For millennia, fires periodically burned through California forests, thinning trees, reducing shrubbery and clearing out downed branches and debris. Without periodic fire, the forests became more dense, with spaces between large trees filling in with a thick carpet of duff, seedlings and shrubs.
As a result, today's forests are prone to more intense and damaging fires, like the Rim Fire, King Fire, and — most recently — the Camp Fire in Butte County. These fires are burning with unprecedented severity and speed, threatening large swaths of forest, towns, and even urban areas.
Using fire as part of forest management is not a new concept. Native Americans were known to burn brush to open up hunting grounds and clear shrubbery for gathering. Decades ago, iconic Berkeley forestry professor Harold Biswell said, “Fire in the Sierra Nevada is as important as rain.”
Competing forces, however, pushed foresters and fire officials toward fire prevention and suppression, particularly the cataclysmic fires of the early 20th century that leveled entire towns and left dozens of residents and firefighters dead. The fear of out-of-control blazes and the perceived damage to timber resources launched a war on fire that has lasted a hundred years. Some forest managers are urgently trying to negotiate a truce.
Making peace with fire and turning it into a useful tool, rather than a raging threat, was the objective of an October meeting in Shaver Lake of UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources scientists, Southern California Edison forest managers, CALFIRE officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives.
The event also raised awareness of “pyrosilviculture,” a new forest management term coined by UC fire scientist Rob York to emphasize the importance of fire in silviculture, the management of forests for wood.
Forests have myriad benefits – recreational, environmental and economic. Nature lovers value the whisper of pine trees in the wind and green shade over hiking trails and ski slopes. Owls, bears, deer and other wildlife make their homes among firs, pines, oaks and cedars. Forests stabilize mountain slopes, which store water as snow for agriculture and drinking. People build their homes, businesses and schools out of the planks and boards cut from the straight, soft wood of conifer trees.
The value of California forest products was about $429 million in 2017, according to the USDA. Because fires can damage and destroy trees, the timber industry has historically been reluctant to use fire as a tool. That's changing.
“Fire is such an important ecological process, you can't manage for timber without fire,” York said.
York is the manager of the Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC Berkeley's 4,000-acre mixed conifer and oak forest near Georgetown where researchers study forest management practices for increasing timber yield while taking advantage of fire to enhance forest health and make forest stands more resilient to wildfire.
Controlled burning can be used to treat fuels and reverse these trends, but it has been inhibited by a number of barriers, including landowners' concerns about liability, risk aversion among fire management agencies, narrow burn windows, air quality limitations and other regulatory challenges. Now, public demand for prescribed fires is growing.
“I believe what moved the needle was, for several years in a row, there were high-severity fires in the news,” York said. “Wildfires were in the pubic zeitgeist. People began asking, ‘Why aren't we doing more prescribed fire?'”
Climate change is also intensifying the interest among the public and silviculture professionals. Because California is getting warmer and fire seasons are growing longer, high-severity fires are expected to increase.
“There would logically be a tipping point. Even though we reduce the growth of trees when we use fire, if it can prevent the loss of the forest entirely, it would be meeting the timber objective,” York said.
The vast tree die-off during the 2011-2016 drought was another jarring sign that the Sierra Nevada ecosystem is out of balance.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of forest in California, is using prescribed fire to reduce fire risk on federal forestlands, but scientists say it's not nearly enough to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. CAL FIRE is ramping up its controlled burn efforts, but it will take time to address far-reaching areas of overgrown forestlands. The agency sometimes uses mechanical measures such as mastication and chaining before burning to pre-treat fuels and prepare units for burning.
“We need to work around communities first, and then move out to the wider landscape,” said CAL FIRE division chief Jim McDougald. “If a prescribed fire moves into a subdivision and burns houses, we take 100 steps back.”
“Burning is a key element of forestland management and it can be safe if done properly,” Kocher said. “We provide classroom instruction and invite participants to join a live prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest as part of their training so they become familiar with the process.”
At the training sessions, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said that in some cases, private landowners can conduct burns themselves. In her hometown in Trinity County, many ranchers and landowners conduct small broadcast burns to reduce fuels and improve forage. These burns are typically quite small and usually conducted in the winter.
“This can be a good option for landowners who wish to burn small areas, but we need other options for bigger, more complex burns” Quinn-Davidson said.
In other parts of the country, landowners have formed Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) that allow landowners to work with neighbors and other community members on controlled burns, sharing equipment and labor while developing skills. The PBA model provides a low-cost, grassroots option for prescribed burning, and empowers landowners to work together, and with other key experts and partners, to bring fire back to the landscape, says Quinn-Davidson.
“People are desperate to do something about fire, and the PBA model gives them an option to actively engage with each other and with fire as a tool—it's very empowering,” said Quinn-Davidson.
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UC scientists, students and water agency professionals took a critical look inwards and a radical look outwards when they gathered in Sacramento in October to reimagine California water.
The event was the fourth annual gathering sponsored by UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, UC Water.
While science is the hallmark of a research-oriented institution like UC, the participants were asked to recognize their important role not just as scientists but also communicators.
“We have a big role in educating the public,” said Roger Bales, engineering professor at UC Merced who has been active in water and climate research for more than 30 years. “Scientists are political actors. Facts do not speak for themselves.”
Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Water Resources Control Board and a conference panelist, asked the scientists to make their work accessible, and if they are uncomfortable with plain language, “write it both ways.”
“Complexity can lose people easily,” she said.
The conference keynote speaker, futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, also addressed the divide between scientific discourse and popular understanding, in particular when speaking about climate change.
“There is a strange disconnect between what the scientific community is telling the world and what the world is hearing. As a result of data analysis, science is announcing to the world there is climate change. Individuals cannot perceive climate change,” he said. “Show them in ways that can be understood by the senses. The story has to be told with pragmatism and common sense.”
The Reimagining California Water Conference pursued the water journey from the high-mountain headwaters of the Sierra Nevada to the vast groundwater basins in the valleys below. Over the last century, the mountains were blanketed with snow each winter, storing water that melted slowly in the spring and summer to provide a reliable source of water for farming and communities below. However, climate change is telling a new tale. Warmer weather means less snow and more rain will fall on the mountains during the winter. The quick runoff must be managed in a way that preserves it for use in the summer.
“We need groundwater recharge because we're losing the snow pack quicker than we thought we would,” Bales said.
The new California water narrative has prompted scientists and policy makers to take a serious look at the potential for “flood-managed aquifer recharge” or Flood-MAR. Flood-MAR is a management strategy that uses water from rain or snowmelt to flood agricultural lands and working landscapes, such as refuges, floodplains and flood bypasses.
Successful implementation of Flood-MAR requires the identification of land for groundwater recharge, understanding the economic and agronomic impact of using agricultural land for recharge, and impacts of high-volume recharge on groundwater quality. But the potential is enormous.
“The state's underground basins are capable of storing 500 million acre-feet of water,” said Graham Fogg, UC Davis professor of hydrogeology. “That's like 500 Folsom reservoirs.”
Though the enormity of rewriting the California water story might seem an insurmountable challenge, panelist Debbie Franco noted that the passage of Sustainable Groundwater Management in 2014 happened when the state's unsustainable reliance of groundwater spiked during the 2011-2016 drought, reducing municipal water quality, drying domestic wells and causing land to sink.
“What seems impossible, after four years of drought, can be possible,” Franco said. “What will be the next thing? Get a sense of the solutions now.”
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“When first-generation ranchers succeed, we all succeed,” says Kate Munden-Dixon, a Ph.D. student working with Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension rangeland specialist with the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.
Munden-Dixon and Roche recently discovered that many new livestock managers aren't plugged into information networks such as UC Cooperative Extension and rancher coalitions that provide science and strategies for making sustainable rangeland management decisions. This lack of connection can make first-generation ranchers more vulnerable when dealing with challenges like drought and climate variability, according to their study, which was recently published in Rangeland Journal.
To help bridge the gap, Munden-Dixon landed a $25,000 Graduate Student Grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA program, to reach out to new ranchers and rangeland managers.
Why rangelands matter
More than one half of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. UC Davis research indicates grasslands and rangeland have become more resilient at sequestering or consuming carbon dioxide pollution than forests in California, making them especially important in a warming world.
But rangeland and livestock production are at risk because more rangeland is being converted to housing and crop production. The average age of ranchers in California is 62, and fewer children are taking over the family ranch.
Enter a new wave of rangeland managers. Many of these young ranchers don't yet have access to the capital required to purchase land and large head of cattle and other livestock. Instead, they often contract with public and private landowners to graze goats, sheep and cattle to restore landscapes and reduce fire vegetation.
“What we really need is support in connecting land and contract opportunities,” says Brittany Cole Bush, an “urban shepherdess” and former contract sheep and goat grazer. She now consults with land owners and public agencies from her home base in Southern California. “We need market research that shows the value that grazing brings to fire abatement, soil conservation and so much more. Market research would increase our value and help us become viable players.”
Munden-Dixon is interviewing 40 new rangeland managers from across California to explore how decision-making by different demographics influences adaptation to climate change and quality of life. Munden-Dixon and her team are also hosting workshops to make sure Cooperative Extension specialists understand and can respond to all ranchers' needs.
“There is both a need and opportunity for a new generation of livestock managers that is able to adapt to California's changing climate,” Munden-Dixon says. “This next generation may not look like your typical rancher, so we want to ensure organizations are helping all ranchers succeed, regardless of their demographics or land tenure.”
The power of connection
Munden-Dixon would like to become a Cooperative Extension specialist herself one day. Working with first-generation ranchers reminds her that collaboration and public engagement are critical to addressing issues in sustainable agriculture.
“There is no one answer or single expert when it comes to building healthy food systems,” Munden-Dixon says. “We find solutions when we work together.”