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Raising resilience

Young kids and sticks go together like peas and carrots.

I watch my son, ever precocious in his father’s mind at not two years of age, marching toward our Kubota RTV waving an oak branch crying out, “car, go!” As I watch this boy, the 8th generation to call this property home and the last scion of almost 170 years of family history and tradition, I do so with the melancholic remembrance of doing the same as a youth. I always had a pile of sticks at hand by both doors out of the house, like my boy had my ever present escort of animal friends (with the dogs always being the most loyal) and the joy of running wild through our oak woodlands, marveling at the heights of these stately monsters with their sweeping limbs and gentle magnificence. Those oaks were the castles of my youth, their roots hosts for the chanterelles my father and his friends hunted and their acorns the main food source for the prey animals that ran in abundance through our woodlands and creeks. If I am writing somewhat of a bucolic picture of our property forgive me, it was and is the rock upon which my childhood and my life have stood.

Those forests are gone, the oaks rotting stumps and the few remaining old men of the hills holding on with the quiet desperation of those that know their time is near. With little fire or clearing, bay trees have invaded, slowly and insidiously climbing up the slopes and taking over the ridges and hills once the realm of oaks. Despite myself and my friend’s valiant attempts with chainsaws it seems the bays always grow back more quickly than we can cut them down.

With the bay comes little brown and black spots on their leaves as they march up the hills, the tattoo of sudden oak death (SOD). Bay Laurel (Phytophthora ramorum) is the single most important foliar for SOD and with bay trees resilience to everything but fire SOD has run rampant on our property and the surrounding hills. Gone are the days of wildly abundant chanterelles, and with the oaks’ death and lack of acorns the wildlife has suffered too.

So I wonder what my son William will inherit and how much the landscape, flora, and fauna will have changed when he takes the reigns of this place. The world he will inherit will have its issues, more so for a farmer or rancher than most. The smoke from wildfires will continue to wipe out a season of wine grapes on our ridge with smoke taint, the increasingly dry summers and lack of the thick fog of my youth will continue to provide poorer and poorer summer graze, extreme weather will create increasingly worse conditions for summer pneumonia in our sheep, goats and cattle, rising carbon in the atmosphere will continue to make the grass and brush our animals consume less nutritious, and stronger rain storms and winds will continue to erode the precious topsoil which is the basis on which we survive and thrive.

Before you despair, remember the basics

In my most poignant moment of this apocalyptic thinking I stood on our porch with my son in mid-August 2020 and watched the unprecedented lightning storm that would ignite so many fires across our community and California roll up from the South towards us and then split and pass us to the East and West. We were literally being surrounded with the evidence of a changing climate and its threats in that moment. I sat and I watched and I wondered what kind of world I’d be leaving for the squirming bundle in my arms and what I could do to make the world, and especially our little corner of it, at least a little bit safer, a little bit better, a little bit more resilient.

So we will pivot from the depressing and dour and take a look at our action steps and the possibilities left to us humans to make sure that our children and the generations that come after them have a safer place to call home on this little blue marble.

Cows cut grass

It’s important to address the enduring myth that cows are bad. I manage an environmental nonprofit known as Circuit Rider Community Services. which was founded in the ’70s. I was pleasantly surprised to sit down with some of the management staff from the '70s and ’80s who spoke of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats etc.) as the answer to improving native bio diversity, mitigating nonnative plants, and wouldn’t you know it, fire fuel mitigation tools! Native grasses and shrubs have much deeper roots than invasive species so that as they are grazed down they can continue to draw carbon down into the soil, water up, and outgrow and outcompete species not adapted to our dry summers and wet landslide inducing winter storms. There is an increasingly well researched and extensive body of knowledge that has been building for a generation showing that managed rotational grazing can in fact be wildly beneficial for carbon sequestration, native species diversity and topsoil regeneration.

But let’s talk about what is on the forefront of everyone’s mind in our community at present, fire and how to prevent it. While there is no perfect answer to protecting our land from wildfire the basic tenants of my approach are graze it, clear it, burn it. By that I mean fire fuel mitigation by grazing lands, manually clearing understory fire fuels and ecologically based forest clearing, and the long forgotten tool, prescribed burning.

Ranch life is beautiful and bucolic. But it takes work. Just ask these grazers, who are constantly at work, to ensure the grasses are at low levels. Che Casul photo.
Ranch life is beautiful and bucolic. But it takes work. Just ask these grazers, who are constantly at work, to ensure the grasses are at low levels. Che Casul photo.

Other animals like grass, too

Grazing is not simply throwing cows on your place and calling it good. What most people do not realize about grazing is that the right kind of animal has to be matched to the right kind of land. If you have tall grass, cattle are great to get it started but they won’t eat it down flush without undue stress. Sheep however love the smaller grasses lower to the ground and if you want a fire break, or to cut down your grasses flush with the soil to give those natives a better shot at competition, sheep are your friend. And for my personal favorite, if you have brush or forest, you need goats. Contrary to popular belief goats will not eat everything and do not particularly care for grasses, but if you give them a big stand of scotch broom or Himalayan blackberry goats will lay waste to these invasive and resilient plants. Goats are also ideal in forest situations where there is a fear of ladder fuels igniting trees and creating ember casts from higher heat and higher fires in the canopy. Leave goats in a forested area for any length of time and they will create what fire fuel mitigators call a shaded fuel break so that any fire that does come through will do so slowly and with less heat giving fire fighters time to respond and protecting the surrounding area from ember casts.

Enter the Sonoma County UC Cooperative Extension’s newest project What the county director of the program Stephanie Larson calls a “dating service for grazing.” This website matches land owners with livestock owners and contract grazers to graze down fallow land and reduce the fuel loads on those properties should a fire come calling. The website delineates forage types and grazing tiers in order to match the most appropriate partners in this new endeavor that is offered California wide. This project, and connections for landowners that need it, can be an answer and a beginning to keeping our communities safe from fire.

When you need some bigger teeth...just in case

Some properties are not appropriate for grazing or some land owners are not interested in having ruminants on their land and the attending issues, noises, and smells that may come with them. At Circuit Rider Community Services we teach young people through paid training the trades, how to care for our natural world, and the basics of how to pursue a contractor’s license and start a business. In recent years much of our work has pivoted into fire fuel mitigation. There is not one contractor in our community who specializes in fire fuel mitigation. Working on private and public properties our young people learn the basics of how to use a chainsaw and other tools, what species are native, which species are particularly fire prone, what issues are present that present fire danger to buildings and the property, how to dispose of fuels in a responsible manner, and the best way to treat an area to make it aesthetically pleasing and fire safe.

During a walkthrough after the Walbridge Fire, it was rewarding for our young people to see the singed stakes marking the boundary of our broom pull, and the fire line the firefighters had cut along them to stop the fire and save the house, all possible because of the work they had done
During a walkthrough after the Walbridge Fire, it was rewarding for our young people to see the singed stakes marking the boundary of our broom pull, and the fire line the firefighters had cut along them to stop the fire and save the house, all possible because of the work they had done

Much of the work we do is what I call “just in case” work, but in the recent fires our young people’s work paid some big dividends. Several years ago on a rural property off of Sweetwater Springs a crew had pulled just short of 5 acres of scotch broom directly above a family’s home.When the Walbridge Fire came down that hillside through the six foot high flammable broom it did so hot and fast, but on encountering the shaded fire break these young people had created slowed to a crawl. On visiting the site afterwards it was rewarding for our young people to see the singed stakes marking the boundary of our broom pull, and the fire line the firefighters had cut along them to stop the fire and save the house, all possible because of the work they had done. Further East along Skaggs Springs Road our crew had completed a contract with Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works clearing 16 miles 30 to 40 feet on each side of the road for fire fuels. When the fire came up to these breaks the firefighters were better able to hold the road because of what our young people had done. I share these stories not only to brag about the wonderful work these young people had done, but to proselytize the gospel of manual fire fuel mitigation. If your property is not appropriate for grazing or prescribed fire manual fire fuel mitigation can go a long way towards protecting you and your community. While not everyone can afford or get a grant to hire someone to come work on their property, almost everyone can take a couple hours a week with some loppers and a plan for “just in case.”

Prescribed burns: the comeback kid

On an overcast day in late September Sasha Berleman came to visit my family ranch. Upon viewing the road which could serve as a fire break and the six foot high shaded fuel break my goats had created in this 33 acre wood-land she exclaimed, “this is perfect to burn.” Now with the Walbridge Fire still burning to our East you could interpret that statement as a negative exhalation, but nothing could be further from the truth. A PHD graduate of UC Berkeley where she studied fire science Berleman heads Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program, training community volunteers to be Basic Wildland Firefighter certified, to be fire fuel mitigators, to help on prescribed burns and most recently to help fight the Walbridge Fire alongside our community and CAL FIRE firefighters. All told, Fire Forward, with the help of local fire agencies and some core Good Fire Alliance community members, has organized and facilitated wildland firefighter trainings for around 130 volunteers with another 90 signed up for the spring training.

With an infectious charisma and the kind of energy only possessed by visionaries and prophets, Berleman has started to build up a following in the area to carry out prescribed burns, decrease fire risk, mitigate fuels, and help to revitalize our fire adapted ecology. Fire Forward is not a new idea; prescribed burns have been part of the landscape through Native American actions for thousands of years and even some of the ranchers and farmers who’ve been around for many years used fire to revitalize their lands before fire suppression became the rule. When calling neighbors to let them know about the plan for the prescribed burn all were understandably nervous, but all were recent transplants and unaware of the history of prescribed burns in our area. When speaking to the only “old timer” left across the highway that had been ranching in my grandmother’s time he simply said, “yeah I used to do that in the flats ‘til they told me I couldn’t anymore; glad to hear it’s coming back.”

Che Casul oversees a prescribed burn on his ranch. Photo provided.
Che Casul oversees a prescribed burn on his ranch. Photo provided.

The community workforce of trained volunteers helps to carry out prescribed burns on private and public lands under the leadership of folks who’ve dedicated their careers to this expertise. This is all part of a growing model that hopes to expand prescribed burning as an active and involved community and cultural practice, changing the way we live with fire by training diverse and dedicated communities, workforces and leaders alike to once again restore intentional and carefully prescribed fire to our beloved, ubiquitously fire-dependent lands. Standing at the top of a ridge my father used to hunt chanterelles on and now almost completely taken over by bay trees with the telltale brown leaves of SOD, she told me, “the bays will singe and die back to their roots, bigger trunks survive but most small ones will singe and die back. Oaks on the other hand can take a real good singe and will sprout fresh leaves from their trucks when they singe.” Music to my ears and images of hunting chanterelles with my son, oak stick in hand of course, danced through my hopeful imaginings.

So while I watch my son grow up and watch the world around him with some trepidation, I have some optimism for the leadership offered by the Larsons and Berlemans of the world. With these footprints in the sand we can follow at least slightly behind to create more resilient, fire adapted, and safer communities. While I freely admit I can be a Pollyanna the consistent negative approach to climate change and fire seems to me overblown while there are still actions to be taken. While we have looked on the cow and the forest fire as the devils they have been made out to be, perhaps with these shifts in paradigms we can instead see them as the better angels of nature, as long as they are yoked and made to pull in the direction we wish to use them. There is no one answer, but as we look at grazing, manual fire fuel mitigation, and prescribed fire there seems to be an answer for almost every property. So I implore you as you read this to think about what it is you can do to make your property safer, and which of these tools might best suite your needs. It’s only through collective actions and through these tools that we can make a larger difference.

So I guess I have hope. Hope that one day my son’s children will still play with oak sticks and rest under their stately branches, that prescribed fire and grazing will revitalize our open spaces, that raging forest fires won’t be a way of life in California, and that we can build a more resilient landscape and through it a next generation.

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