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Prescribed Burning in Sonoma County

This past fall I picked up a drip torch for the first time and put down a strip of fire across a brushy hillside. Looking over my shoulder as I walked, I saw flames carry through grass and torch a young Douglas Fir sapling, which gave off a little roar and dark plume of smoke as it was engulfed. This prescribed burn was carefully planned to restore coastal prairie by removing encroaching Douglas Fir and Coyote Brush. As just one of nine prescribed burns between October and December, this day spent burning in the hills overlooking Bolinas Lagoon was part of a larger effort to return fire to our fire adapted landscapes across the north bay. Across 8 weekends, hundreds of volunteers came together to use prescribed fire to meet ecological management goals and increase fire safety throughout the region as part of Bay Area CalTREX. This collaborative effort brought together partners from numerous local conservation entities, fire agencies, landowners, and community members who want to make a difference with prescribed burning.

Prescribed burning is a vital ecological management tool here in Sonoma county, throughout California, and across the continent. Prior to European colonization and settlement about 4.5 million acres were burned by Indigenous Californians every year in mostly low intensity burns to meet specific cultural management objectives.

However, with California’s legislative push to outlaw cultural burning beginning in 1850, and the federal government’s banning of the practice in 1911 as a part of the Weeks Act, much of California has not seen fire outside of catastrophic wildfires in well over a century. These acts of cultural erasure were part of a genocidal land grab that served the timber industry for decades. Through fire suppression, disenfranchisement of Indigenous communities, and the ways forests have been managed for timber or hands-off conservation, all of California is left with the need for a massive effort to reintroduce low intensity fire back to the landscape. Recent initiatives to support and implement more cultural burning and prescribed fire are being met with more receptive ears by the broader public and those in power. The Good Fire Alliance, the north bay’s Prescribed Burn Association, is one community-led entity working to get good fire back on the ground.

Only a few years old, the Good Fire Alliance is a volunteer powered organization helping to implement prescribed fire across Sonoma and Marin counties. Volunteers working these prescribed burns are trained with support from Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program, and help burn a mix of private, public, and preserve lands. Using a mix of garden tools, drip torches, and water, fires are started and managed in coordination with air quality districts and fire agencies.

This fun and fulfilling work builds community and increases the ecological heath and fire resiliency of our landscapes. Members reduce fuel loading to minimize negative impacts to the forest when a wildfire comes through; they increase biodiversity by re-introducing the necessary disturbance needed by fire following forbs; landscapes are restored to suitable tree densities, promoting stable carbon sequestration; and defensible space near human infrastructure is increased.

I am thankful that Sonoma Resource Conservation District supports my involvement in this work, and I am encouraged by the prevalence of RCD staff and members of partner organizations as a part of this community initiative. Knowledge and relationships from prescribed burning have supported other RCD initiatives that I have been a part of over this service year, from forest planning, to postfire technical assistance to homeowners, to working on water and soil conservation plans, and the development of educational materials, knowledge of fire allows me to think holistically when working on Sonoma RCD projects. Fire is an essential ecosystem component here in California and I am hopeful that growing numbers of Californians will come together to pick up drip torches and work to use fire in the stewardship of our fire adapted ecosystems.

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