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Posts Tagged: Prescribed fire

Reforms needed to expand prescribed burns

Although prescribed fire is a crucial tool, barriers prevent practitioners from performing the burns at the scale that is needed. Photo by Evett Kilmartin

Study highlights 4 strategies to overcome barriers to prescribed fire in the West

Prescribed fire, which mimics natural fire regimes, can help improve forest health and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire. But this management tool is underused in the fire-prone U.S. West and Baja California, Mexico, due to several barriers.

A paper from the University of California, Davis, pinpoints those obstacles and suggests four key strategies that policymakers and land managers can take to get more “good fire” on the ground in North America's fire-adapted ecosystems. The paper also provides examples of how people are surmounting some of these obstacles.

“Prescribed fire is one of the most important tools we have for restoring natural fire regimes and undoing the effects of a century of fire suppression,” said lead author John Williams, a project scientist with the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy. “But there are a number top-down barriers at the upper levels of management that keep us from growing the workforce and getting burns done at the scale and extent needed. We point out some of the big ways that agency leaders and policymakers can dismantle those barriers and empower the full range of people capable of doing this work, from burn bosses and citizen-prescribed burn associations to nonprofits and tribal groups.”

The paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, centers on the North American Mediterranean climate zone, which includes most of California, southwestern Oregon, western Nevada and northern Baja California in Mexico. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Fire Network, is a co-author of the paper.

John Williams, a UC Davis project scientist, at a prescribed burn with a private landowner in Placerville, California in 2022. Photo by Tim McConville, UC Davis

A natural process

Fire is a natural process that has helped shape this region, but the area has experienced a spike in destructive, high-severity wildfires over the past decade. In fact, three of the five largest wildfires in continental U.S. history occurred in this region in just the past five years. This is due to a combination of climate change and fuel accumulation driven by a century of policies that encouraged fire suppression, curtailed Indigenous cultural burning, and favored harvest of the largest, most fire-tolerant trees, the study notes.

While scientists and resource managers recognize the need for more prescribed fire, its application has not kept pace with the enormity of the challenge. The study said that is because management policies prioritize fire suppression over prevention. There is also a limited fire workforce; regulatory hurdles like permitting, insurance and liability; and few incentives or protections for landowners, tribal members and other people who burn responsibly.

4 key strategies

Researchers identified four key areas where supportive institutional and agency leadership can help expand prescribed fire in the region:

1) Fire culture. After decades of emphasizing wildfire suppression, current fire management culture “does not adequately promote prescribed fire as a management tool,” the study said. Support for prescribed fire along the entire chain of command within agencies is needed to foster a new culture that incentivizes and enables prescribed fire practitioners within and outside of government agencies.

2) Funding. Prescribed fire is considerably more cost-effective than wildfire suppression, which can cost more than $2 billion a year in the U.S., but there is little dedicated funding for prescribed fire projects and lack of flexibility as to when such money can be spent. This impedes fire staffing and limits the kinds of projects that can be done. Year-round, dedicated funding and resources could help increase prescribed fire capacity.

A recently published study states that management policies continue to prioritize fire suppression over preventative measures, such as prescribed fire. Photo by Evett Kilmartin

3) Capacity building and cooperation. Connecting agencies with landowners, community members, tribes, prescribed burning associations (PBAs), prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs) and others can facilitate responsible, effective prescribed fire and cultural burning exchanges. Such groups have limited reach and require investment and support to meet demand.

Inter-organizational agreements can also help local, state and federal agencies share resources and staffing. Formalizing and fully integrating such agreements into fire management plans remains a challenge, the study said. Collaborations that support Indigenous cultural burning are also key.

Partnerships must recognize the unique dimensions of cultural burning, which are inseparable from Indigenous culture. Educating land managers and decision makers about tribal sovereignty and federal American Indian law is critical. Introducing legislation that supports cultural burning can also foster such collaborations.

4) Monitoring and adaptive management. Designated funding and personnel for quantitative monitoring after a prescribed burn can help practitioners better measure success and then apply lessons to future burns.

“All of the barriers identified in the study can be overcome, and they have been at least partially resolved in other parts of the U.S., as well as in other Mediterranean climate regions, such as southwestern Australia,” said co-author Hugh Safford, a research ecologist in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy and director of the California Prescribed Fire Monitoring Program. “Fundamental to setting the situation right is developing a culture of safe and regular fire use in California and neighboring states by all landowners and managers, and reducing the officiousness, risk aversion and bureaucracy that hinders access to the tool by the public.”

Additional co-authors include Ashley Grupenhoff and Beth Rose Middleton of UC Davis; Joe Restaino of CAL FIRE; Edward Smith of The Nature Conservancy; Chris Adlam of Oregon State University; and Hiram Rivera-Huerta of Autonomous University of Baja California, Mexico.

This research received financial support from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

This story was originally published on the UC Davis News site.

Posted on Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at 9:50 AM
  • Author: Kat Kerlin, UC Davis
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Natural Resources

Prescribed fire, cultural burning get liability support to reduce wildfire risks in California

A lack of liability insurance for practitioners has been a major barrier to increasing the use of prescribed fire to reduce wildfire fuels. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

First-of-its-kind fund to offset losses if prescribed or cultural burn damages property

The State of California rolled out a first-of-its-kind approach to curbing the state's catastrophic wildfire problem on June 19 by providing new protections for prescribed fire and cultural burning practitioners. The $20 million allocated for the “Prescribed Fire Liability Claims Fund Pilot” will cover losses in the rare instance that a prescribed or cultural burn escapes control.

California Senator Bill Dodd authored the 2022 bill (Senate Bill 926) that made this fund possible, continuing his many years of leadership on wildfire and prescribed fire-related legislation.

“Prescribed fire is a cost-effective way to minimize the scope and severity of wildfires,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. “It's a tool that has been used for millennia by Native American tribes and one that will continue to play a big role in wildfire prevention. The rollout of this fund is a big step toward keeping California communities safe.”

The use of prescribed fire and cultural burning — sometimes collectively called “good” or “beneficial” fire — is a key component of wildfire risk management in California. These projects reduce hazardous fuels, help restore ecological and cultural values, and make our communities safer and our ecosystems more resilient to wildfire. However, lack of liability insurance for practitioners has been a major barrier to increasing the use of prescribed fire, even as firefighters, fire scientists, at-risk communities and state, federal and tribal leaders call for more.

The Prescribed Fire Claims Fund pilot project removes a significant barrier to obtaining insurance for potential damages from a prescribed fire or cultural burn conducted by a certified prescribed fire burn boss or a cultural fire practitioner,” said CAL FIRE Director/Chief Joe Tyler. “As we continue to focus on increasing the resiliency of the state's forests, creating a pathway for private burn bosses to have the significant protection this claims fund provides is a critical step toward reaching the goals of the Governor's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan.”

The fund will provide up to $2 million in coverage for prescribed fire projects led by a qualified burn boss or cultural practitioner. The fund is meant to demonstrate that prescribed fire, when carefully planned, resources and implemented, is a low-risk land management tool that mitigates the larger, more damaging risks of high-severity wildfires. The fund is the first of its kind nationally and is the result of several years of collaboration by a diversity of partners working with Senator Dodd's Office, including The Nature Conservancy, CAL FIRE, the University of California Cooperative Extension, the California Department of Insurance, tribal representatives and many others.

“Launching this program is a key step in scaling ecologically based forest management to reduce the risk of megafires. We appreciate Senator Dodd's leadership and the expedient work of CAL FIRE and beneficial fire practitioners to develop this fund as the next fire season quickly approaches,” said Dan Porter, The Nature Conservancy's Forest Program director.

The fund will also advance cultural burning, helping Indigenous Californians restore their connection to fire.

“Cultural burning is an essential practice to meet diverse objectives, including biodiversity stewardship, ecological health and community safety. The availability of this pilot fund provides cultural fire practitioners a safeguard against financial risk in the unlikely event of an escaped burn. This is a significant incentive to support revitalization of burning traditions following the legacy of policies banning such practices,” said Don Hankins, professor of geography and planning at CSU Chico and co-founder of the Indigenous Stewardship Network.

This fund is part of a larger vision for restoring beneficial fire across California's fire-adapted ecosystems. Last year, the state released its Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire, which identified this claims fund as a priority. The state has also rolled out a state-certified burn boss program, changed the liability standard for prescribed fire, and made investments in prescribed burn associations, agency staffing, and other related efforts.

“We are using every tool to protect Californians, including using prescribed fire to fight wildfires,” said Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. “The Prescribed Fire Claims fund will be critical to assisting our tribal groups, nonprofits and private landowners who are leading the way. This is an example of government being innovative and leading by example. The data that we get from the claims fund is going to be essential to our on-going education with insurance companies to support insuring this important work.”

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Fire Network director for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, says the recent momentum is unparalleled.

“Californians are desperate to have a better relationship with fire, and only with innovative approaches like this claims fund will we be able to unleash the good work that needs to happen,” said Quinn-Davidson. “It's a challenging time to be working on fire in California, but also an incredibly inspiring time.”

More information about the Pilot Prescribed Fire Claims Fund can be found on the CAL FIRE Website at https://www.fire.ca.gov/what-we-do/natural-resource-management/prescribed-fire, including frequently asked questions and an enrollment form for practitioners.

Posted on Tuesday, June 20, 2023 at 2:39 PM
Tags: policy (6), Prescribed fire (9), wildfire (179)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Public invited to observe prescribed fire training June 4-9

Prescribed burns will be open for the public to observe along California's Central Coast, most likely June 4-9, depending on the weather. This image depicts a TREX burn from 2022. Photo by J. Childress

The Monterey Bay area will host part of the first California Central Coast Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, or Cal-TREX.

Fire practitioners from across the state, greater North America and international locations (Spain, Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador) are gathering for a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange on June 3-10.

The training is hosted by the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association, which empowers the public to build a culture of “good fire” and helps private landowners conduct prescribed burns in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

Prescribed burns will be open for the public to observe on various days throughout the training, most likely June 4-9, depending on the weather. Please see the CCPBA webpage for updates on upcoming burns: http://calpba.org/centralcoastpba.

Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX) first came to Northern California in 2013, and have made a dynamic, positive cultural shift concerning prescribed fire, within both regional fire services and the general public. These “good fire” TREX events have drawn significant attention, especially in the context of more severe wildfire seasons.

After months of cross-organizational cooperative planning, participants in the weeklong training will be burning a mix of grassland, oak woodland and shrub vegetation types, and make a lasting, positive change concerning “good fire” on the Central Coast.

The TREX will provide experiential training opportunities to advance regional prescribed fire capacity, while also enhancing research to better understand the ecological response of wild plant and animal species following fire.

While the CCTREX works closely with the Monterey Bay Air Resources District (MBARD) to assure good smoke dispersal, smoke may be seen and present in these areas during and after a burn. This image depicts at TREX burn in 2022. Photo by J. Childress

At this TREX event, participants will learn how to safely conduct prescribed burns in various vegetation types across three counties. Along with multiple prescribed burns, the weeklong program will include lectures and seminars on local fire ecology of plant and animal species, tribal burning practices and burn planning led by multiple burn bosses and other experts.

Burn locations may include the Nyland property (owned by Trust for Public Land and San Benito Agricultural Land Trust) near San Juan Bautista, the Santa Lucia Conservancy near Carmel Valley and the Kechun Village (owned by the Nason family) in Arroyo Seco.

Be advised, while the CCTREX works closely with the Monterey Bay Air Resources District (MBARD) to assure good smoke dispersal, smoke may be seen and present in these areas during and after a burn. Please see the CCPBA webpage for updates on upcoming burns: http://calpba.org/centralcoastpba.

BurnBot, a new technology featuring a mobile burn chamber, remote-controlled mastication and fire drone systems, will be used for the prescribed burn on June 4. To observe the Nyland burn on June 4, register at https://bit.ly/CCPBApublicRxfire. Details including time and directions will be emailed to registered participants.

Participants and partners include members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, CAL FIRE, local land trusts, scientists, ranchers, students, researchers, land managers and others. The CCPBA is funded by two CAL FIRE wildfire prevention grants.

For more information, contact Jamie Tuitele-Lewis, fire fuel mitigation program and forest health coordinator, at jtlewis@rcdmonterey.org or Barb Satink Wolfson, UC Cooperative Extension area fire advisor, at bsatinkwolfson@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Friday, May 26, 2023 at 10:38 AM
  • Author: Jamie Tuitele-Lewis, Resource Conservation District of Monterey County
  • Author: Barb Satink Wolfson, UC ANR
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Natural Resources

New advisors share crucial wildfire expertise

The new statewide fire coordinator, Katie Low, helps with a prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest Research Station during her studies at UC Berkeley. Photo courtesy Katie Low

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.

Katie Low

Katie Low
Katie Low, who began as the University of California Cooperative Extension statewide fire coordinator on Sept. 1, will fulfill two important functions for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' team of fire experts.

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 katlow@ucanr.edu; follow her on Twitter @lowseverityfire.

Alison Deak

Alison Deak
Alison Deak joined UC Cooperative Extension in August 2022 as a fire advisor for Mariposa, Fresno and Madera counties. Since she began work, Deak has been focused on conducting a needs assessment and building rapport with community leaders.

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 aldeak@ucanr.edu.

Tori Norville

Tori Norville
Tori Norville started on Aug. 1 as the new UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

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 trnorville@ucanr.edu.

Barb Satink Wolfson

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 bsatinkwolfson@ucanr.edu.

Luca Carmignani

Luca Carmignani
Luca Carmignani joined UCCE as a fire advisor for Orange and Los Angeles counties May 2. His research interests include image analysis, computer programming and scientific outreach.

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.

Carmignani is based at South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine and can be reached at carmignani@ucanr.edu and (949) 237-2956. Follow him on Twitter @l_carmignani.

Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2022 at 1:57 PM
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Natural Resources

Lessons on wildfire resilience from a 4,000-acre forest lab

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.

Blodgett Forest Research Station is a 4,000-acre experimental forest in the northern Sierra Nevada. All photos by Evett Kilmartin

“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.

Though prescribed burning was once banned at Blodgett, it is now one of the primary tools that researchers use to reduce wildfire risk and maintain the biodiversity of the forest.

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.

Kane Russell, interim forest manager at Blodgett, holds two drip torches after demonstrating how they are used to start prescribed burns.
The forest is currently divided into a patchwork of tracts, each having received a different series of treatments since active management began in the 1950s and 1960s. And while fire suppression was once the policy at Blodgett — early fire ecologist Harold Biswell was even banned from using prescribed burns out of fear that they would interfere with the timber harvest — fire is now one of the primary tools that Blodgett researchers use to maintain biodiversity and reduce the risk of severe wildfire.

“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.”

Rob York says a healthy forest is one that you can run through.
According to the researchers, it took 15 to 20 years of active management, followed by regular maintenance, to get the forest tract to this state. Over the years, they have worked to achieve the open forest structure by harvesting some of the bigger trees for timber, but leaving the largest behind. They have also used a machine called a masticator to chip up smaller trees and conducted regular prescribed burns.

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.”

Using machines to manually remove small trees and underbrush poses fewer risks than prescribed burns, but often comes at a much higher cost.

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.

John Battles likes to see a mixture of all six tree species that make up the Sierra mixed conifer forest.

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.”

Scott Stephens hopes the work at Blodgett will serve as a model for forest management in the rest of the state.
Posted on Tuesday, February 1, 2022 at 11:53 AM
  • Author: Kara Manke, UC Berkeley
Focus Area Tags: Environment

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