‘It’s a fire-dependent system’: State Parks uses prescribed burns

ByShannon J. Cortes

Jul 3, 2022
“If you don’t use fire, you can’t remove these surface fuels,” Dan Shaw, California State Parks Sierra District natural resources chief, said of the rationale for prescribed fires on park lands. State. | Justin Scacco / [email protected]

TRUCKEE, Calif. — About seven years ago, California State Park crews burned 20 acres of land in Burton Creek State Park.

The prescribed burn was in a key area between downtown Tahoe City and North Tahoe High School, and the flames that burned vegetation and fuel to the ground left the site and the city better protected from the risk of catastrophic fire.

“This area is really strategically critical,” said Dan Shaw, natural resources manager for the Sierra District of California State Parks.

Shaw helped lead a tour of the area on Monday, showing differences in the amount of vegetation and ground fuels from plots at Burton Creek State Park that were treated a few years ago, in 2015, and which have not been processed. In the case of the 20 acres burned in 2015, Shaw said it’s already time for the site to have a prescribed burn again, which could take place as early as this fall.

“If you don’t use fire, you’re not able to remove these surface fuels,” Shaw said of the reasoning for prescribed fires on state park lands. “And those surface combustibles are really what drives a rate of surface fire spread. This can be a real source of ignitions… it also allows suppression teams to enter safely, your escape routes are going to be protected, as well as airdrops. When the canopy is thinned and you do a self-timer drop, in a thinned area with sparse ground cover that can really help provide a barrier. There are also huge ecological benefits.

Burning increases nutrients in the soil, reduces problematic fungi that kill pine seedlings, promotes native species diversity and balance, and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, according to California State. Parks. Prescribed burns also increase the resistance of large trees to wildfires, Shaw said, adding that trees will adapt in the aftermath of small fires by developing thicker bark.

“The return of this disturbance to the landscape can really accommodate the fire that’s going to happen because the fires are going to spread across our lands,” Shaw said. “It’s a fire-dependent system.”

The conditions for a prescribed burn must be ideal. From the time of year, the weather forecast, the impact on the community, or even finding a bear den on site, many things can derail ground fire plans. Shaw said state parks use information gathered from 30 years of monitoring the area’s forests to decide when and where to prescribe a burn.

Once the conditions are met, Burn Boss Dave Murray and his crew get to work with torches and in about a day they will be finished burning a 20-acre site like the one at Burton Creek State Park. Murray said the team then monitored the area for several days before cleaning up.

“We let it bake for three to four days,” Murray said. “We really don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by sponging too soon…it’s a bit of art and science, that’s for sure.”

Assistant Secretary for Forests and Wildlands Resilience Jessica Morse was also in attendance and spoke about the importance of prescribed burns in the region and recent programs that help encourage prescribed burning, such as insurance for burners in the event of a problem. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also won’t charge if a prescribed burn gets out of control. A compensation fund has also been established to cover the burners in the event that a structure is damaged during prescribed milling.

“It’s important to make sure our state lands don’t contribute to a catastrophic fire,” Morse said.

For more information on California State Parks’ fire prevention program, visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/.