Deadly and destructive California wildfires have fueled growing interest in bringing back an age-old practice ecological experts say could help prevent future fires and restore the health of the landscape: prescribed burning.
The practice of deliberately setting fire to the land as a management tool has deep roots in the state's history, with native tribes using controlled fires to manipulate the landscape and encourage growth of desirable plants, but prescribed burning is "far enough in the past where it's almost folklore," according to Jeff Stakehouse, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. He said acreage of prescribed burns on private land has dwindled from a peak of more than 200,000 acres a year in the 1950s to less than 10,000 acres annually in the last 15 years.
But that is changing.
Momentum for increasing the use of controlled fires has spurred formation of prescribed-burn associations that allow private landowners to pool resources and work together to burn each other's properties. The Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association, which formed in 2018, became the first of its kind in the West, with other counties including Sonoma, Plumas, Nevada and Mendocino also creating their own groups.
For Humboldt County, turning to prescribed burning was not so much prompted by wildfire concerns as it was about landowners wanting to manage vegetation and reduce wood encroachment on their properties, Stakehouse said. He noted that mechanical removal tends to be "incredibly expensive"—about $500 to $1,000 an acre—and the use of herbicide is "strongly frowned upon" in his region.
"We had people coming into our office asking about prescribed fire," he said, and he would refer them to CalFire and its Vegetation Management Program, "knowing the whole time that the capacity of CalFire to get projects done was limited."
CalFire, which established its VMP in the 1980s, does most of the burning for private landowners—and because CalFire has been doing the burning, people now "lack the skill and comfort" to do their own, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, UCCE fire advisor and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
With more landowners asking about prescribed fire in recent years, she said "we knew we needed to figure out a different way to help those people and to get those projects going."
Prescribed-burn associations may be new to the West, but the neighbors-helping-neighbors approach has been around for years in other parts of the country, Stakehouse said, noting that he and Quinn-Davidson "blatantly stole the idea and the model from the Midwest" after traveling to Nebraska in 2017 to learn firsthand from two well-established PBAs.
Traveling with them was Humboldt County rancher Dean Hunt, who now serves as president of the county PBA. Prior to the trip, Hunt had already completed a VMP burn with CalFire to reduce brush encroachment, targeting conifers and Douglas firs that had returned to the range.
"Fire is the best tool to restore this ground," Hunt said. "The huge benefit we've seen is not only to the cattle but to the wildlife. We've created a lot more browse for the deer and we have a lot of elk that are on our property."
Seeing strength in diversity, Stakehouse said he and Quinn-Davidson have been adamant about allowing anyone from the community to join the Humboldt County PBA, which has more than 80 members.
"It's turning out to be a good bonding experience to be able to cross paths with different people that we never knew before," Hunt said.
Since its establishment, the association has done a total of 18 burns on more than 1,000 acres, though the projects were for training, Stakehouse said. The biggest challenge to doing more burns, Quinn-Davidson said, is the preparation and planning involved, which takes a year or two to get a project fully ready to go. That includes obtaining permits, waiting for the right conditions and aligning those factors with people's schedules.
Last year, the association performed a burn on 320 acres for Humboldt County rancher Hugo Klopper.
Doing the burn as part of a PBA not only reduced the project's cost, Klopper said, but it provided training for volunteer firefighters, who bring their engines and provide support.
"These guys have very little experience fighting wildland fires; most of their experience is structures," he said. "This gives them an opportunity to put a drip torch in hand and do a burn, not just do fire suppression."
Following workshops Quinn-Davidson and Stakehouse have held across the state to promote the PBA model, the idea is catching on.
Jamie Ervin, an organizer for Coloma-based Sierra Forest Legacy, which encourages prescribed burning, has been helping to organize the Nevada County Prescribed Burn Association, which formed in May. Most of the group's members live in Nevada City or Grass Valley, he said, regions that have been dubbed "the next Paradise," the site of last year's Camp Fire, the worst in state history.
"People are just on edge about fires right now," he said.
Whereas the Humboldt County PBA has been focused on reducing invasive plant species on grasslands, Ervin said most members of his group want to burn forestlands to reduce fuel, "which is a different kind of burn and takes a different kind of expertise to pull off." Though the group so far has done just a small demonstration burn on a fifth of an acre, he said members are working to raise funding to do bigger burns next year.
He said even though the state has encouraged more burning through its Forest Management Task Force and air-quality districts have committed to permitting more burn days, "there's a lot of barriers to making it happen," with air-quality days being one of them.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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