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Blazing a trail

Local prescribed burn association established amid devastating wildfire season

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The prescribed burn association members include ranchers, homeowners, academics, and staff from local, state and federal agencies, pictured together here at Columbia College.

A cohort of about 30 local residents have banded together to form a prescribed burn association (PBA) for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The momentum to ramp up low-intensity, controlled burns—as were employed as a land management tool by indigenous groups prior to 19th century European colonization—comes as the Caldor Fire reaches over 100,000 acres in size and continues to char Sierra Nevada communities north of Calaveras County.

In a meeting at Columbia College on Aug. 11, ranchers, homeowners, and academics were joined by staff from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), Stanislaus National Forest, East Bay Municipal Utility District, and the air pollution control districts for both counties, among others, to vote on forming the association.

The meeting was hosted by Susie Kocher, a forester for the University of California Cooperative

Extension (UCCE) in the Central Sierra, and Tom Hofstra, a forestry and natural resources instructor at Columbia College. Hofstra has integrated prescribed burning projects on campus into curriculum with his students over the past five years and was taking the cohort of landowners on a field trip to present the work.

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Tom Hofstra, a Forestry and Natural Resources Instructor at Columbia College presents the results of prescribed burning projects he has conducted with students over the past five years to interested landowners from Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties.  
 

Facilitating the establishment of the PBA, for Kocher, is the culmination of three years of workshops and training with Calaveras and Tuolumne county residents.

The group has been meeting regularly over Zoom in recent months.

Many of the attendees are landowners driven to the drip torch by a desire to protect their property, while others are interested in forest restoration, according to fifth-generation forestland owner Lara McNicol of Tuolumne County.

“I see more diversity in political range in these meetings than I do in a lot of other places, because we all come to it with the same desire to help the land,” said McNicol, who is also an adjunct forestry and natural resources professor at Columbia College. “Most people have seen the effects of fire on their property in a beneficial manner, from ranchers who use it to improve the nutrient value of their grasses or eradicate medusa head to people who work to open upland meadows and create a more diverse forest landscape.”

McNicol’s family has been applying prescribed fire treatments on their property outside of Long Barn for over two decades. The work in their own “experimental forest” has yielded native wildflowers, mushrooms and sedges, improved water retention in soils, resilience to bark beetles, and an increase in wildlife biodiversity, among other benefits, McNicol said.

Informed by tree ring data from local forest research stations, her classes at Columbia College focus on utilizing fire to restore landscapes to their traditional fire return interval. That's the amount of years between the time an area would burn before European colonizers started intensively logging forests and suppressing fires—practices fire scientists now point to as contributing to the intensity and duration of extreme wildfires, which have been exacerbated by climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels.

McNicol sees PBAs as one tool in an arsenal of tools to protect communities, forests, and watersheds on a local level.

Calaveras and Tuolumne counties join at least 14 other communities around the state in establishing their own PBA, although Kocher said there are others that aren’t reflected on that list.

The first California PBA was established in Humboldt County in 2018 based on a model from Nebraska, according to founding member and UCCE area fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

Since banding together, the roughly 90 ranchers, volunteer firefighters, university students, environmental groups, and others who have joined the PBA, have torched about 1,300 acres together, Quinn-Davidson said.

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A PBA burn was conducted with the help of the Columbia College Forestry and Natural Resources program in February of 2019. This photo shows the effects of a low-intensity burn on a prepared forest floor. 

 

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Columbia College FNR students head out to monitor the broadcast burn. 

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The same area as shown above, two months later in April of 2019

Membership has roughly doubled since the association’s first demonstration projects.

Quinn-Davidson said it’s been revolutionary for a landowner to have someone they can call to see whether prescribed fire is a good fit for their property and to walk them through the checklist of safety and permitting needs leading up to a project.

“It’s opened up a whole new world,” Quinn-Davidson said. “The interest is outrageous.”

Quinn-Davidson, who has been traveling across the state over the past few years helping other communities start their own PBAs, said there’s been a major attitude adjustment toward prescribed burning from federal and state agencies.

Cal Fire, for example, has set a target to burn 100,000 acres per year by 2025.

A new position at the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, the fuels battalion chief, is one testament to the increased support from the agency for prescribed burning and fuels reduction.

That position is helmed by John Frederick, who will serve as an educator to the PBA, informing landowners of the necessary permits and safety practices, as well as assessing what level of involvement is needed from Cal Fire on individual projects. That often depends on how large of an acreage is being proposed for treatment.

He said that with fire seasons growing longer, fires getting more destructive, and a lack of rain, the agency’s resources are tied up throughout the year responding to fires. PBAs can help with the background work—ensuring a project meets permit requirements, writing burn plans, and conducting environmental studies, among other tasks—that would normally fall on Cal Fire staff to juggle with wildfire response.

“We need to all work together,” Frederick said. “The more education we can provide to the public and PBAs, the more work we can get done. ... As we pool our resources, we can reduce more and more fuels as the years go on.”

Kocher said she hopes the currently unnamed Calaveras-Tuolumne PBA will attract other landowners, especially tribal groups, to join and support community-based cooperative burning efforts. She said the group may also eventually pursue funding opportunities to hire a coordinator and purchase shared equipment.

For now, next steps for the PBA include helping each other learn more about how to burn safely and practicing together as opportunities arise.

“I think education and action go together,” Kocher said. “It’s a big endeavor to go from no knowledge about prescribed fire to lighting one by yourself. I think this is a great next step.”

To learn more or become a member, contact Kocher at sdkocher@ucanr.edu.

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