Photo Credit: 87-year old Bob Prather has been using prescribed fire on his ranch for decades. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson
Late last month, the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council held its annual meeting in Middletown, California, just outside the footprint of the 2015 Valley Fire. Lake County offered an ideal venue for the meeting, with its vibrant oak savannas and fields of wildflowers—the quintessential fire-adapted Californian landscape—juxtaposed against the stark moonscape of the Valley Fire. What better place to talk about the ways that fire can shape our landscapes and communities, and to feel the gravity of the challenges that we face.
As usual, the group spent the first day with presentations by fire scientists and managers from throughout northern California, then spent the second day in the field learning about local issues and projects. Presenters included local agency staff who were on the front lines of the 2015 wildfire season; scientists with the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, US Geological Survey, and UC Berkeley; and fire managers from various national forests. Also in attendance were Jeremy Bailey from the Fire Learning Network, who talked about cooperative burning, and Nick Goulette, Steering Committee Chair of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, who led a panel discussion and breakout session on prescribed fire-related policy efforts. The spectrum of local, regional, state and national perspectives rounded off the agenda, invoking rich conversations during the Council’s social event that evening. The night ended with a touching keynote presentation by Jan van Wagtendonk, one of California’s preeminent fire ecologists, on Harold Biswell’s early burning in Lake County. Jan’s accounts were informative and deeply personal, relaying not only Biswell’s struggle to elevate prescribed fire in California, but also Jan’s own journey into the realm of fire ecology and management. It was a good reminder that the Council is carrying a torch that’s been in play for many generations.
The group visited two sites on the field tour, following a dramatic path from the devastation of the Valley Fire to the inspiration of an endearing rancher whose family has been burning their land for decades. The caravan left Middletown and drove through miles of blackened woodlands and forest, where scattered foundations and chimneys were the only signs of the old neighborhoods that were once nestled in the hills. Boggs Mountain State Demonstration Forest, managed by CAL FIRE, was the first stop on the tour. Most of the 3,500-acre forest burned in the Valley Fire, and much of it burned at high severity. The group visited a stand that had been prescribed burned more than a decade ago but still burned at high severity last summer. That site generated good discussions about the frequency and scale of treatments, as well as the novel fire behavior that managers have observed during wildfires in recent years.
At the end of the day, the group visited Prather Ranch—just down the road from Boggs—where 87-year-old Bob Prather and his sons have been actively using fire for decades. The Prathers use small-scale winter burns in their forests and oak woodlands to reduce fuels and maintain open stand conditions. Last summer, the Valley Fire burned onto their ranch, and they ignited a backburn off of one of their forest roads to stop the wildfire from running up the hill. Their efforts were successful, and crews were able to hold the Valley Fire at that road. The comfort and experience that the Prathers have with fire—rare for private landowners in California—was an inspiration to field tour participants, and something that the Council would like to foster more broadly throughout the region.
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