Photo Credit: George McKinley talked to our group about his property and the burn during a recent Learning Exchange. Photo by Emily Troisi

George McKinley and Maria Kelley. Credit: Chris Chambers

George McKinley and Maria Kelly. Credit: Chris Chambers

Editor’s Note: This spring a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) was held in Southern Oregon. TREX organizers partnered with private landowners to burn on their property. Over the next three posts we’ll feature interviews with some of the people who were involved, including the perspectives of the landowners as well two of the people who helped implement the burn. In this first interview, George McKinley and Maria Kelly share their thoughts on hosting a TREX burn.

Tell us about your land—including your objectives for managing it.

George: We own 600 acres within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument–the only monument designated due to its biological diversity. It is situated at the southern tip of the Oregon Cascades, set within the east-west oriented Siskiyou Mountains. We have eight species of conifer on our property, reflecting the diversity of the region.

Mt Shasta in plain view during a walk through the property to the burn site. Credit: Emily Troisi

Mt Shasta in plain view during a walk through George and Maria’s property. Credit: Emily Troisi

About 10 years ago we purchased the land from a family-owned timber company. The property was previously owned by Weyerhauser and was fully stocked as a ponderosa pine plantation. The land was clear cut and replanted around 1978-1980.

When we first got the land, the trees were packed in at 500-plus trees per acre, averaging 8 inches in diameter. We cored the trees, and even at that young age, you could see that their growth rate was slowing down. They were so close together that it was hard to walk through the stand. There was very little undergrowth because the sun had a hard time making it to the ground. So we thinned the stand, removing the smaller trees, trying to create a few openings. At the time there was a good wood chip market, so our local contractor was able to chip on site and sell the chips to generate electricity. It worked out good for everyone.

The remaining trees stand at some 120-180 trees per acre. We pruned those trees to a height of 9 feet. An exciting development related to the thinning was the appearance of elk in the stand during the winter. Now able to move more freely in the stand, they seem to like taking advantage of the shelter.

A task that remained was to burn through decades of needle cast and brush. The Ashland TREX event fit right into a long-term hope — that we would be able to bring fire onto the site, improving conditions for the stand by the reducing overall fire risk, adding nutrients to the ground and stimulating understory diversity. 

Had you burned on your property before participating in the TREX? If so, who conducted the burning?

George: Yes, with friends and other workers. Including a Southern Oregon University grad (Tumasi Ross) who went on to a fire career with the agencies and early on really helped us coordinate and accomplish a wide range of fuels reduction and burning in his off-seasons.

Maria: I always thought he {George} was a pyro. Then I met some of his friends…

Can you tell us about how you got involved with TREX?

George: My day job is working for the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. That work is focused mostly on supporting federal agency restoration efforts through pilot projects and landscape-scale planning. In some of those circles, I used to think it was a joke when people asked if private landowners would be interested in using fire. Absolutely people are interested.

Through work I got involved in the FAC Net. I met Jeremy Bailey and learned that there were strategic efforts underway to expand the use of fire as a cultural and ecological tool–to help forests and communities reinvigorate our relationship with fire. Who wouldn’t like that?

How would you describe your feelings about the project as it evolved?

Maria: A bit anxious, concerned about animal habitat and mostly the critters themselves. Worried about impact to neighbors: air quality, “what if it gets away?” Before the burning began, meeting Amanda {the burn boss} was great and put me at ease. Her excitement was contagious–a nice blend of self-confidence and sense of humor.

George: Well, it was a pretty dynamic process. I felt I had done my due diligence, but the devil is in the details. I was really comfortable with the burn plan that Mel Wann and Sean Hendrix put together. It was great working with Jeremy up front and Amanda on the ground. I was excited as things came together. It was a culmination of a lot of hard work over the years that relied on a lot of hard effort and good work by other people as well. This really did seem like the next and necessary step to me.

Has the project met your objectives? Will you be monitoring fire effects to see if you met your goals?

Maria: Yes, seems like it did. Sean was great during the burn. I appreciated his sense of calm even at the height of the action.

George: So far. We’ll see if we get more mortality that expected, but I doubt it. The ground has greened up to a surprising degree in the two months since the burn. Some of the agency folks involved in the event were helpful in tracking conditions. I’ve got plot data from earlier work. We definitely want to monitor this.

Regrowth starting to emerge. Credit: Emily Troisi

Visiting the burn site a few weeks post-burn. Credit: Emily Troisi

Along those lines, our local Bureau of Land Management Fire Effects Monitor (FEMO, Jena Volpe) just shared a Fire Effects Monitoring Report for the underburn. I’m excited to take a closer look and know this will be very helpful for understanding the effects long term.

What would you tell other private landowners about prescribed fire in general, and about your experience participating in this TREX?

Maria: It’s a great idea and I would encourage others to do the same. I’m still worried about mortality. I was very impressed by the TREX participants’ knowledge, sensitivity, passion and excitement. I enjoyed meeting them during the project. It felt good to be able to provide them a place to learn. Other landowners might feel the same way.

George: I’d tell people to really think about it. Think about priorities in their woods. Start with home safety and go from there. Thin your woods for health. Do some initial piling and burning. See how that goes. It’s important for people to connect with good workers, steeped in safety and expertise. Fire use can be tricky. I think fire can be a very helpful tool in a wide range of contexts and applications.

Did this burn change the way that you think about prescribed fire on private property (from a legal, logistical or other perspective)?

George: It definitely got me thinking more about risk. It was an excellent example–on the ground–of using fire to more efficiently and effectively do good.

This burn was implemented by
National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group-qualified crews who adhered to federally recognized standards. Would you be open to burning without those types of crews and without meeting those standards? What’s your understanding of what it takes for a landowner to do their own burning?

George: It’s good to know standards were met. That said, I would most certainly burn without those standards. In Oregon landowners can burn. We’ve burned on our own before and will do so again. However, using prescribed fire at this scale (and larger) and thinking programmatically, working with qualified crews is just common sense.

Slash piles are different. Burning those is still a traditional practice in many areas. It’s a good first step.

From your perspective, what’s the biggest impediment for private landowners to do their own burning? What resources/skills/training/cooperators would you need to get more burning done outside of TREX events?

Maria: Financial, risk, trust, expertise, professional crew/leadership.

George: Equipment upgrades and trained partners. Seeing good examples is often a helpful motivation.

How will participating in this project influence your management of your land moving forward?

Maria: I will be much more supportive of fire use in the future; coming from a place of greater understanding and experience.

George: This has been a fun and notable success for our woods. Ever forward!

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