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Where We Stand: Prescribed Fire as a Necessary Tool

By Dr. Kevin Trutna

Superintendent/President Feather River College

By Johnny “Appleking” Pomeroy

Tri-Rivers Indigenous Burning Enclave


Making the case for prescribed fire.  At Feather River College, the Environmental Science curriculum and student preparation are heavily focused on providing training and certification for individuals to safely perform prescribed fire.  Northern California has many agency partners who share this goal.  Our challenge is finding the resources, personnel, and time to coalesce several agencies all working toward a common goal of restorative prescribed fire.  Prescribed fire is only one tool for preventing future catastrophic wildfires.  It is also an integral component of fire dependent ecosystems.  Prescribed fire is one of several effective methods that can be utilized by practitioners like US Forest Service, CAL FIRE, Fire Safe Councils, Resource Conservation Districts, Indigenous communities, local fire departments, and community organizations.  The purpose of this viewpoint is to illuminate some issues and answer questions about prescribed fire practices in Northern California.

Before lighting the first spark, multiple factors must all exist before the prescribed fire begins.  For Feather River College, a burn plan must be submitted and approved with both the local Fire Chief and CAL FIRE before ignition (https://burnpermit.fire.ca.gov).  Relative humidity must be above a certain threshold.  Fuel moisture content is measured and must be within certain limits. Wind speed predictions must fall within acceptable levels.  In our area, wind must be from one of two directions to not impact the airport nor the hospital.  Any inversion layer must be lifted or nonexistent.  Temperature must be within a narrow range, and predicted to remain within said range for the time of the fire.  And now for the personnel requirements: many volunteers must be on site, they must all be previously trained, including at least one certified burn boss who is responsible for the fire treatment.  Local fire departments are notified of the start time and are usually on site, or standing by, with at least one unit.  The burn plan is reviewed for a second and third time.  Volunteers and paid personnel are broken into teams and relocated to their assigned areas.  Each water system is tested, fueled (if applicable), and functional. A test fire must be started to gauge burn and consumption rate. Finally, the Feather River Air Quality District must give final approval before starting the fire.  And these are only some of the requirements for conducting a prescribed fire in Plumas County.

Residents may rightfully be worried about active fire in the area.  What may not be understood is the difference between prescribed underburning and pile burning. While pile burning generates significant embers, localized heat, and long flame lengths (high intensity fire), prescribed fire (sometimes referred to as broadcast burning or controlled burning), produces low-intensity heat and fire. Prescribed fire units are divided by fire lines that keep fire contained within a given perimeter, and ignitions are done in such a way that the fire burns from the outside of the unit toward the center. The entire unit is often surrounded by water hoses and any fire outside of the fire line is extinguished immediately.  Personnel remain on site to monitor and control the burn rate and to verify containment.

As mentioned earlier, fuel moisture and consumption rates must be at acceptable levels.  This allows external fuel sources, such as propane or drip torches, to be the ignitor, further controlling the fire rate and behavior.  With higher fuel moisture and humidity, fire is less aggressive and will stay closer to the ground, as opposed to climbing ladder fuels toward upper tree canopies.

California Public Resource Code (PRC) allows for year-round permits to be issued, dependent on the weather and Burn Index.  Other agencies and ecosystems often have different requirements.  More information about burn permit requirements can be found at https://www.wildfire.gov/page/burning-index.

Controlled burns have been utilized for over 12,000 years in California.  Nevertheless, using                                                                        prescribed fire techniques for preserving and protecting forests is a relatively new tool to most residents.  The last 120 years of suppression-centered ideologies featured highly successful marketing campaigns like Smokey the Bear’s focus on the extinguishing of fire.  Given that wildfire is an inevitable occurrence in a fire-dependent ecosystem, supporting good fire on our landscapes is critical to forest health.  Prescribed fire is finally being encouraged and supported by both academia and local agencies, with cultural burning practices taking center stage in this conversation.

Fire dependencies in the ecosystem are well documented.  For example, pyrophytic species will not germinate without fire exposure.  Fire exclusion creates sickness and pestilence in species that require burning for health.  Therefore, suppression increases the overall wildfire danger.  Smoke also plays a key role in displacing pests.  Fire in the Sierra-Nevada ecosystem is inevitable.  Stewarding the forest is a better alternative than extinguishing every occurrence of fire.

It is normal to fear fire, especially with the recent megafires plaguing Northern California.  In collaboration with local agencies, FRC and community partners hope to facilitate productive conversations around the benefits of prescribed fire and encourage questions from our community.  Our ultimate goals are to steward ecosystems and prevent catastrophic wildfire through multiple methodologies, including the use of prescribed fire.  The work of FRC, Indigenous communities, and all local private, government, and non-government agencies should be connected to professional prescribed fire training, aimed at creating a healthier and less wildfire-prone environment for everyone.

2 thoughts on “Where We Stand: Prescribed Fire as a Necessary Tool

  • As stated, prescribed fire needs the correct collision of numerous factors, coupled with a well-trained and well-tooled workforce. Significant planning is also needed as slopes, boundaries, neighbors, and vegetation types all need enumeration and consideration prior to ignition.

    It has been rewarding to see the basic tools of fire being picked up by more people, many of them under the auspices of the Plumas Underburn Cooperative. The spread of learning and camaraderie and cooperation for common ends is gratifying.

    But let us not fool ourselves as to the impact of our efforts. Many prescribed burns do little more than remove a layer of needles – good to see, but in need of repeat performance in a few years to keep any level of protection viable.

    Unfortunately, most areas in need of fire protection cannot be burned either because of excess fuel or steep slopes or both. To get to the point where prescribed fire can somewhat safely be used, heavy fuels will first need to be modified or removed. Pile burning is usually essential and is often the needed first step to start wildfire mitigation.

    Happily, pile burning need not have perfect conditions nor a large army of personnel to accomplish. It does take planning and anticipation and can be done alone. Piles can be developed with adjacent ground and ladder fuels. Piles will need to be well-covered and dried, as ignition will take place in rainy weather or while snow is on the ground, giving zero chance for escape, and low smoke emissions. Only when the vegetation is reduced and the area is treated with pile burns should the next step, prescribed fire, be considered.

  • Don Gasser has it exactly right. The first entry to a 1+ acre property that hasn’t seen care in decades should be to remove small and ladder fuels, pile burning of dead and down and heavy buildup of duff. Pile burning and windrow burning will get the most hazardous fuel reduction with scheduling flexibility and safety. Using forced air on winter piles reduces smoke and accelerates combustion. Don’t forget defensible space and home hardening! In order to reduce the risk of structure loss, one must seriously attend to ALL aspects. First step- EDUCATION! Take advantage of the Plumas County Firesafe Council programs. Go to Firewise meetings.
    It is up to us,
    Greg Kinne

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