Good Fire on the Ground in 2017: Seven Controlled Burns to Learn From
Authors: Allison Jolley
We recently asked our members and partners to tell us about their controlled burning efforts. Seven practitioners shared stories with us; each one presenting a unique twist on prescribed fire.
Landowners Take the Lead in Humboldt County
For many years, we at the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) have fielded questions from landowners about using fire as a tool. Ranchers and forestland owners in Humboldt County have voiced interest in using fire to improve range resources, enhance wildlife habitat, reduce fuels, and beat back the trees and shrubs that are quickly engulfing their prairies and woodlands, but we have struggled to provide them with good options.
In recent history, CAL FIRE led the majority of burns on private lands in California. In the 1980s, their Vegetation Management Program (VMP) was responsible for 30,000–65,000 acres of controlled burning every year. In recent decades, however, those numbers have consistently fallen short of 10,000 acres a year — a drop in the bucket given the habitat and fuels issues that we face in California. CAL FIRE is currently revamping and reinvesting in the VMP, which is great news, but it’s clear that other pathways are needed for landowners to reclaim fire as the important tool that it is. Last year, UCCE started looking into prescribed fire models from other parts of the country. We know that other regions have impressive burn programs that blow California out of the water, and in most of those places, they’ve been successful because landowners are doing the burning themselves — something that’s almost unheard of in California.
Over the last year, we worked with private landowners in Humboldt County to plan and implement burns. In June, we burned a 19-acre grass unit on a ranch in eastern Humboldt County, treating a patch of invasive medusahead. This Halloween, we burned 140 acres of coastal rangeland invaded by shrubs and trees. For both of these burns, we hired a qualified burn boss to write the burn plan and direct the burn, but we staffed the burns entirely with volunteers, including volunteer fire department members, landowners and other interested community members. This model of burning — where the landowners take the lead — is truly an exciting and novel development in California, and I believe it is the critical ingredient to burning at a meaningful scale.
Too Much Fire Elsewhere and Not Enough Here
Plans to Manage Fire with Fire in the Klamath Mountains Foiled by Weather Patterns and a Statewide Burn Ban
By Bill Tripp, Karuk Tribe
This year’s Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) experienced a mix of progress and barriers. Earlier this summer, the Karuk Tribe and our partners had quite a bit of success managing natural ignitions. We hoped to build off that momentum and re-initiate those natural ignitions during our TREX, specifically along ridgelines. These ignitions would have mitigated the impacts of previous suppression and bolstered the forest’s resilience to the next fire. Agreeing to such a strategy was a success in and of itself and was the result of intensive collaborative planning among Western Klamath Restoration Partnership participants. However, due to weather conditions, the management plan wasn’t feasible beyond the summer months. Still, we completed 233 acres of burning elsewhere and accomplished a lot of training during the TREX.
Unfortunately, ongoing socio-political realities stopped our overall progress. It is easy to understand that you shouldn’t burn during a local red flag warning. But to shut down burning in the entire state — that is the fire management culture that we need to change. (The Klamath TREX and all other prescribed fire operations occurring in California were halted by a state-wide burn ban during the wildfire tragedies in Napa and Sonoma counties.) Further, if the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa tribes were considered true sovereigns as stated in the law, with the full authority afforded to other sovereign nations, the outcomes of the Klamath River TREX would have been much different. In the words of one participant:
Fire has been unjustly taken from the hands of tribal people, taken from its original socio-cultural context. The time has come to put fire back into the hands of those at the local level, those who are in place for the long haul, those not constrained by the socio-political realities of agency perceptions, election cycles, fire weather in other areas, or the drive to meet timber targets.
This video explains why these TREX events are so important to the communities in northern California and beyond.
Another interesting component of our TREX involved smoke. Lee Tarnay, a physical ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, performed in-depth smoke modeling during the event. His results showed that our prescribed fires produced a fraction of the amount of smoke that this summer’s wildfires in our region did (0.02 percent, to be exact). Yes, our burning caused local air quality to reach the “moderate to unhealthy” level for sensitive groups, but Tarnay’s findings greatly support the argument that some smoke now is better than more later.
View Klamath River TREX burning in action:
Working Across Lines: New Mexico/Colorado TREX
By Emily Hohman
In May 2017, the Chama Peak Land Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, the San Juan National Forest and other local, national and international partners hosted our region’s first TREX. While a number of other TREX events have occurred elsewhere in New Mexico, this was the first one to work across state lines with both New Mexico and Colorado partners. The region’s primary watershed, the San Juan-Chama, is important for its wildlife and forest resources, but it is currently most widely recognized for its importance to downstream users. One-third of New Mexico’s drinking water originates from this watershed. As in other areas of Colorado and New Mexico, forests in the region have been impacted by a legacy of fire suppression, forest pests and drought, and they face a changing climate in the coming decades. The region also contains a diverse matrix of ownership consisting of federal, state, tribal and private landholdings, where challenges do not stop at property lines.
The region also contains a diverse matrix of ownership consisting of federal, state, tribal and private landholdings, where shared challenges do not stop at property lines.
The TREX was an important step in an all-lands, all-hands approach to utilizing prescribed fire for land management and restoration in this region. The inclusion of private land burn units was central to this effort and was the focus of the Chama Peak Land Alliance, a non-profit collaborative of private landowners which promotes good stewardship on private lands. Also instrumental was the support of the San Juan National Forest, where the TREX’s first burn occurred. The TREX also provided an opportunity for outreach to the community. In partnership with New Mexico State Forestry, we held a special community program in Chama. Residents learned about TREX and prescribed fire, and also had an opportunity to hear from TREX participants from Spain and Indonesia. Our international participants delivered presentations on prescribed and wildland fire in their countries and talked about why traveling to Chama provided valuable training for their jobs back home.
We completed several burns on a private ranch, with burn operations and smoke quite visible to residents for several days. This visibility provided a great opportunity to engage with residents through informal conversations.
The event’s success strengthened partnerships and working relationships, which created interest in continuing TREX and cooperative burn efforts in the region. We aim to continue burning on both private and public lands, while building capacity and working relationships across ownership boundaries.
Training the Next Generation of Firelighters
By Mike Davis, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, the Georgia Forestry Commission, and the White County Fire Service recently conducted a small controlled burn in the wildland-urban interface. The burn was a field component of a basic wildland firefighting course at North Georgia Technical College. Participants included several college students, as well as agency employees.
This was the third year for the course; it’s designed specifically for the college’s environmental science program’s second-year students. This year, agency leaders committed to a live fire exercise to bring the instruction to life in the field. Students completed a work capacity test earlier in the day and were then allowed to participate.
Feedback was extremely positive from the students. They appreciated the field experience and the opportunity to work with seasoned personnel. The partnership with North Georgia Technical College provides the Forest Service with an opportunity to invest in our community and local youth. Several graduates who took this course have gone on to work with state and federal land management agencies, and hopefully this new field component will further bolster their training.
WTREX Burns on an Airforce Base
How many people can say that they’ve burned only feet from two large airplanes?! At the recent Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), we had that opportunity. In some ways, the burn at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California was less than exciting. It was only about 20 acres, and it involved a simple grass fuel and completely flat ground. But in other ways, it was one of the most interesting burns I’ve seen. We were in a full-security, fenced-in part of the base, burning grass surrounding an old tarmac and growing between every crack in the concrete. On the tarmac were two old airplanes, which were safe from the flames but made for some fun photos. The other exciting thing about the Castle Burn was that our WTREX crew burned it: a group of 45 fire practitioners from 20 states and three countries, most of whom were women. The crew represented federal and state agencies, tribes, academic institutions, municipal fire departments, non-governmental organizations and everything in between.
As it turned out, the Castle Burn ended up being the only broadcast burn that we implemented at the WTREX this year. The wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties started the day before the WTREX, and we were lucky to get even one burn under our belts given the tragedy that was unfolding north of us. Luckily, we were being hosted by Yosemite National Park and had the rare opportunity to check out the Empire Fire, a fire that was being managed for resource benefits within the park. We also had a wide variety of other workshops and trainings, and demonstrating the power of the TREX model, crews were endlessly dynamic, flexible and eager to learn. While many aspects of the WTREX were memorable, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll all remember the Castle Burn, and the odd sensation of watching our flames rip across a field toward airplanes!
Putting Good Fire on the Ground in Northern New Mexico
By Leonora Pepper, Forest Stewards Guild
This story is an excerpt from an article published by the Forest Stewards Guild. Read the full story.
The forests and woodlands of northern New Mexico are a mosaic of land ownership, with Pueblo and state parcels abutting Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, interspersed with privately owned tracts. Given this jurisdictional patchwork, ecological management that moves beyond piecemeal treatment to address resilience at a landscape scale must be collaborative. This October, the New Mexico State Land Office, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Stewards Guild and the Fire Learning Network orchestrated exactly that kind of management action, bringing together a multi-partner team for a TREX in the Rio Trampas watershed [. . .]
All told, the Rio Trampas TREX contributed to putting fire on 160 acres of New Mexico state and BLM land. Simultaneously, the implementation of the burn provided a venue for each participant to build wildland firefighting and leadership qualifications. Just as important were the connections forged across agency and organizational lines. After 15 days of working together on the fire line, navigating steep and rocky terrain, spending long days on the mountain — often past nightfall — and taking part in an environment of mutual learning and training, the camaraderie was palpable. Now, back at our respective organizations and long after the persistent smell of wood smoke fades from our field gear, we will continue to build upon the partnerships formed at Rio Trampas on the common ground of wildland firefighting, forest management, and building resilience in the landscape.
After 15 days of working together on the fire line, navigating steep and rocky terrain, spending long days on the mountain — often past nightfall — and taking part in an environment of mutual learning and training, the camaraderie was palpable.
Controlled Burning at Sycan Marsh Provides Training and Scientific Collaboration
By Craig Bienz, The Nature Conservancy in Oregon
Two “fire sisters,” Katie Sauerbrey of Sycan Marsh Preserve and Amanda Stamper of the Oregon chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), recently led controlled burns on 900 acres at Sycan Marsh. Concurrent with the burning was an intensive fire behavior research project. In all, over 30 scientists participated in the fire activities from the USDA Forest Service, the University of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with 30 fire personnel from different partnering organizations.
This combination of fire managers and fire scientists facilitated a sharing of experience and knowledge, while providing training to a new cadre. The application of prescribed fire provided everyone with a continued appreciation of how fire frequency can influence fire behavior and severity.
These burns were part of a Master Participating Agreement between TNC and the USDA Forest Service that allows the two parties to perform controlled burning on or near National Forests, with a focus on personnel training. This agreement will eventually enable cross-boundary controlled burns on over 10,000 acres of the Fremont-Winema National Forest and the Sycan Marsh Preserve.
Did you conduct a controlled burn recently? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
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