Why Sonoma County’s parks are embracing fire as a tool again

After decades of not using controlled burns, local park and open space stewards have started using the practice to protect parks from future blazes.|

State parks manager Cyndy Shafer doesn’t remember exactly when they decided to discontinue prescribed burns at Trione-Annadel and Sugarloaf Ridge state parks, but she thinks it was “some time in the early 2000s.”

At the time, “I think it got really challenging. There are always concerns about air quality and smoke management,” the California State Parks natural resource program manager said, looking back. “But I think the tide has turned as far as the public understanding of the benefits of prescribed fires.”

Likewise, since the wildfires of 2017, there has been a tidal shift in land-use management to curtail the spread of future fires across parks and preserves in Sonoma County.

Prescribed or controlled burns - where firefighters set slow-burning fire to a contained plot of land during ideal weather conditions, to destroy brush and other low-lying fuel that allow flames to spread quickly during wildfires - had become much less common across the county over the past two decades. But in June, a revival of the tool - one employed by Native Americans before Spanish settlers arrived - proved a success on both private property, at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve, and on public land at Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

“It was the first prescribed fire in the history of Sonoma County regional parks,” said Hattie Brown, natural resource manager of the county park system. “It was quite a feat and a practice that you’re only going to see more of, not only from regional parks, but other land-owning organizations, both public and private.”

The June burns, organized only two days apart, were part of a larger movement that signals a new willingness to pool resources and collaborate among preserves, parks and other landowners. “As we all know, fire knows no boundaries,” said Tony Nelson, Sonoma Valley manager for Sonoma Land Trust. “It makes most sense for us to be looking at this across the landscape, instead of each in our own little silos.”

In Sonoma Valley, where the Nuns Fire burned more than 36,000 acres in 2017, a consortium of landowners formed the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative covering more than 18,000 acres, including California State Parks, Sonoma County Ag and Open Space, Sonoma County Regional Parks, Sonoma Land Trust, Audubon Canyon Ranch and Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation.

Plans are still in the works, but Nelson estimates they might implement controlled burns annually on around 200 acres or more annually on collaborative land if Cal-Fire has the resources and the funding is in place.

“There’s not the opposition that we used to get,” Nelson said. “In addition, the air (quality) board, I think has changed their ideas about it also. It was really difficult to get permits and it got more and more difficult.”

At this point, much of the strategy and park policy since the fires is a matter of refocusing priorities and capitalizing on new funding. The SVWC recently signed a more than $1 million grant from Cal-Fire, which will be used largely for thinning, establishing shaded fuel breaks and right-of-way clearance across 18,000 acres over the next 2½ years.

Many of the shaded fuel breaks are along preserve and park boundaries adjacent to communities like Glenn Ellen and Kenwood. In creating breaks around 100 feet wide, crews keep large trees while removing lower branches and clearing out most of the brush.

East of Santa Rosa, at Pepperwood Preserve, where the Tubbs fire scorched much of the property in 2017, ecologists had been working on forest-thinning projects on more than 400 acres since 2006. Now one of their biggest priorities includes preventing Douglas fir trees from overtaking oak woodlands. Chainsaw crews are cutting young firs - around 10-inches diameter and smaller - before they grow higher and overshadow oaks.

“We get these thickets where it’s literally hard to walk through because they’re growing so close to each other,” said preserve manager Michael Giloggly. “Of course, they’re going to carry the fire when it gets up in the canopy. It’s important to save the oaks, which are very resilient to fire. They have really thick bark and can survive, and if the top of the tree gets destroyed, they can re-sprout.”

Pepperwood recently signed an $838,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to “increase the pace of our forest-thinning work and to follow it up with prescribed burns afterwards,” Giloggly said.

Pepperwood has also increased cattle grazing across the property in an effort to mitigate fast-spreading grass fires and help carve out what Cal-Fire has identified as a viable firebreak to be used in future fires that tend to spread in an east to west direction across Pepperwood’s 900 acres of grasslands. The herd of black Angus cows survived the Tubbs fire by retreating to barren burned acreage scorched in a prescribed burn only weeks before the October 2017 fire. Numbering around 150 now, the herd moves across the property about 2 to 5 acres at a time, corralled by portable electric fences so they don’t overgraze the land.

Sheep and goat grazing has also become more widespread at county regional parks like Helen Putnam in Petaluma and the Laguna Trail near Sebastopol, said Brown, who is looking to expand grazing to Foothill Park near Windsor and the regional park in Gualala. Natural lawn mowers, goats and sheep chew everything from weeds and grass to poison oak.

And yet, despite all the efforts to thin forests and cut back vegetation, most land managers agree another wind-driven, high-intensity fire like the 2017 fires would be tough to slow down.

“Fuel breaks don’t stop fires like that, evidenced by the fire jumping to Highway 101 and burning the K-Mart,” says Shafer, who oversees land management in Trione-Annadel, Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks. “If you’re going to create a fuel break comparable to 101 can you imagine all the paving you’d have to do? And still it didn’t stop the fire.”

Likewise, “I would have to pave every acre of parkland we manage to prevent them from burning like a 2017 event,” admits Brown, who is still surprised by how closely the 2017 fires followed in the path of the Hanley Fire of 1964. “Hopefully we don’t forget again quite so soon.”

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