Today was a big day out at the BCCER. Tomorrow is the prescribed burn and with weeks of clearing brush and preparing the land behind us, it’s finally time to rid the forest of it’s excess fuel. We spent the day today safety checking hose lines that had been laboriously laid out days before. The majority of today's work consisted of walking the thousands of feet of hose to check for leaks as well as making sure valves were in their proper places to ensure that areas with dry fuel above the hose line could be managed should the fire pass the control zone. My bosses Stephen and Jim came out for a final look over to make sure the property was all set up. With the lines checked and a steady supply of water from a nearby run off the generator was finally hooked to the hose pump and connected to the water holding tub, the final step in the process. The land stewards that I was working with during the day were very knowledgeable in all aspects of what it took to properly prescribe a fire, and I was fortunate enough to learn first hand from them what it took to make it happen safely and responsibly. Though I hadn’t been there to lay out the hose and work on other prep work the days prior, today gave me a real opportunity to see how much it takes to do the job right and the dedication of the stewards who ensure our forests and rural communities are protected from wildfires.
Today was my second day volunteering out at BCCER and with the new day came a new task. I was heading out on the trail to collect fire fuel measuring devices set in strategic positions throughout the forest which measure fuel loadings, live and dead shrub and herbaceous cover. Fuel is in reference to above ground organic matter. Knowing the amounts and variety of fuels is important information because it can help determine the distance and speed a fire will spread as well as the ability of different kinds of live and dead plants to spread a fire. This information helps to aid in the protection of the property, and is necessary for fire management. As I began my hike I noticed the stark difference between the areas which had been previously cleared and those that were left wild. The areas that had been cleared had a clean almost parklike appearance. The species that were left were large and thriving. Most notably were the manzanitas, toyons, and oak varieties which were carefully spaced and in abundance. The areas thick with untamed plants were littered with fallen trees and dead brush, a beckoning call for a wildfire. In a way the areas that had been cleared were more pleasant during the hike and provided me with the opportunity to see areas of the forest that I otherwise wouldn’t have, not to mention the creatures who inhabit and benefit from their manicured home. After a bit of hiking I reached the first instrument which was located in the latest burn area. As I walked the area through I noticed that new growth had already begun to sprout from the piles we had previously burned the week before; a demonstration of the forest’s resilience. I collected the device and began my way to the second. Along the way I passed through the burn zones from times past which also had a parklike appearance only in this particular zone there were more live oaks. I reached the second device that was near an abandoned cabin with remnants of what looked like old mining trash being reclaimed by nature. It was here that I sat down and enjoyed an apple admiring the beauty of the river only yards away. Not a bad gig.
Today began my first day of work in the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) cutting and burning piles to create a fire break before Terra Fuego and the BCCER staff and students come in to burn the forest floor. My day began with a short hike to the work site where I was met by one of the long time land stewards Paul and many of his retired friends who joined him for a day of cleanup. It seemed that age was no excuse to not get out and do their part. When I arrived they had just sat down for lunch, and after formalities, Paul gave me an ecological tour to show me the diversity of plants that I would be encountering during my work. As he explained the plants in the area it dawned on me the complexities of the forest habitat, how each ones serves a role in the functioning of a healthy forest and the effects they produce in a fire. He further explained to me the necessity of cutting foliage in order to prevent fuel for the flames. As we trimmed he told me about the manzanitas which were in abundance in the area and burn particularly hot compared to other plants. Just tinder boxes waiting to perpetuate destruction. If they were let to grow wild, a fire would quickly consume the entirety of the forest and destroy the fragile ecosystem in which many species call home. Another problematic source of fuel was the live oak, which like the manzanita, was in no short supply. It took special education to know how to properly trim this tree which if done improperly can result in trunk sprouting, where the tree grows multiple limbs creating more of a bush. Eventually this becomes full of dead branches because the live oak doesn’t drop these dead limbs, another thing that a fire would use to its advantage. The more I learned the more I realized how we weren’t just simply heading into the woods and cutting whatever we wanted. There was a process to it, which took the guidance of an educated individual in order to make sure the job was completed properly. Aside from this, I understood the relative ease and peaceful nature of the work that anyone could do. And most importantly I felt the gratification looking back at the area of forest now cleared and protected for years to come.
My name is Shane Halligan. I’m an intern here at Terra Fuego. Prior to today I had no experience or knowledge about what a prescribed burn was or how it was conducted, after just 1 day on the job I gained valuable insight into what this process is and the important role it plays in the prevention of wildfires and the preservation of our ecosystem. The first part of my day began with a short drive up beautiful Highway 32 and into Big Chico Creek Canyon where we visited a client of Terra Fuego. This property is being prepping for a prescribed (controlled) burn, after some initial fuels reduction and restoration from the “Old Fire”. With us was Dan Taverner, an inspector from the NRCS who was there to ensure that our prep work was up to standard (which, with the guidance of my boss Stephen Graydon, a professional in the field, was not an issue). We walked around her 300 acre property, and the 40 acre project site, checking burn piles that had been made by cutting and gathering dead brush and trees, that without this maintenance would be fuel for a raging wildfire. Each pile was strategically placed based on elevation compensating for wind and proximity to flourishing plant life to ensure that the controlled burn would not get out of control.
As I shadowed Stephen as a fly on the wall, I learned many things in his conversations with Dan about the importance of educating land owners on the benefits of controlled burns; they were a powerful tool to ensure that the Californian’s would be prepared for the future wildfires to come. They emphasized the need for the public to understand that these controlled burns are extremely safe, meticulously planned, and also a completely natural process that the environment requires. These forests need fire for the regrowth of new life and protection of what is living here now. They informed me that after these initial piles were burned a fire crew comes in and uses a low intensity burn across the forest floor to burn up dead leaves, pine needles and twigs which during the summer create embers and radiant heat making the fire more powerful and intense. The more that I listened to them talk the more I saw the need for this information to get out to the public.
With the blame for large scale fires being placed on negligence on behalf of the forest service and fire crews by our government, it dawned on me the responsibility we all hold for protecting and maintaining our forests and private land. Though wildfires are unpredictable it doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to be defended against and it’s time that we lobby for changes to be made in local and state government regarding controlled burn regulations. This would not only provide protection for the future of our forests and communities in wildfire areas, but also hundreds of jobs for those in need. As the day moved on so did we to the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. Here I got a hands on chance to see how these prep piles were burned. The job was easy going as we cleared brush and slowly smoldered each pile keeping careful eye to ensure it was done safely. Observing the task at hand I saw how simple the process was and how a little bit of work now would be paying off big time come fire season when all the brush would be dry and primed for destruction. The beauty of the land itself struck me as further reason for these burns, which preserve the larger trees and brush in the forest rather than letting them succumb to the devastation caused by a massive wildfire. Overall it was fantastic learning experience and I’m excited to see what my next day on the job has in store.