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Controlled Burn

Bringing Fire Back to
California’s Private Lands

Aug 31, 2018

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By Lenya Quinn-Davidson

We all know that fire is one of the oldest and most powerful tools that humans have but what we often forget is that most of the landscapes we know and love have also been shaped by fire, and in many cases, by fires that humans have started.

If you talk to old-timers in our communities, you’ll hear stories of the deep connections between people and fire: of Native Americans lighting off of trails as they hiked out of their hunting grounds in the fall, and ranchers burning their fields to improve range and keep things open.

In most parts of the state, landowners aren’t using fire anymore; the fear of liability, the perceived complexity of permits and regulations, and the generational and cultural gaps in fire experience have virtually eliminated fire from the toolbox for most landowners. But that’s about to change.

For many years, we at University of California Cooperative Extension have fielded questions from landowners about using fire as a tool. Ranchers and forestland owners have voiced interest in using fire to improve range resources, enhance wildlife habitat, reduce fuels, and beat back the trees and shrubs that are quickly engulfing their prairies and woodlands, but we have struggled to provide them with good options.

In recent history, CAL FIRE has been the leader in private lands burning. In the 1980s, their Vegetation Management Program (VMP) was responsible for 30,000-65,000 acres of prescribed burning every year, but in recent decades, those numbers have consistently fallen short of 10,000 acres a year—a drop in the bucket given the habitat and fuels issues that we face in California.

CAL FIRE is currently revamping and reinvesting in the VMP, but it’s become clear that other pathways are needed for landowners to reclaim fire.

Last year, we started looking into prescribed fire models from other parts of the country. We were curious how those efforts are structured, and what it would take to do something similar here.

One of the most promising models of landowner-led burning is the Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) model, through which landowners and other interested partners can work together to burn each other’s properties. In many regions, these PBAs are spearheaded by the ranching community, in collaboration with conservation organizations like the National Wild Turkey FederationPheasants Forever, and others that see direct benefits for wildlife.

The PBAs have local leaders who are not traditional fire practitioners; rather, they are local landowners who have a vested interest in healthy rangelands and habitats. Throughout the year, these PBA leaders work with other local landowners to develop burn plans and prep units, and when optimal weather windows present themselves, the group gets together and conducts the burns. The PBA is mostly volunteer, and members contribute tools and equipment to help make the burns happen.

Because of PBAs, burning has become a viable and effective treatment—one that provides unprecedented training opportunities to landowners, encourages community-wide collaboration, and is reversing trends of habitat and rangeland losses. Burns have targeted a wide range of objectives, including invasive species control, oak woodland restoration, coyote brush management, and fuels reduction.

FOR INFORMATION on prescribed burning, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Area Fire Advisor, UCCE, lquinndavidson@ucanr.edu, and Jeffery Stackhouse, Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, UCCE, jwstackhouse@ucanr.edu.

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