relatively small areas that are burnable.”
An open canopy allows sunlight to dry out the understory vegetation and surface fuels, enabling successful winter burns.
Vegetation type also weighs into winter burning decisions.
“Bear clover plus pine needles make this feasible, including conditions on the wetter side when you might not otherwise be able to burn, you can burn,” York said. “If you can encourage bear clover and pine needles, you can encourage more opportunities for low density burns, which I think do a great job to maintain low fire hazard.”
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UCCE leads development of prescribed burn association in San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties
With a $379,785 grant from CAL FIRE, UC Cooperative Extension and the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County are spearheading a community effort to create a prescribed burn association along California's Central Coast region.
The grant is one of 55 awarded by CAL FIRE to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires that take lives and destroy homes and valued wildland environments across California.
“These 55 local projects will play a critical role in augmenting our fire prevention efforts,” said CAL FIRE director Chief Thom Porter.
Prescribed burn associations (PBAs) are made up of ranchers, volunteer firefighters, non-profit organization and other community members. They pool their resources and energy to plan and conduct prescribed burns on private land. The first California PBA was established in 2018.
“Improving forage and reducing fire risk are key goals of our prescribed burns,” said Devii Rao, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor and project manager. “We will also plan fires to control non-native invasive weeds and restore and enhance wildlife habitat.”
Funds for the CAL FIRE grant program are part of the California Climate Investment, a statewide program that uses cap-and-trade dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen the economy, improve public health and conserve the environment. While prescribed burns emit smoke and carbon dioxide, the amount is much lower than high-intensity wildfires.
Rao said UCCE will be holding workshops and meetings to teach potential association members and the general public about fire ecology, fire permitting, prescribed burn planning and liability associated with burning.
“People are really seeing the value of prescribed fire and they are seeing that it's better to have several smaller burns throughout the year as opposed to these giant, catastrophic wildfires that cause so much damage,” Rao said. “If we can have many smaller burns, we can achieve resource conservation goals, we can achieve forage improvement goals and we can improve fire safety all at the same time.”
Grazing cattle for fire safety
Rao is also leading a study, funded by the California Cattle Council, to better understand the influence of livestock grazing on fire safety of California wildlands. This project is in collaboration with UCCE rangeland specialist Luke Macaulay, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Sheila Barry, rangeland consultant Felix Ratcliff and recent UC Berkeley graduate Rowan Peterson.
The researchers used brand inspection data, USDA Ag Census data and county crop reports to estimate the number of rangeland cattle in each county across the state. They estimated how much forage – or from the fire safety perspective, how much fuel – the cattle are consuming.
“Thanks to Felix's great work analyzing these multiple complex datasets, our preliminary results show that cattle consumed approximately 12.4 billion pounds of forage across California in 2017,” Rao said.
Tulare County had the greatest amount of wildfire fuel consumed (1.3 billion pounds), and Orange County had the least (896,000 pounds). Forage removed per grazed rangeland acre ranged from a low of 13 pounds per acre in Alpine County to 2,157 pounds per acre in Tulare County.
Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and the northernmost counties in the state had somewhat higher removal of wildfire fuel per grazed acre compared with other counties in the state.cedx
“Our analysis is currently ongoing. However, this preliminary analysis shows that many counties have adequate rangeland grazing to significantly reduce wildfire risk, at least in certain strategic areas,” Rao said.
In many counties, grazed rangelands are only a fraction of total grazeable rangeland.
“These counties highlight opportunities for grazing to help fight wildfire risk,” Rao said.
On a crisp and clear morning late last year, around 20 volunteer firefighters, landowners and community members gathered on a plot of land outside of the small rural community of Kneeland in Humboldt County. They listened intently to detailed instructions on how to safely burn 20 acres of private property that gradually rises on a hill before them. The volunteers gathered to learn how to successfully undertake a prescribed burn. It was all part of the ongoing education and training being conducted by Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association – the first of its kind west of the Rockies.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson and Jeffery Stackhouse, who both work for the UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, developed the program in 2017 and have seen it steadily grow ever since. The association is comprised of landowners, nonprofits, volunteer firefighters and other community members who work together to carry out prescribed burns on private land. Until the association was created, most landowners and community members had lacked access to prescribed burn information and training.
“Fire is a natural part of California's landscape. Prescribed fire is a way for us to bring fire back to the landscape as a natural process under controlled conditions. We can choose the weather, we can choose how it's going to burn,” says Quinn-Davidson. “Private landowners have largely been left out of the fire picture and we realize that is a big part of the problem.”
The goal of the prescribed burn on that October day was to eliminate an invasive type of tree that was overtaking the grassy hill and restore the land to a state where native oaks can thrive once again. The property owners are receiving the same training as the volunteer firefighters on hand. Beyond eliminating invasive species, the association is utilizing prescribed burns to reduce fuels to prevent future wildfires, as well as restore wildlife habitat. But most importantly, the training and education empowers landowners and others to reconnect with fire as a management tool.
Will Emerson is an assistant fire chief for the volunteer Bell Springs Fire Department in northern Mendocino County. He and his three colleagues made the 2.5-hour trip to participate in the prescribed burn training session in Humboldt County. He sees the trainings as a “really great experience” for volunteer fire departments, some of which have new trainees who have never worked a fire before.
“It's excellent training for them — just to get comfortable working with fire,” Emerson says.
The concept of a prescribed burn association is catching on. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse have presented the Humboldt County model to numerous counties around the state, and new associations are cropping up around California.
“We use our program to train people, to inspire people, to empower people,” Quinn-Davidson says.
The value of Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association goes beyond the training it provides. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse view the association as a “community cooperative,” bringing together groups that have traditionally been at odds. At any training session you may find volunteers from the ranching or timber industry, environmentalists or cannabis growers.
“Instead of being on opposite sides of an issue, people are gaining understanding for the other side,” Stackhouse says. “It has opened the door for real, honest communication between different groups that otherwise would not be happening. Having people work together who have been on different sides of the community really is amazing.”
Quinn-Davidson agrees. “We are building community and we are using fire as this positive, synergistic thing,” she concludes. “And I feel so positive about it.”
The CSAC Challenge Awards were created in the early 1990s to recognize county innovation and best practices. Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association is a recipient of a 2019 CSAC Challenge Award – one of only 18 Challenge Awards presented statewide out of 284 entries.
To view a video of this program on YouTube, click here.
California's 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive the state has ever seen. Even before the flames were extinguished, politicians, researchers, foresters, firefighters, insurance and utility company representatives, homeowners and landowners in the state's wildfire-prone areas were trying desperately to figure out how such devastation could be prevented in the future.
One reason for the destructive fires is a 100-year history in California of aggressive fire suppression. Most of the state's natural ecosystems evolved over millennia with periodic fires. Without fire, natural areas build up a great deal of vegetation – trees, shrubs, leaf litter and pine needles – that once ignited, can fuel a raging blaze.
Two UC Cooperative Extension advisors in Humboldt County believe the best way to bring back natural equilibrium on the land is by bringing back fire, and they believe it can be done in a way that is safe, effective, affordable and even fun.
Prescribed fire is part of California's past. Native Americans used fire to favor the plants and trees that provided their most nutritious foods, to open up areas for ease of travel and to attract game. In the 1980s, the California Department of Forestry and Fire (CAL FIRE) launched a Vegetation Management Program to share the cost and liability of prescribed fire on private land. At the height of the program, 65,000 acres of private lands were burned per year. However, by the mid-2000s, the agency had cut program funding, and private lands burning reduced to less than 5,000 acres per year in 2015. CAL FIRE is currently revamping their Vegetation Management Program, but UCCE experts say other pathways are also needed to regain ecosystem function on California's wildlands.
Born and raised in northern Californian, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UCCE fire advisor, and Jeff Stackhouse, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, were deeply concerned about habitat loss and fuel buildup on private lands in Humboldt County. They investigated a concept being implemented successfully in other parts of the country, the formation of Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs).
Creating California's first Prescribed Burn Association
The members of PBAs pool their resources and energy to conduct burns to maintain productive grasslands, enhance wildlife habitat, and ensure safer communities. In 2018, Quinn-Davidson, Stackhouse, Cocking and Hunt pulled together fellow Humboldt County ranchers, volunteer firefighters, non-profit organizations, and other community members to form the first Prescribed Burn Association in the western United States.
The Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association has a president, board of directors, a treasurer and 85 members.
“More than half of the members are not landowners,” Stackhouse said. “People have houses in town, but want to go outside and experience land improvement on other people's property.”
To join the PBA, individuals pay $25 per year; ranches, timber companies and non-profit organizations pay $200 per year; and volunteer fire departments join free.
“People are willing to pay member dues to be a part of this community experience, get the training and to feel positive about fire, not afraid of it,” Quinn-Davidson said.
The PBA provides training, equipment and labor to safely use fire and meet permit requirements. So far, the Humboldt County PBA has burned 1,022 acres. And after each burn, they celebrate with food and drink.
The PBA is providing a space for a community of cooperation to grow. Groups and individuals with views that previously seemed miles apart – environmental activists, long-time ranchers, industrial timber organizations and well-established environmental organizations – are forging new alliances.
“It's interesting to see different groups meeting and burning with each other, to listen to them speak from their corners of the universe, giving each other room to speak and actively listening,” Stackhouse said.
The association is so successful, Stackhouse and Quinn-Davidson invited their UC Cooperative Extension colleagues from across the state to Humboldt County for a four-day workshop to learn how they might be able to replicate the concept in other fire-prone areas of California.
“We led a training and conducted three consecutive burns totaling over 100-acres,” Quinn-Davidson said.
UCCE livestock advisor in San Benito County, Devii Rao, attended the workshop.
“As a total novice, I received training and feel more confident about use of personal protective equipment, how to use a drip torch, hand tools, a water tank/pump/hose, and how to start developing a Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) on the Central Coast,” Rao said.
Another participant, UCCE forestry advisor Yana Valachovic, valued the opportunity and believes events like these could help solve a serious problem facing California.
“Talking about the use of prescribed fire in the abstraction does not move the meter,” she said. “California desperately needs experiences like this to empower community leaders and reincorporate fire into our management tool boxes.”
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For more California wildfire information and to find local UC Cooperative Extension fire experts, see the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Fire in California website.