‘Good fire’ is California’s newest season
California proudly boasts of its seasonal inclusion, with special designations for rainfall, or the Santa Ana winds, fake spring, June gloom and even road construction.
Now that prescribed burns are a summer requisite, officials have dubbed a new time of year: “Good fire season.”
A practice common among Native American tribes has been brought back to the forefront of firefighting, in response to the devastating and deadly wildfires of the past decade. It’s a smart way to reduce vegetative fuels as the heat of summer approaches, said Chris Carlson, the Sonoma Valley stewardship program manager with Sonoma Land Trust.
These "good fires“ are now routinely executed by fire districts from late May through July to diminish the threats of more severe fires later in the summer and fall, when the landscape is parched and the weather is hot and windy. Following a flurry of controlled burns last month, CalFire suspended these fires in Sonoma County on July 3 ahead of the heatwave.
“Colonization, or the fire suppression era, caused fuels to build up, and controlled burns are helping us restore historic conditions,” Carlson said.
The U.S. Government, in an effort to squash Indigenous culture and pursue a misguided fire suppression policy, outlawed intentional burns in California in 1850. Because of this, California forests became overgrown and their ecosystems grew drier with more plants competing for less water.
“We’re threading the needle between moisture in trees and dry grass,” Carlson said. “You can see this transition from spring to summer, with the browning of hills. That’s the time when fuels are receptive to being burned but trees will remain undamaged.”
Using prescribed fires for fuel management was not routine for the Sonoma Valley Fire District even 10 years ago, said Fire Marshal Trevor Smith.
“Prescribed fire, throughout my career, was rarely used,” Smith said. “We always did training burns. But the intent of those was less about fuel management and more about education and experience in a fire environment.”
That changed in October 2017, when a downed PG&E powerline exploded into the Nuns Fire, fueled by a mix of hot temperatures, high winds and a large accumulation of dried vegetation. It burned large portions of Sonoma Valley and remains the 13th most destructive fire in California history.
“It took the Nuns Fire to kick us into gear and get started doing more controlled burns,” Joe Plaugher, stewardship program coordinator at Sonoma Land Trust.
Plaugher, together with local fire agencies, academics and nonprofits, have since helped plan such fires to manage Sonoma Valley’s ample open spaces. On June 23, he helped perform a controlled burn at Glen Oaks Ranch in Glen Ellen, a property that had not seen regular controlled burns for 150 years.
Now, Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma Valley Fire District hope to exceed more than 200 acres of controlled burns each year.
The community, still traumatized by the terrors of the Nuns Fire, is slowly getting used to the wildfire suppression technique. Smith said emergency calls often flood local 911 dispatchers during prescribed burns, when smoke fills the air.
“There are ways the community can stay informed as to when controlled burns are happening. And when pile burning or permitted burning for agricultural purposes is occurring, the community can download a couple apps,” Smith said.
Pulse Point, SoCo Alert and Watch Duty are smartphone apps that provide real-time updates for both wildfires and controlled burns — important tools that can help quell public concerns when residents see plumes of smoke, Smith said.
Controlled burns are now a critical component of Sonoma Valley’s long-term, year-round, off-season vegetation management plan. To work effectively, the region’s golden-brown hills will have to be thoughtfully and repeatedly ignited to stave off the perennial threat of major wildfires.
“It’s like the Golden Gate Bridge,” Plaugher said. “You finish painting the bridge to one end, and then you have to start all over.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Sonoma Land Trust stewardship program coordinator Jim Plaugher.
A previous version of this article stated Glen Oaks has not seen fire in the past 150 years, but has not seen regular controlled burns in 150 years. Sonoma Land Trust does not have a goal for the number of controlled burns, but the number of acres burned.
A previous version of this article misattributed a Sonoma Land Trust photographer. The article has been updated to reflect the photos were taken by Justin Lewis.