Fighting fire with fire

Rob York, Research Stations Manager and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Forestry at UC Berkeley presents to landowners about the connectivity of fire suppression and severe wildfires in a classroom at Ebbetts Fire District in Arnold.

Landowners heard from personnel from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection personnel and the Stanislaus National Forest, in addition to foresters, ecologists and retired firefighters Oct. 4 during a prescribed burn workshop at Ebbetts Pass Fire District in Arnold.

The event was hosted by University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) – Central Sierra (El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties) Natural Resources Advisor Susie Kocher.

Why burn?

Fire Ecologist Dr. Sasha Berleman discussed the role of prescribed fire in targeting invasive species and restoring native plants on a landscape using time of year and moisture levels in trees and other fuels.

“Prescribed fires can be done safely, and they can be a valuable tool when used properly,” Berleman said.

Berleman shared her experience of organizing a cooperative 21-acre burning project targeting invasive medusahead grass on private lands in the Santa Rosa area in 2017 which involved landowners, 77 firefighters and a Burn Boss who supervised the entire operation, which took about three hours. Native perennial grasses were resprouting within three days, and annual grasses grew back by the first rain of the year a few months later, according to Berleman.

Rob York, Research Stations Manager and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Forestry at UC Berkeley highlighted intense fire suppression as a leading cause of severe wildfires, and also emphasized the ecological and safety value of prescribed fires in preventing larger destructive and unmanageable wildfires.

“Fire suppression is the reason we don’t have fire in the ecosystem,” York said. “I’m very thankful that we have very good firefighters in the state, but the ecological consequences have been dramatic. Ninety-eight to 99 percent of wildland fires in the state are less than five acres in size, since we’re good at responding to wildfires and putting them out. Ninety-five percent of the (total) area that is burning on forestlands today is just from the one to two percent of wildfires which escape those initial five acres.”

York explained that various state and federal agencies are not burning enough acreage in controlled burn projects, though there are tremendously low risks on federal land management agency-lead projects.

According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service study, federal land management agencies complete between 4,000 and 5,000 prescribed fires annually, and approximately 99 percent of those burns were “successful” (meaning they did not report escapes or near misses).

Landowner options

Via remote presentation from Humboldt, UCCE Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Division Co-Chair Lenya Quinn-Davidson emphasized the need for integrating landowners into prescribed burns, which have traditionally been undertaken by Cal Fire, the Forest Service, and private contractors.

Although Cal Fire used to treat approximately 60,000 acres per year, that number has decreased to less than 10,000 acres due to limited agency capacity, planning time and environmental compliance requirements (CEQA), according to Quinn-Davidson.

In a list of prescribed fire “myths,” Quinn-Davidson dismissed California landowner fears of liability, permitting, complex topography and a large population of people in the state that could make it challenging to burn as barriers to starting a project.

With low costs, less red tape and more control for landowners, Quinn-Davidson advocated for taking a grassroots volunteer-based approach to control burning, with reference to a newly developing Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) in Humboldt, a collective of landowners and other interested partners working together to burn each other's properties.

“Every burn is a learning opportunity,” Quinn-Davidson said. “There are all kinds of ways to get engaged.”

The cost to landowners is time and effort, which is often putting in perimeters (digging fuel breaks around the total burn area, usually by tractor) and performing understory thinning, Berleman mentioned earlier in the workshop.

At the meeting, Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group Grant Writer and Forester Pat McGreevy was excited to learn about PBAs and disclosed that he’d like to raise the possibility of getting a PBA started in Calaveras County.

McGreevy is currently working on a 912-acre mastication project in the South Fork Mokelumne River watershed funded by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. An additional 500 acres of surrounding private parcels are the next step in the project, according to McGreevy. Prescribed burns would be a way to maintain the area after mechanical forest thinning takes place.

“What are we going to do five years from now when it all grows back?” McGreevy asked rhetorically, referring to the project. “That’s the issue that we’re talking about. The way they’ve organized (the Humboldt PBAs) is all new to me. We’re going to have some informational meetings and float ideas around. It’s pretty exciting.”

Three of the parcel owners involved in McGreevy’s project attended the Prescribed Burn Workshop and four owners will participate in a training burn later this month to be lead by Rob York at UC’s Blodgett Forest, McGreevy said.

“We, and all of the project participants, recognize that the State is making a significant investment in our property and that it is our responsibility to maintain this investment,” McGreevy said. “We have yet to develop a detailed maintenance program, but we do know that prescribed fire will be in our toolbox.”

Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Forester Adam Frese educated landowners about Cal Fire’s Vegetation Management Program (VMP).

Frese said the advantages of VMP projects are low costs and the state taking on liability, while disadvantages are the length of time it can take to get projects started due to CEQA requirements, recalling a project in Tuolumne County which has been in the works for four years.

“There’s been more emphasis in recent years of doing more VMP work,” Frese said. “The goal is to have VMP in every battalion and one in every fuel type. It’s a cost-share program – if a homeowner has a tractor and can put fire lines in, that can be their contribution.”

The unit has two masticators which speed up projects with fuel break maintenance in addition to chippers who “chip as we go” instead of leaving fuel breaks full of debris piles, Frese said.

The unit is also acquiring new hand-crews, since inmate hand-crews are dwindling.

Frese also highlighted prescribed burns as an opportunity for volunteer firefighters to gain experience before the fire season.


1. Air Quality permit and Smoke Management Plan

Calaveras Air Pollution Control Technician Doug Carson detailed the smoke management plan for landowners looking to start a control burn.

Regarding health impacts of smoke from prescribed burns, Carson said the district is primarily concerned with protecting those with chronic lung issues such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in addition to children with developing lungs.

Still, Carson advocated for prescribed burns as a method of preventing massive wildfires in the future, explaining, “a little bit of smoke now or a lot of smoke later.”

A smoke management plan is needed for more than one ton in emissions of particulate matter.

No permit is required for a burn if it’s on less than five acres. Air Pollution Burn Permits are valid for one year from the date of issuance and they cost $12. A Smoke Management Plan (SMP) is required for burns on properties larger than 10 acres.

Carson emphasized that people should notify neighbors before starting a controlled burn, since “the more that you tell people this is coming, the easier it is for them to accept it.”

2. Cal Fire permit

A Cal Fire issued burn permit is required during fire season (May 1 to Oct. 31).

Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Forester Adam Frese emphasized that the issuance of a permit does not relieve the permit holder of liability if the fire gets out of control.

The leading cause of fire in the unit is debris burns, according to Frese, though he assured, “I’ve had good experiences with local operators doing prescribed burns.”

Planning for a prescribed burn

Forest Service Fire and Fuels Specialist Beck Johnson stressed that burning conditions must be met before starting a project, with reference to fuel moisture (if fuel snaps, it’s dry, but if fuel bends, it may be too wet and unsuitable for a burn) and air quality (Unstable air masts above the burn are ideal, since smoke would be lifting and getting carried away by winds).

Landowners must also pay attention to how topography may influence fire behavior, and should set small test fires in areas which represent the total landscape within the scope of the burn, Johnson added.

Retired firefighter Ben Jacobs defined fire terminology and stressed the importance of communication, public and personal safety, a contingency plan and objectives on a control burn.

Jacobs highly recommended using the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NCWG) policy burn plan template.

Jacobs also suggested that in the case that landowners hire burn bosses, they should vet them before hiring to ensure that their qualifications are legitimate. Burn bosses should provide a list of every prescribed fire they’ve managed, Jacobs said.


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