Posts Tagged: prescribed fire
UC ANR hires more fire advisors to address growing threat to California communities
Bringing more expertise to more places across the state, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources continues to hire fire advisors to help communities prepare for one of the most devastating climate-fueled threats.
With wildfires a constant danger as drought grips California, five highly skilled UC Cooperative Extension experts have joined the organization since early May:
- Katie Low, statewide fire coordinator (and also serving Nevada and Placer counties)
- Alison Deak, fire advisor serving Mariposa, Fresno and Madera counties
- Tori Norville, fire advisor serving Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties
- Barb Satink Wolfson, fire advisor serving Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties
- Luca Carmignani, fire advisor serving Los Angeles and Orange counties
These positions – as well as other recent additions in agriculture and natural resources fields – are made possible by California's commitment, as reflected in the state budget, to improve the lives of residents in the face of a changing climate.
This robust team of fire experts provide broad knowledge and practical advice on a wide range of topics, including fire hazard mitigation, fire ecology, prescribed fire, wildland fire research, forest and wildlife management, and climate change effects.
Although their specific areas of expertise vary, all the new fire advisors are dedicated to helping residents and community groups across California become more fire-aware, adapted and resilient. They share vital information on how Californians can prepare homes, landscapes and property for wildfire.
First, she will coordinate and partner with UCCE fire advisors throughout California to develop and deliver wildfire-related science and outreach materials for a wide range of communities across the state. Low said encouraging diversity in the network of fire experts and engaged communities will be crucial.
“One of my goals is to help build and maintain a diverse and inclusive community of fire and natural resource professionals,” she said.
Based at the UCCE office in Auburn, Low also will collaborate with local natural resource professionals and residents in Nevada and Placer counties on projects that bolster community and ecosystem resilience to wildfire and climate change.
“I look forward to working with community groups, land managers and scientists to implement viable fire-resilient management strategies for ecosystems in the region and statewide,” Low said.
Equipped with bachelor's degrees in geography and ecosystems management and forestry, as well as a master's in forestry, all from UC Berkeley, Low brings to UC ANR a wealth of knowledge and a variety of experience.
As a fire and forest ecologist, she studied the impacts of fuels-reduction and forest-restoration treatments on Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests. Low also worked as operations coordinator for the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, and as a forestry aide for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Forest Biometrics Program.
Low can be reached at 530-889-7385 and firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @lowseverityfire.
Her role as fire advisor will include promoting the use of prescribed fire to help restore fire adapted landscapes. She will also prioritize community education, applied research and partnership building efforts that are based on scientifically informed ways to help communities mitigate, prepare for, and recover from wildfire.
Originally from northeast Ohio where there are no wildfires according to Deak, it was not until she moved to Colorado for college that she learned of their impact.
When the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire occurred, Deak felt like her playground was burning down so she acted. She began volunteering with the wildfire recovery effort and her career into fire science took off from there.
Deak earned a bachelor's in geography and environmental studies from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and master's degrees in geography and nonprofit management from the University of Oregon.
Before moving to California and joining UC ANR, Deak worked as a wildland firefighter with the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
When asked what she is looking forward to most, Deak shared that she is passionate about increasing diversity in the fire science field and, particularly, empowering more women to join. She is eager to help community members prepare for wildfire and mitigate fire risk in a safe and competent manner.
Deak is located at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Mariposa County and can be reached at email@example.com.
In this capacity, Norville will work with residents and organizations within the wildland-urban interface to encourage and cultivate fire-adapted communities. She aims to provide education and outreach on home hardening, defensible space and the importance of forest and fuel management on the landscape.
While pursuing her bachelor's degree in forestry and natural resources at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Norville became interested in “disturbance ecology” – how factors such as disease, insects and fire affect landscapes and environments.
“Many of the forest health problems we are seeing are stemming from a lack of disturbance, which traditionally was fire,” Norville said.
Her understanding of fire and its effects deepened during her master's degree studies in forestry science (also at Cal Poly SLO), as well as through her seven years with CAL FIRE at the Jackson Demonstration State Forest in Mendocino County. She worked as the Registered Professional Forester for its Timber Sales Program, and then the Research and Demonstration Program.
Norville's firsthand experiences from the past few fire seasons have helped shape her goals and approach. She hopes to “work holistically with disturbances” – specifically fire – on the landscape to foster healthy forests and ecosystems that are adaptable and resilient, while also researching the environmental and social aspects of fuel-reduction projects and prescribed fire.
“Hopefully, I can begin to change the perception of fire from something we need to fear, to something we respect,” she said.
Norville, based at the UCCE office in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barb Satink Wolfson
Barb Satink Wolfson began in her role as UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties on June 30.
Her primary responsibilities include wildland fire-related research and outreach for the Central Coast region, while building trust, strong partnerships and collaborative relationships within both professional and non-professional communities.
Satink Wolfson earned her B.S. and M.S. in forestry from Northern Arizona University, and brings to UC ANR more than 20 years of fire-research and outreach experience in Arizona. Her favorite job, though, was working as a backcountry ranger in Yosemite National Park during her undergraduate years.
In her new role, Satink Wolfson hopes to address some of the questions behind the use of prescribed fire in a variety of ecosystems (such as coastal prairies and oak woodlands), and help all Central Coast communities build resilience to wildland fire so residents can live safely within fire-adapted landscapes.
Satink Wolfson, based at the UCCE office in Hollister, can be reached at email@example.com.
Prior to joining UC ANR, Carmignani was a postdoctoral researcher in the Berkeley Fire Research Lab at UC Berkeley. His research has focused on fire and combustion applications, from wildland fires to material flammability.
He earned his Ph.D. in engineering sciences from the joint doctoral program between UC San Diego and San Diego State University after obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Pisa in Italy.
In his years managing California woodlands, Rob York has come up with a few quick and easy ways to gauge whether a forest is prepared for wildfire.
“The first question I like to ask is, ‘Can you run through the forest?'” York says.
York, an assistant cooperative extension specialist and adjunct associate professor of forestry at UC Berkeley, poses the question while standing in a grove of pine trees during a tour of Blodgett Forest Research Station, a 4,000-acre experimental forest in the northern Sierra Nevada. While fire suppression has allowed many of California's forests to grow thick and dense, this patch of forest is one you could actually run through: The area is punctuated by large trees spaced a few meters apart, separated by a smooth carpet of dried pine needles.
“The idea is, if it doesn't have a lot of buildup of surface fuel on the ground — sticks and logs — you should be able to run through it,” York adds. “Looking through this forest, I might have to jump over that log, but, generally, I could take a jog through it.”
For more than 50 years, York and other Berkeley forestry researchers have used Blodgett as a living laboratory to study how different land management treatments — including prescribed burning, restoration thinning and timber harvesting — can reduce the risk of severe wildfire and improve a forest's resilience to the impacts of climate change. In addition to research, Blodgett regularly hosts workshops to demonstrate different land management techniques to landowners.
After another year of record-breaking wildfires in California, the work at Blodgett is more critical than ever, and state and federal agencies are motivated to enact more effective forest management practices. In 2020, the state and the U.S. National Forest Service jointly committed to managing 1 million acres of California forests a year, and last month the Biden administration pledged billions in new federal funding to reduce wildfire risk in the state.
“[Blodgett] was really designed to eventually demonstrate land management alternatives and offer a glimpse into how they might look at bigger scales,” York said.
Experimenting with fire
Blodgett Forest is “pretty representative of millions of acres of Sierra mixed conifer forest,” said Ariel Roughton, a research stations manager at Berkeley Forests. After the majority of its trees were logged in the early 1900s, the forest was donated to Berkeley in the 1930s with the intent that it would be used to study sustainable timber production. Aside from a few old relics that survived early logging, the majority of the trees are regrowth and approximately 100 years old.
“Back then, people thought, ‘Why would you ever want to use fire for land management?' They wanted to grow trees, they want to grow timber. The idea of seeing black and char was literally off the scale,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of forest science and co-director of Berkeley Forests. “It's amazing that just a few decades ago, researchers didn't have the opportunity to do the work that Rob and Ariel and others are doing up here now.”
In the open, airy tract of forest that York could easily jog through, blackened scorch marks extend 10 to 15 feet up the trunk of each tree. Ecologists believe that before European colonization, these forests experienced fire once every 10 years or less, leading to open forest structures very similar to this one. Here, two years ago, Roughton, York and their colleagues conducted a prescribed burn to remove excess fuel from the ground and reduce the risk of wildfire.
“I think it's important to remember that nature hasn't taken its course without a lot of human intervention since the last glaciation, because there was strong Indigenous burning here,” said John Battles, a professor of forest ecology at Berkeley. “There has always been intense human stewardship of one sort or another.”
While there are forest management strategies that can be effective on a shorter time scale, it usually takes at least a few separate treatments over the course of a few years to successfully restore a forest and reduce its wildfire risk, York explains.
“It can be a challenge to get to the forest structure that we want,” York says. “It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of investment.”
Climate change is also narrowing the annual windows of time when conditions are best for prescribed burning, limiting when and how often foresters can safely burn. Hot, dry conditions usually make prescribed burning too risky during the summer, while rain and snow in the winter can leave the forest too wet and damp for fire to burn. However, research at Blodgett is showing that, with the right management decisions, prescribed burning during the winter can be made more viable.
“Because of timber harvests that removed some of the canopy and subsequent treatments to remove the ladder fuel, we now have more light hitting the ground, and it dries out faster,” Roughton said. “We've gotten to the point out here where we're able to burn more easily because of our past management actions.”
Friends of the forest
While York likes to imagine running through the trees, Battles has a slightly different metric for evaluating the health of a forest.
“You need to be able to run through the woods,” Battles said. “But I also want to see all six of my friends as I do my run.”
Battles' friends are the six tree species that make up the Sierra mixed conifer forest: oak, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir, Douglas fir and incense cedar. Fire suppression — and the dense, overgrown forest structures that can result — often favor the survival of some of these species over others, leading to forests that are dominated by just one or two species. This lack of biodiversity can make the forest, as a whole, less resilient to stressors like bark beetles or tree pathogens, which often target some of these species, but not others.
According to Battles, the open structure and frequent fire at this tract of Blodgett has allowed all six of his friends to flourish.
“I see my friend, ponderosa pine, which you don't see as frequently in the unburned forest because it's shade intolerant — it needs light. I see oak, and it also requires fire to get a lot of the oaks,” Battles said. “I see all six of my friends all here, and you only see them when you have management like this.”
Over the past 20 years, research has shown that prescribed burning and mechanical thinning with tools like the masticator can also benefit soil quality and water availability, while having no significantly negative impacts on forest ecosystems. While burning or otherwise removing plants and trees can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which accelerates the impacts of climate change, reducing the risk of severe wildfire can help maintain the whole forest for long-term carbon storage.
However, applying these techniques across 33 million acres of California forestland remains a monumental task. Prescribed burning requires a great deal of expertise and is also limited by weather conditions and air quality regulations. Meanwhile, mechanical tree thinning can be costly, and unlike timber harvesting, it does not generate any revenue for landowners — though Berkeley researchers have suggested that creating a market for small trees and other woody biomass could help offset the cost while limiting carbon emissions.
“Fire used to be so common in this system, and that's no different than in most forests in California. But, when you take it out for that long, you begin this transformation,” Stephens said. “That's why we have to get both public and private entities together to come up with a philosophy to be able to move forward on this. Blodgett is 4,000 acres — that's interesting, but it doesn't really address the needs of the state. We always hope that our work shows people what's possible and then enables them to continue it.”
New certification program will increase opportunities for prescribed fire across California
A group of 19 experienced prescribed burners are gathered in Eureka this week to become certified as prescribed fire burn bosses. The group is the first cohort to participate in the California State-Certified Burn Boss course, part of a certification program that was mandated by legislation in 2018, but was only recently finalized and approved. The course, hosted in Eureka by University of California Cooperative Extension, is a full week session and includes topics from laws, regulations, and permits to burn planning and smoke management.
"With each catastrophic wildfire season in California, the importance of prescribed fire becomes more clear," said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, University of California Cooperative Extension fire advisor, who is hosting the class in Eureka. "Prescribed fire is one of the most ecologically appropriate and cost-effective tools available, and provides innumerable benefits in California's fire-adapted landscapes. Prescribed burning is used to reduce fuels and wildfire risk, but also to restore habitat, control invasive species, improve rangelands, and promote cultural resources and values."
California is remarkably behind when it comes to implementing prescribed fire, she said. While states like Florida burn up to 2 million acres a year, California typically burns less than 100,000 acres statewide. It's clear that fire agencies can't meet the need for this work on their own — collaboration with local communities and leaders is essential.
The new program will certify prescribed fire practitioners who don't work for a fire management agency but are leading prescribed burning in their communities. This week's inaugural class in Eureka includes retired federally qualified burn bosses, tribal burn bosses, and leaders from state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations. Once certified by the state, these burn bosses will be able to share liability with CAL FIRE on prescribed burns.
“We've needed something like this in California for a long time, but never thought we'd see it happen. This is a historic moment for prescribed fire in California,” said Quinn-Davidson, who also leads the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, and is currently being consulted for legislation that would break down even more barriers to prescribed fire.
In the last several years, more than a dozen community-based prescribed burn associations have developed throughout California. Many of these groups were inspired by the Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association, which was the first of its kind in the western U.S. when it formed in 2018.
When these newly certified burn bosses leave Eureka, they will be able to go home and lift up efforts on their local landscapes, contributing to fire resilience across the state.
On a crisp and clear morning late last year, around 20 volunteer firefighters, landowners and community members gathered on a plot of land outside of the small rural community of Kneeland in Humboldt County. They listened intently to detailed instructions on how to safely burn 20 acres of private property that gradually rises on a hill before them. The volunteers gathered to learn how to successfully undertake a prescribed burn. It was all part of the ongoing education and training being conducted by Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association – the first of its kind west of the Rockies.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson and Jeffery Stackhouse, who both work for the UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, developed the program in 2017 and have seen it steadily grow ever since. The association is comprised of landowners, nonprofits, volunteer firefighters and other community members who work together to carry out prescribed burns on private land. Until the association was created, most landowners and community members had lacked access to prescribed burn information and training.
“Fire is a natural part of California's landscape. Prescribed fire is a way for us to bring fire back to the landscape as a natural process under controlled conditions. We can choose the weather, we can choose how it's going to burn,” says Quinn-Davidson. “Private landowners have largely been left out of the fire picture and we realize that is a big part of the problem.”
The goal of the prescribed burn on that October day was to eliminate an invasive type of tree that was overtaking the grassy hill and restore the land to a state where native oaks can thrive once again. The property owners are receiving the same training as the volunteer firefighters on hand. Beyond eliminating invasive species, the association is utilizing prescribed burns to reduce fuels to prevent future wildfires, as well as restore wildlife habitat. But most importantly, the training and education empowers landowners and others to reconnect with fire as a management tool.
Will Emerson is an assistant fire chief for the volunteer Bell Springs Fire Department in northern Mendocino County. He and his three colleagues made the 2.5-hour trip to participate in the prescribed burn training session in Humboldt County. He sees the trainings as a “really great experience” for volunteer fire departments, some of which have new trainees who have never worked a fire before.
“It's excellent training for them — just to get comfortable working with fire,” Emerson says.
The concept of a prescribed burn association is catching on. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse have presented the Humboldt County model to numerous counties around the state, and new associations are cropping up around California.
“We use our program to train people, to inspire people, to empower people,” Quinn-Davidson says.
The value of Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association goes beyond the training it provides. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse view the association as a “community cooperative,” bringing together groups that have traditionally been at odds. At any training session you may find volunteers from the ranching or timber industry, environmentalists or cannabis growers.
“Instead of being on opposite sides of an issue, people are gaining understanding for the other side,” Stackhouse says. “It has opened the door for real, honest communication between different groups that otherwise would not be happening. Having people work together who have been on different sides of the community really is amazing.”
Quinn-Davidson agrees. “We are building community and we are using fire as this positive, synergistic thing,” she concludes. “And I feel so positive about it.”
The CSAC Challenge Awards were created in the early 1990s to recognize county innovation and best practices. Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association is a recipient of a 2019 CSAC Challenge Award – one of only 18 Challenge Awards presented statewide out of 284 entries.
To view a video of this program on YouTube, click here.
The humble rake has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, and its role as a forest management tool ridiculed and scorned. However, most fire professionals believe rakes are a necessary part of saving California's forests.
Those who are familiar with fire are undoubtedly familiar with the McLeod, which is a standard firefighting tool and … it is essentially a rake (one side is a rake with coarse tines and the other side has a flat sharpened hoe). The McLeod was created in 1905 by a U.S. Forest Service ranger who wanted a single tool that could rake fire lines (with the teeth) and cut branches and roots (with the sharpened hoe edge). The McCleod is used to scrape fuels off of a fire line, preventing fire spread. The use of hand tools like the McLeod continues to be one of the standard ways that wildfires are stopped (although often aided by the rake's bigger and more powerful cousin: the bulldozer).
While the McLeod is a fire-fighting tool, it is also an essential fire-managing tool. When conducting controlled burns (i.e., purposeful fire), the fire is contained within desired areas by diligent raking with McLeods and other hand tools. These tools are necessary for conducting controlled burns.
While it isn't feasible to reduce fire risk by raking the forest with hand tools, if you hold a drip torch in the other hand, you could get the work done.
A drip torch consists of a canister for holding fuel that comes out of a spout (with a loop to prevent fire from entering the fuel canister) and a wick from which flaming fuel is dropped to the ground when the wick is ignited. The drip torch is the most common tool for lighting prescribed burns, which can be used to remove excess fuel buildup in the forest.
In a forest setting, these two tools — the rake and the torch — must be used together. Without a rake, the fire is not easily contained. And without a drip torch, the fuel that was raked cannot burn. Of course, prescribed burns rely on a number of other pre-specified factors (the prescription), including wind, temperature and humidity.
Using fire in a controlled manner drastically reduces the impacts of wildfire in a forest. Typically flames are kept low and most or all of the trees survive the fire, while much of the dead material on the forest floor (the “fuel”) is consumed. This reduces the risk of the forest burning at high severity in the future, thereby protecting nearby homes and towns. It also reintroduces fire as an important ecosystem process, which improves the health and biodiversity of forests and maintains the ecosystem services they provide, including wildlife habitat, water filtration and carbon sequestration.
Use of a rake and a drip torch together could make a great difference for reducing the impacts of wildfire in California and the West. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that during 2017, only half a million acres were treated with prescribed fire in the West, while 7.4 million acres (almost 15 times more) burned in wildfires. In the Southeastern U.S., where there is a long-standing tradition of prescribed burning, only 2 million acres burned in wildfires while over 5.5 million were burned using prescribed fire.
This was not always the case. Use of prescribed fire, or ‘light burning,' was once common in California until it was outlawed by federal and state policy in 1924. Although the merits of expanding its use are widely known and appreciated, it has been very difficult to do because of concerns about air quality, liability and lack of skilled burners. One of the biggest constraints is that we have very few people who have experience with ‘good fire' and very few qualified people who know how to safely burn.
As foresters and educators for the University of California Cooperative Extension, we are working to expand the use of prescribed fire on private forest and grasslands in California. Central to our efforts are educational events that give people an opportunity to experience prescribed fire first-hand. In the last two years, we have hosted workshops throughout northern California, and many of our workshops have included a live-fire component where landowners and other community members can try their hand at prescribed burning, under the direction and guidance of more experienced burners.
Our efforts in California are inspired by approaches in other parts of the country, including “Learn and Burn” events in the Southeast, prescribed burn associations in the Great Plains, and prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs), an innovative training model developed by The Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network. All of these efforts have a focus on reconnecting people with fire, and they give participants the skills and experience needed to put fire back in the management toolbox.
We hope that by empowering people to pick up the drip torch (and the rake) on their own properties, we can help them reduce the risk of wildfire and improve the health of their forest and range lands. There is no time to waste.