Photo Credit: The group spent the first day touring ranches in eastern Humboldt County, CA, and learning about the challenges and opportunities for private lands burning in California. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson
I often say that my favorite thing about prescribed fire is that it brings people together. Even people with disparate world views, politics or geographies can find common ground with a drip torch. There’s something elemental about prescribed fire: the connection, the fun, the passion.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since last week, when my colleagues and I hosted six guests from the Great Plains for a week-long prescribed fire “road show” here in northern California and southern Oregon. The goal of the trip, which was supported by the Fire Learning Network, was to bring private lands burners to the West to inspire and inform some of our nascent private lands burning efforts here. Our guests included Scott Stout and Dillon Mortensen, private ranchers in Nebraska and members of the Loess Canyon Rangeland Alliance; Mark and Deb Alberts, also ranchers in Nebraska and leaders of their local prescribed burn association; Emily Hohman, a preserve manager with The Nature Conservancy in Iowa; and Ben Wheeler, a wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever in Nebraska. These six people are responsible for tens of thousands of acres of prescribed fire in the Great Plains every year; they’re on the cutting edge of landowner-led cooperative burning, doing things that are bold and innovative and basically unheard of here in the West.
The road show consisted of workshops and field tours with local land managers and ranchers, and it generated rich discussions about what it would take to use more prescribed fire on private lands. In California, most private lands burning is accomplished through CAL FIRE’s Vegetation Management Program (VMP), but the capacity of that program has dwindled in recent decades, and in many parts of the state, CAL FIRE is happy to get any VMP burns accomplished in a given year. The program offers some great benefits to landowners, including liability coverage as well as most of the resources for planning and implementation of projects, yet it also has some challenges, including an extended wildfire season that draws down resources and competes with VMP projects during peak prescribed burn windows in the fall. In the absence of committed resources for the program, there is no good way for CAL FIRE to ensure that VMP projects are implemented. This bottleneck, and the scale of the need for prescribed fire, has stimulated increasing interest in landowner-led models of prescribed burning—hence the need for the road show.
In Nebraska and Iowa, our guests have been initiating and coordinating cooperative, landowner-led prescribed fire alliances and associations for the past 15 years or so. By pooling resources and labor and leveraging the support of partner agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), these groups are able to accomplish burning at scales commensurate with the challenges on their landscapes. For example, Scott Stout can clearly demonstrate the economic benefits of burning for his cattle ranching operation; using fire to kill encroaching eastern redcedar, ranchers like Scott and Mark can recapture native prairies and pasturelands and support notable increases in herd size (almost double in some cases). And the benefits of burning are not restricted to cattle; Emily Hohman uses prescribed fire to promote native tallgrass prairie for the bison herd on her preserve, and Ben Wheeler uses prescribed fire to restore habitat for the prairie chicken and other important wildlife species. The parallels to our issues and priorities here in northern California—woody encroachment, wildlife habitat, forage quality and quantity—were striking, and they made our guests’ strategies and approaches that much more resonant.
And the parallels and connections weren’t just professional—they were personal, too. Looking back on our week together, I’m reminded of the TV show the Real World, where a group of strangers move into a house together in some new place and the story unfolds on its own. Because of the size of our group, I planned family-style accommodations for the whole week: a sleepover at a local ranch on our first night, followed by large rental houses for our stays in Arcata and Ashland. It was really just a practical move, but I’m so glad we did it that way—it was like one big slumber party, with a special prescribed fire theme. We find this with TREX events, too: sharing spaces deepens connections. (And quirky lodging breaks down barriers even more quickly! Our Ashland house had very eclectic decor, including a robust collection of wooden shoe inserts and what appeared to be a real elephant foot as a door stop—very odd!)
I came away from last week feeling refreshed and inspired, and again impressed by the unifying power of prescribed fire. I can picture us all sitting there together in our quirky Ashland house last Thursday night—ranchers, biologists, TNC employees, extension agents and NRCS staff—watching the rodeo on TV and planning a March visit to Nebraska to burn together, and it just makes me smile.
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