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.