Posts Tagged: Susie Kocher
For millennia, fires periodically burned through California forests, thinning trees, reducing shrubbery and clearing out downed branches and debris. Without periodic fire, the forests became more dense, with spaces between large trees filling in with a thick carpet of duff, seedlings and shrubs.
As a result, today's forests are prone to more intense and damaging fires, like the Rim Fire, King Fire, and — most recently — the Camp Fire in Butte County. These fires are burning with unprecedented severity and speed, threatening large swaths of forest, towns, and even urban areas.
Using fire as part of forest management is not a new concept. Native Americans were known to burn brush to open up hunting grounds and clear shrubbery for gathering. Decades ago, iconic Berkeley forestry professor Harold Biswell said, “Fire in the Sierra Nevada is as important as rain.”
Competing forces, however, pushed foresters and fire officials toward fire prevention and suppression, particularly the cataclysmic fires of the early 20th century that leveled entire towns and left dozens of residents and firefighters dead. The fear of out-of-control blazes and the perceived damage to timber resources launched a war on fire that has lasted a hundred years. Some forest managers are urgently trying to negotiate a truce.
Making peace with fire and turning it into a useful tool, rather than a raging threat, was the objective of an October meeting in Shaver Lake of UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources scientists, Southern California Edison forest managers, CALFIRE officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives.
The event also raised awareness of “pyrosilviculture,” a new forest management term coined by UC fire scientist Rob York to emphasize the importance of fire in silviculture, the management of forests for wood.
Forests have myriad benefits – recreational, environmental and economic. Nature lovers value the whisper of pine trees in the wind and green shade over hiking trails and ski slopes. Owls, bears, deer and other wildlife make their homes among firs, pines, oaks and cedars. Forests stabilize mountain slopes, which store water as snow for agriculture and drinking. People build their homes, businesses and schools out of the planks and boards cut from the straight, soft wood of conifer trees.
The value of California forest products was about $429 million in 2017, according to the USDA. Because fires can damage and destroy trees, the timber industry has historically been reluctant to use fire as a tool. That's changing.
“Fire is such an important ecological process, you can't manage for timber without fire,” York said.
York is the manager of the Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC Berkeley's 4,000-acre mixed conifer and oak forest near Georgetown where researchers study forest management practices for increasing timber yield while taking advantage of fire to enhance forest health and make forest stands more resilient to wildfire.
Controlled burning can be used to treat fuels and reverse these trends, but it has been inhibited by a number of barriers, including landowners' concerns about liability, risk aversion among fire management agencies, narrow burn windows, air quality limitations and other regulatory challenges. Now, public demand for prescribed fires is growing.
“I believe what moved the needle was, for several years in a row, there were high-severity fires in the news,” York said. “Wildfires were in the public zeitgeist. People began asking, ‘Why aren't we doing more prescribed fire?'”
Climate change is also intensifying the interest among the public and silviculture professionals. Because California is getting warmer and fire seasons are growing longer, high-severity fires are expected to increase.
“There would logically be a tipping point. Even though we reduce the growth of trees when we use fire, if it can prevent the loss of the forest entirely, it would be meeting the timber objective,” York said.
The vast tree die-off during the 2011-2016 drought was another jarring sign that the Sierra Nevada ecosystem is out of balance.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of forest in California, is using prescribed fire to reduce fire risk on federal forestlands, but scientists say it's not nearly enough to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. CAL FIRE is ramping up its controlled burn efforts, but it will take time to address far-reaching areas of overgrown forestlands. The agency sometimes uses mechanical measures such as mastication and chaining before burning to pre-treat fuels and prepare units for burning.
“We need to work around communities first, and then move out to the wider landscape,” said CAL FIRE division chief Jim McDougald. “If a prescribed fire moves into a subdivision and burns houses, we take 100 steps back.”
“Burning is a key element of forestland management and it can be safe if done properly,” Kocher said. “We provide classroom instruction and invite participants to join a live prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest as part of their training so they become familiar with the process.”
At the training sessions, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said that in some cases, private landowners can conduct burns themselves. In her hometown in Trinity County, many ranchers and landowners conduct small broadcast burns to reduce fuels and improve forage. These burns are typically quite small and usually conducted in the winter.
“This can be a good option for landowners who wish to burn small areas, but we need other options for bigger, more complex burns” Quinn-Davidson said.
In other parts of the country, landowners have formed Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) that allow landowners to work with neighbors and other community members on controlled burns, sharing equipment and labor while developing skills. The PBA model provides a low-cost, grassroots option for prescribed burning, and empowers landowners to work together, and with other key experts and partners, to bring fire back to the landscape, says Quinn-Davidson.
“People are desperate to do something about fire, and the PBA model gives them an option to actively engage with each other and with fire as a tool—it's very empowering,” said Quinn-Davidson.
The humble rake has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, and its role as a forest management tool ridiculed and scorned. However, most fire professionals believe rakes are a necessary part of saving California's forests.
Those who are familiar with fire are undoubtedly familiar with the McLeod, which is a standard firefighting tool and … it is essentially a rake (one side is a rake with coarse tines and the other side has a flat sharpened hoe). The McLeod was created in 1905 by a U.S. Forest Service ranger who wanted a single tool that could rake fire lines (with the teeth) and cut branches and roots (with the sharpened hoe edge). The McCleod is used to scrape fuels off of a fire line, preventing fire spread. The use of hand tools like the McLeod continues to be one of the standard ways that wildfires are stopped (although often aided by the rake's bigger and more powerful cousin: the bulldozer).
While the McLeod is a fire-fighting tool, it is also an essential fire-managing tool. When conducting controlled burns (i.e., purposeful fire), the fire is contained within desired areas by diligent raking with McLeods and other hand tools. These tools are necessary for conducting controlled burns.
While it isn't feasible to reduce fire risk by raking the forest with hand tools, if you hold a drip torch in the other hand, you could get the work done.
A drip torch consists of a canister for holding fuel that comes out of a spout (with a loop to prevent fire from entering the fuel canister) and a wick from which flaming fuel is dropped to the ground when the wick is ignited. The drip torch is the most common tool for lighting prescribed burns, which can be used to remove excess fuel buildup in the forest.
In a forest setting, these two tools — the rake and the torch — must be used together. Without a rake, the fire is not easily contained. And without a drip torch, the fuel that was raked cannot burn. Of course, prescribed burns rely on a number of other pre-specified factors (the prescription), including wind, temperature and humidity.
Using fire in a controlled manner drastically reduces the impacts of wildfire in a forest. Typically flames are kept low and most or all of the trees survive the fire, while much of the dead material on the forest floor (the “fuel”) is consumed. This reduces the risk of the forest burning at high severity in the future, thereby protecting nearby homes and towns. It also reintroduces fire as an important ecosystem process, which improves the health and biodiversity of forests and maintains the ecosystem services they provide, including wildlife habitat, water filtration and carbon sequestration.
Use of a rake and a drip torch together could make a great difference for reducing the impacts of wildfire in California and the West. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that during 2017, only half a million acres were treated with prescribed fire in the West, while 7.4 million acres (almost 15 times more) burned in wildfires. In the Southeastern U.S., where there is a long-standing tradition of prescribed burning, only 2 million acres burned in wildfires while over 5.5 million were burned using prescribed fire.
This was not always the case. Use of prescribed fire, or ‘light burning,' was once common in California until it was outlawed by federal and state policy in 1924. Although the merits of expanding its use are widely known and appreciated, it has been very difficult to do because of concerns about air quality, liability and lack of skilled burners. One of the biggest constraints is that we have very few people who have experience with ‘good fire' and very few qualified people who know how to safely burn.
As foresters and educators for the University of California Cooperative Extension, we are working to expand the use of prescribed fire on private forest and grasslands in California. Central to our efforts are educational events that give people an opportunity to experience prescribed fire first-hand. In the last two years, we have hosted workshops throughout northern California, and many of our workshops have included a live-fire component where landowners and other community members can try their hand at prescribed burning, under the direction and guidance of more experienced burners.
Our efforts in California are inspired by approaches in other parts of the country, including “Learn and Burn” events in the Southeast, prescribed burn associations in the Great Plains, and prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs), an innovative training model developed by The Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network. All of these efforts have a focus on reconnecting people with fire, and they give participants the skills and experience needed to put fire back in the management toolbox.
We hope that by empowering people to pick up the drip torch (and the rake) on their own properties, we can help them reduce the risk of wildfire and improve the health of their forest and range lands. There is no time to waste.
On Oct. 2, the prescribed-fire workshop will be held at Colfax Veterans Memorial Hall, 22 Sunset Circle, Colfax.
On Oct. 4, the workshop will be held at Ebbett's Pass Fire District, 1037 Blagen Road, Arnold.
The one-day workshop is designed for landowners and land managers who want to learn skills in prescribed-fire planning and implementation. In addition to reducing wildfire fuels, prescribed fire is used to control invasive plant species and for ecological restoration.
Each workshop will feature similar content including presentations on prescribed fire, including local fire history and current fire research, prescribed fire permitting and legal considerations, fire weather forecasting and online tools, air quality and smoke management, fire terms and fire behavior, burn plan development, burn unit preparation and fire tools and equipment. Instructors will also discuss models for accomplishing prescribed fire on private lands, including prescribed burn associations and CAL FIRE's Vegetation Management Program.
During the last week of October, participants in each workshop will be invited by UC Cooperative Extension to a field trip to look at lands actively managed with prescribed fire and to participate in a live training burn (weather permitting) at UC Berkeley's Blodgett Research Forest in Georgetown in El Dorado County.
For more information, contact Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension advisor, at (530) 542-2571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
UC Cooperative Extension researchers convey need for more climate change communication and curriculum tools
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from natural and working lands is one of California's key climate change strategies. In particular, the potential for farm and rangeland soils to serve as carbon sinks has been getting a lot of attention lately in the national media — and during California Healthy Soils week, which wrapped up Dec. 7.
These are areas where UC Cooperative Extension, with its local presence across the state, is well-positioned to drive change. But as a recent survey of UCCE advisors, specialists and faculty found, while there is a good deal of climate work happening, there are also some significant obstacles.
The survey results — reported in an article by UCCE academics Ted Grantham, Faith Kearns, Susie Kocher, Leslie Roche and Tapan Pathak in the latest issue of California Agriculture — showed that while nearly 90 percent of respondents believe it is important to incorporate climate science into extension programming, only 43 percent currently do so.
Respondents pointed to a number of issues. One was "limited familiarity with climate science fundamentals." It's one thing to cite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and is being driven largely by human activity; it is another to be able to respond quickly and convincingly to detailed questions from doubters. This list from Grist, for instance, details more than 100 common arguments raised by climate skeptics, many of which have non-trivially complex answers.
Another important issue cited by respondents was "fear of alienating clientele by talking about a contentious topic," a response that highlights the importance of personal relationships in UCCE's work, and the challenge of communicating an area of science that is highly politicized.
The authors conclude: "To further increase the capacity of UC ANR staff to support the needs of their clientele and the broader public, professional development around climate science fundamentals, communication, and adaptation strategies is critical." As an initial follow-up, the UCANR climate change program team (led by authors Grantham, Kocher and Pathak) is presenting a workshop and professional development meeting for extension professionals in February.
For more from California Agriculture, the research journal of UCANR, see the full issue with articles on mapping soil salinity in the San Joaquin Valley via satellite; choosing forage seed mixes for rangeland restoration; growing oilseeds in winter without irrigation; keeping dairy cows cool in the summer; breeding better carrots; and more.
Most California forests have too many trees, so carefully selecting pines, cedars or firs in natural areas to enjoy for the Christmas season is good for the mountain landscape.
“It's a great idea to cut down young trees for fire safety and vegetation management,” said Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestryadvisor in the Central Sierra. “The earlier you do it, the less work it is to manage the trees in the long run.”
Kocher lives and works in Lake Tahoe. Every year, she gathers her family and friends to find forest-fresh Christmas trees in the Lake Tahoe Management Area. Of the 18 national forests in California, 11 allow Christmas tree cutting with the purchase of a $10 permit. (See the list below.) People who own mountain cabins or other forestland may invite family and friends to help thin trees on their personal property, which can then be used for the holiday season. However, never harvest trees on public or private property without permission.
“We have a lot of small trees on public and private forest lands because of fire suppression,” Kocher said. “They're all competing with one another and many will ultimately die. A smart harvest of Christmas trees can improve the forest by helping with thinning.”
People with permits to cut down Christmas trees in national forests must follow strict guidelines. Follow the same guidelines on private land to ensure a smart harvest. Before chopping down the tree, be sure it is within 10 feet of another living tree, the trunk is no more than 6 inches in diameter and the stump left behind is no higher than 6 inches off the ground. Some national forests limit the harvest to certain tree species.
Despite committing to these guidelines when obtaining a permit, Kocher said she has seen some Christmas tree harvesters make ill-advised choices.
“Some people are too lazy to find a good tree and will cut the top off a large tree,” Kocher said. “You can be driving around and see what looks like a poor old Dr. Suess tree, which is what grows from the ugly remnant left behind in the forest.”
Such irresponsible Christmas tree cutting has led some forests to discontinue Christmas tree harvesting for personal use.
There has been ongoing debate about whether a fake tree or real tree is more environmentally friendly, but for Kocher, there is no question.
“Fresh real trees are a renewable resource, fake trees are not,” she said. “It's an agricultural product. You can contribute to a local farmers' income or you can help thin the forest. Picking and bringing home a fresh tree, decorating it and smelling it defines the season for me. Without it, I don't think it would feel like Christmas.”
- Inyo National Forest
- Eldorado National Forest
- Klamath National Forest
- Lake Tahoe Basin Management Area
- Lassen National Forest
- Mendocino National Forest
- Modoc National Forest
- Plumas National Forest
- Shasta-Trinity National Forest
- Six Rivers National Forest
- Tahoe National Forest