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Good Fire

The 80-acre UC Berkeley Forestry Camp in Plumas County serves as a unique opportunity to implement techniques and research related to fire. With wildfires in California growing in intensity over the past few years, many foresters are trying to educate the public about using fire as a tool to reduce fuel loads. Last weekend we had the pleasure of attending a two-day Prescribed Fire on Private Lands workshop, hosted by the UC Cooperative Extension. It was a really educational workshop, especially going in with limited knowledge and exposure to forestry practices.

Is prescribed fire even necessary? The answer is yes. Our ecosystems are fire-adapted ecosystems that depend on frequent low-intensity fires to thrive. Before European settlers arrived in the Americas, Native Americans regularly used fire to manage the land. However, with increased inhabitance across the country, it became more difficult to continue incorporating these practices. After the fatal Big Blowup of 1910 where over 3 million acres burned, the US Forest Service removed fire as a management tool on the landscape, unfortunately leading to the increase of destructive wildfires today.

Attendees at the workshop ranged from private landowners wanting to learn more about the logistics of prescribed fire to agency representatives, including Cal Fire, speaking about the permitting process. Local prescribed burn associations and fire safe councils were also present. Topics included the art and science of meteorology and how much the weather can affect fire. Air quality was another important issue we touched upon, as it is currently one of the bigger barriers keeping prescribed burns from becoming more frequent.

The best part about this workshop was how hands-on it was. After a lecture from a forest service employee about fire behavior, we put on hard hats and Nomex and carried our shovels up a hill. We first started a “test fire” which typically allows you to see how the landscape on a certain unit will burn. We originally hoped to under burn about two acres of land to remove the excess fuel or woody debris made up of fallen trees and pine needles. Unfortunately, the fuel moisture level that day was too high to successfully carry the fire. Instead, we practiced pile burning, which is very familiar to most people. Similar to a backyard bonfire, pile burning is when you gather fuel you would like to burn and build a tepee-like pile out of it. Using a drip torch, we lit six different piles on fire. The heat of the flames rose high enough to sway the branches of the pine trees nearby with the heat they were emitting. Placement of the piles is important, as you do not want to scorch or kill certain trees, and you always want to avoid placing a pile near power lines. We raked away the pine needles and debris in a ring around the edge of the fire so it would not escape, and stood far back to avoid the intense heat. After the flames died down, everyone in the workshop gathered for cool drinks and returned to the lecture hall to debrief. We would return to check on these fires the following day.

The next day, we returned to the lecture hall first thing in the morning. We learned about burning options as a private landowner and how fire is used in other states as a method of management, as well as the history of fire in the country. One of our favorite speakers was Les Hall, who is a member of the Mountain Maidu tribe. He spoke about his ancestors’ relationship with the land, and how they believed that everything in life and the environment is connected and dependent on each other. His ancestors would burn the land so the sun could reach the forest floor and the vegetation would grow back healthier. This in turn provided plentiful food for the wildlife, which allowed the tribe to hunt and feed themselves successfully.

Listening to Les speak reinforced the realization that this is what our ecosystem needs to return to. Actively managing the land should be a part of our everyday life. Florida is a great example of this type of management. Ariel Thompson, who is the UC Berkeley Forest Manager, spent a few weeks in Florida where she said there are an average of 2.1 million acres of prescribed fire annually. However, the average size per fire is only about 25 acres. This is because the vast majority of these acres are on private lands and are conducted by private landowners. While we recognize there are topography and climate differences between Florida and California, it is amazing to see how accepted the practice is in Florida compared to the negative stigma about fire in California. Overall, it gave us hope that maybe we could get to that same level one day. These speakers taught us that educating the public on fire and its positive effects is essential to bringing back prescribed fire into our landscape. Fire doesn’t have to be the destructive inferno that we’ve seen recently. If fire is used frequently and in a correct manner, our ecosystems can revert back to their healthy states once again, resulting in a reduced amount of wildfires.

After lunch, we went back outside to mop up the fires we started the day before. It was emphasized that even though pile burns may seem like the easiest fires to contain, it is easy to become complacent and neglect these fires which is when they can escape. Patrolling fires until they have completely consumed the fuel load or until they are mopped up is imperative to ensuring that you don’t have any accidents. Although these fires had consumed 95-100% of their fuel load, the decision was made to douse the fires with water because most of the people were leaving and winds were expected to pick up.

Incorporating prescribed fire back into our land management toolbox is no simple task. There are many complications and challenges. While fire has been villainized for the last 100 years, it is becoming more important that we alter our mindset and start embracing its use as the Native Americans did. With management and dedication, we can safely bring our forests back to where they should be.

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