A light breeze fanned through a hillside of golden grasses near Glory Hole Recreation Area at New Melones Lake the morning of June 14, and smoke started slowly drifting into the sky as about 60 fire personnel lit a prescribed burn on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) land.
Firefighters equipped with drip torches guided flames through the dry grass, and the chatter of busy radios was accompanied by a soft crackling reminiscent of crumpling paper.
Temperatures were in the mid-70s, humidity levels were around 30% and winds were mild as the slow-burning fire gradually charred the hillside.
These were great conditions for a safe controlled burn, said Adam Frese, forester with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit (TCU), the operating agency.
Protecting communities, natural resources
The goal of the project, known as a broadcast burn, was to reduce potential wildfire fuels and invasive species on about 94 acres between Angels Creek Road and Glory Hole Road.
The treatment should protect the community of Angels Camp from a potential wildfire that could ignite in grasses around New Melones, spread up through steep river drainage terrain and eventually cross Highway 49 – a “worst-case scenario,” Cal Fire Division Chief Charlie Blankenheim told the Enterprise, standing at a vantage point off Glory Hole Road.
Frese said wildland fires only consumed about 1,000 acres in the TCU last year, reflecting statewide trends of a relatively low burnt area acreage for 2019.
Favorable weather conditions, according to Frese, allowed the unit to broadcast burn 1,679 acres between Jan. 1, 2019 and June 29, 2020. That was nearly double the prescribed burning acreage reported over the two previous years combined.
“Five years ago, we were getting like 50 or 100 acres,” Frese said.
That was the year of the 70,000-acre Butte Fire, which killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes in northeast Calaveras County.
Prescribed burns can be canceled at any time if conditions change – the drier, windier and hotter, the greater the chances for a “slop-over,” where the fire crosses a containment line. Such was the case June 11 when an escaped burn spread across two acres of undeveloped property in San Andreas after winds picked up.
Blankenheim said broadcast burning “is a science. We spend a lot of time planning it and building the conditions we’re looking for. At times there are variables we plan for, but things do happen.”
He added that although additional resources were called, there was enough support on the ground to quickly handle the situation in San Andreas.
Before every burn, the agency receives a report from the National Weather Service to ensure conditions are adequate, and a holding team is constantly monitoring any weather changes.
Six engines were assigned to the Glory Hole project – the same amount of resources that respond to wildland fires, Blankenheim added.
New Melones Lake Park Manager Cynthia Davenport said the burn was the first the USBR has coordinated at Glory Hole in many years, due to staff turnover and budget issues.
“We’ve been able to finally get going on plans that have been in place for a while,” she said.
Long before crews get to put any fire on the land, significant time and resources are dedicated to environmental studies that monitor for potential impacts on wildlife, archaeological resources and sensitive plant species.
Environmental monitoring for the project at Glory Hole took two years.
With the studies completed, the bureau now has a seven-year window to light it up again, given safe weather conditions and no significant environmental changes, Davenport said.
“We’re trying to reduce invasive species like starthistle, and we need to burn every three years to keep seed pods burned out,” Davenport said. “That stuff’s really obnoxious – it will grow back and reseed.”
But why remove invasive species?
A June 26 UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Central Sierra Facebook post stated that yellow starthistle is the most widely distributed weed in California, covering about 10% of California’s total surface area.
And the thorny thistle does more than catch a ride home in your dog’s coat.
“Infestations of yellow starthistle can have devastating effects on both natural and agricultural ecosystems under certain conditions,” the post reads. “It is of economic importance where it invades grainfields, orchards and vineyards, pastures, roadsides and wastelands. In pasture lands, starthistle can lower forage yield and quality, interfere with grazing, cause problems in harvesting of forage and crops, and cause ‘chewing disease’ in horses. In natural areas, yellow starthistle reduces wildlife forage and habitat, displaces native grassland plants and decreases native plant and animal diversity.”
Historical context and state policy shift
More than 1 million acres have burned in California wildfires during extreme fire years, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated tens of millions of acres per year that burned before European colonizers began actively suppressing fires, according to Crystal Kolden, Ph.D, assistant fire science professor at UC Merced.
A large portion of fires were due to lightning ignitions, but many were prescribed burns conducted by indigenous inhabitants, Kolden said.
“So many tribes used enormous amounts of fire to support cultural resources they valued, so there’s this long history of fire being a big part of how the state ecology evolved, then being promptly exterminated when Europeans arrived,” Kolden said. “For the last 150 years, there’s been a massive extermination of fire with detrimental results.”
Intensive fire suppression efforts resulted in dense forests and large amounts of understory vegetation that continue to feed fires year-round, Kolden said.
Since California’s most deadly and destructive fire season in 2018, numerous state policies have been enacted to ramp up prescribed burning and fuel reduction efforts on private and public lands.
Senate Bill 901, for instance, allocated $35 million per year for prescribed fire and fuel reduction projects and directed Cal Fire and the UCCE to cooperate to provide technical assistance about wildfire resilience to landowners.
That said, the agency has specific weather constraints that can typically limit burning to the beginning and end of fire season, according to UCCEresearchers. That’s because fuels won’t catch during damp winter months, and lighting a burn can be too dangerous in hot, dry summer months.
Cal Fire’s annual targets, set by Director Thom Porter, now include 25,000 acres for prescribed burns. That’s still less than 40% of what the agency burned at the height of its vegetation management program in the 1980s, according to a 2019 UCCE study.
“The amount is just not bridging that gap between the amount of fire there used to be, and it’s hard for agencies because they know that more fire is a major tool they can use to combat potentially catastrophic wildfires, but there are barriers and cultural perceptions toward fire to be able to use more of it,” Kolden said.
The yearly targets also include 20,000 acres of fuel reduction projects and 250,000 defensible space inspections.
Barriers to prescribed burning on private lands
Although there’s been a renewed emphasis from public land managers in the western U.S. to get more fire on the ground and improve messaging about prescribed fire, recent studies indicate there are still too many permitting barriers for private landowners, who own about half of mixed-conifer forests in California.
That may be based on a negative public perception of fire and smoke dating back to European colonization, Kolden said.
According to Kolden’s 2019 study, annual prescribed burning efforts remained stable or decreased from 1998 to 2018 in the western U.S., whereas southeastern states accomplished over twice the amount of prescribed fire as the entire rest of the country.
In southeastern states, which experienced far fewer wildfire disasters over the past 20 years, non-federal entities were the ones primarily conducting the burns, as well, the study states.
Part of the difference is attributed to changes in liability laws that offer more protections for property owners when their burn escapes, Kolden said.
Cal Fire’s escaped burn in San Andreas was far from typical – according to a 2020 Stanford study published in “Nature Sustainability,” about 1.76% of prescribed burning operations get out of control every year in California.
But the actual percentage of escaped broadcast burns is likely even lower, according to a paper authored by UCCE researchers on prescribed fire barriers for private landowners.
The paper, published in late May, notes that the escape data in the Stanford study included residential pile burning, which are riskier than broadcast burns, since piles cast embers high into the sky and can leave materials smoldering for days or months due to built-up heat.
“The percentage of prescribed burns that resulted in liable damage or monetary reimbursement of agencies because it escaped and caused damage to another’s property was very likely far lower than 1.7%,” the paper reads.
Yet, pile burns are far more common, and landowners, fearing liability, tend to be more wary of coordinating a larger broadcast burn on their properties, according to the study.
In the Stanford study, which calls for expanding prescribed burning statewide, public misperceptions of fire and liability concerns were cited as one of three barriers to increasing pace and scale of controlled burning across the state. The other two were limited resources and regulations that limit landowners in conducting burns.
In California, “simple negligence” is the reigning liability law for both pile and prescription burning – if the burn catches another person’s property on fire, the landowner can be billed for the costs of suppression efforts, but only if they can be “proven negligent,” according to a 2020 UCCE brief by Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
For instance, a landowner could be held liable for an escaped burn if it were proven that they didn’t follow rules laid out in their burn permit, which is issued by Cal Fire.
By contrast, in Florida, a state that regularly burns up to 2 million acres per year, the landowner would have to be proven “grossly negligent” to be held liable for property damage.
They would have to act with a “reckless disregard for safety,” per the brief.
UCCE researchers who held workshops for landowners in Calaveras County and other Central Sierra communities over recent years attributed hesitance toward broadcast burning to a few factors.
One, aside from some ranching families and native peoples, most landowners don’t know the basics of how to coordinate a broadcast burn, but view pile burning as common and non-technical, said Susie Kocher, UCCE forestry advisor for the Central Sierra.
Two, broadcast burning is perceived to be more risky, while the opposite is true.
Three, many Californians think of broadcast burning as something that requires professional credentials, which is not necessarily the case, Kocher said.
Citing inconsistency with permitting requirements and timing as barriers to prescribed burning in California, Kocher and other researchers are recommending a number of changes to the permitting process.
“If conditions are appropriate and an adequate burn plan has been developed, then a burn permit should be issued for a length of time that allows landowners to take advantage of favorable weather conditions,” Kocher wrote in an email. “Fire hazard conditions used to make permitting decisions should be site specific. Data on when permits are issued or denied should be kept and landowners who are denied should get a written justification.”