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Davis, California

Friday, May 17, 2024

Placer County landowners use prescribed burns to reduce dry kindling on the ground

California’s stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service details the state’s plan to burn half a million acres of land this year


By RACHEL SHEY city@theaggie.org


California residents are familiar with the inevitable smell of smoke and talk of fire that comes every summer with the onset of hot, dry weather accompanied by autumn winds. Much of this fire risk is attributable to, ironically, a century of fire suppression, according to California’s stewardship agreement with the US Forest Service. 

A historical transition toward unnaturally dense forests, a century of fire suppression and climate change resulting in warmer, hotter and drier conditions have left the majority of California’s forestland highly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and in need of active, science-based management,” the agreement reads. 

The stewardship agreement suggests using controlled burn tactics to reduce fire risk by efficiently eliminating much of the dry kindling that is ready to catch fire at a moment’s notice. 

“To protect public safety and ecology, experts agree that at least one million acres of California forest and wildlands must be treated annually across jurisdiction,” the agreement reads. 

Despite the risk, fire is one of the cheapest and most efficient methods of clearing litter, which is why scientists are advocating for its use. Unlike other methods, prescribed burns don’t require expensive manpower and tools, according to UC Davis ecologist and scientist John Williams.

“It can be expensive to do all of that manual work and to find a place to take [the leaf litter],” Williams said. “People need trailers or some way to lug it or they need to pay somebody. The other reason is that fire is a natural part of these ecosystems and by introducing low intensity fire in this form, you’re restoring one of the natural processes of the land and you’re reducing the likelihood of a high-severity fire.”

Not only does fire reset the land and clear the dry brush, but it also plays an ecological role. Many species are adapted to require the rejuvenating force of fire every few years to properly reproduce, according to Williams.

“[Fire] reduces the forest fuels, the leaf litter and sticks on the forest floor, which are what fuel the big wildfires that we hear about, and the other thing is that it gives a chance for some species that have specific regeneration needs, like Ponderosa pine, which requires mineral ground for the seeds to sprout,” Williams said. “If there’s a bunch of leaf litter, those seedlings won’t make their way to the ground and sprout.” 

Williams explained that fire used to be much more frequent in many of these areas. After a century of fire suppression, California forests are jam-packed with organic material that’s ready to catch on fire. 

“In the foothills of the Sierras, fire was something that would come through every five to 35 years, historically,” Williams said. “We’ve got a hundred years of fire suppression, so the conditions have changed a lot. By suppressing those fires, we’ve allowed a lot more shade and canopy cover, and a lot less light is hitting the forest floor, so that’s what we’re trying to reverse.”

When conducting a prescribed burn, the landowners usually follow safety procedures to prevent the fire from growing out of control. Williams described a few of these methods. 

“One of the things we do is we create a perimeter around the area that you want to burn,” Williams said. “It can be just a few feet that’s cleared to bare ground so the fire doesn’t have anything to burn at the edge, kind of like a trail.”

Other methods involve reducing the fuels and keeping them low to the ground so the fire doesn’t rise and become uncontrollable. Fire that is higher up can come down outside of the perimeter and cause other parts of the land to catch on fire, too. 

“There’s also something called masticating, which is where you bring a tractor and it chews up the smaller shrubs and plants and seedlings and saplings so that you’re reducing the fuels,” Williams said. “You can also trim the ladder fuels, the lower branches. You want to keep the fire on the forest floor.”

Landowners also carefully choose the day of the burn, avoiding hot, windy days when fire spreads fast, but also choosing a day warm enough so that the fire can get started and reduce the fuel efficiently. 

“You also want to choose the conditions under which you do the burn,” Williams said. “You want to burn on a day when you have low wind, humidity levels that allow the fire to burn a little bit but not too much.”

Placer County’s conservation project coordinator Cordi Craig explained that fire is a very efficient method well-suited to Placer County’s ecosystem. 

“There’s a lot of prep work that goes into it as far as making sure you remove your ladder fuels,” Craig said. “As far as maintaining your property and reducing fuel loading, it’s incredibly effective for that. Placer County is a fire-dependent ecosystem just like most of California, so it’s important that fire is reintroduced into these landscapes.”


Written by: Rachel Shey — city@theaggie.org



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