28. Good Fire – Restoring Ecosystem Processes

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Good Fire: How Restoring Ecosystem Processes is Key to Ecosystem Health

Friday, October 21 at 3:00-4:40 pm, Pine Room

Session Description: Although often maligned in the media, much of California’s flora is adapted to fire and the restoration of this process is vital for conservation and ecosystem management. Prescribed fire and the cultural burning practices of Native Americans have great potential to ensure that habitats continue to be biodiverse, while increasing the safety of human communities.

Session Chair: Brian Peterson (Fire Forward, Oakland, California, U.S.A.)

28.1    The importance of prescribed fire monitoring for reaching long-term ecological goals

Ashley Grupenhoff (University of California Davis)

Prescribed fire is generally recognized to restore forest resilience by decreasing fire risk and restoring natural disturbance processes in frequent-fire forests. As such, there has been a push to increase prescribed fire use, illustrated by California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan which sets a goal for CALFIRE to increase the number of acres burned to 100,000 by 2025. As we increase the use of prescribed fire, it will be vital to understand the effects and effectiveness of this management tool so that we achieve qualitative objectives such as wildfire risk mitigation and improved ecological resilience. However, describing prescribed burn effectiveness can be difficult since metrics for evaluation depend on the objectives of interest, and the services affected by burning occur at broad spatial and temporal scales. This talk will use a unique and growing dataset from the California Prescribed Fire Monitoring Program (CPFMP) to assess the extent to which current prescribed fire practices shift species composition and spatial patterns to resemble historical patterns, prior to Euro-American colonization and shifts in land management practices. The CPFMP has surveyed 24 sites across northern California, allowing for a regional-scale analysis of prescribed burning. Fire-adapted forests supply many important ecosystem services including wildlife habitat, sediment management, air and water quality, and recreational use. As California increases the pace and scale of prescribed fire, monitoring programs like CPFMP will be essential for understanding the impacts of fire use on organisms, ecosystems, and ecological processes.

28.2    Some combinations of mechanical pre-treatment & prescribed fire increase shrub mortality in Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush) encroached coastal prairie restoration

Dr. Kate Wilkin (San Jose State University)

California coastal prairies have undergone dramatic woody encroachment by shrubs, including Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush). The conversion of grasslands to shrublands alters many key ecosystem services for this endangered and important habitat. These prairies, like prairies around the world, were likely maintained to be free of shrubs by frequent Indigenous burning. Many land managers have tried to remove coyote brush, but this resilient native plant is a tenacious resprouter. One technique, prescribed fire, is often difficult to apply in encroached coastal prairies because of the narrow burn windows allowed for public safety, which often do not allow more intense prescribed fires to occur. To expand the burn window and improve the shrub removal efficacy of this treatment, we completed mechanical treatments (mastication, crush, and sawing) before prescribed fire. Saw pre-treatment increased dead surface fuels, fire behavior, and shrub mortality more than other treatments. Mastication increased these factors as well, but to a lesser extent. Crushing and the control were similar. While saw and mastication pre-treatments were better than our alternatives, they had very low shrub mortality (11 and 6% respectively). We plan to complete another prescribed fire to determine if we can improve shrub mortality further.

28.3    Managing Sand Hills Chaparral with fire

Tim Hyland (California State Parks, Santa Cruz District, Felton, CA, USA

California State Parks manages one of the largest stands of Bonny Doon manzanita, Arctostaphylos silvicola chaparral on the planet. Without infrequent high severity fire this vegetation type rapidly converts to mixed evergreen forest and no longer supports a suite of rare native plants and animals endemic to it. Development adjacent to the park makes conducting high severity burns very challenging. Since 2004 State Parks has been developing a technique to safely burn this rare vegetation type, maintain the habitat for the species that depend on it, and monitor the results using the CNPS relevé protocol. This presentation will focus on the evolution of the methods used for this work and address concerns related to potential negative impacts from spring burning and using heavy equipment to pre-treat fuels.

28.4    Fighting the wildfire crisis by using all the tools in the toolbox: a case for lightning fire management

Carol Ewell (USDA Forest Service and Fire Behavior Assessment Team, Sonora, CA, USA), Matthew Dickinson (USDA Forest Service and FBAT, Delaware, OH, USA), Joseph D. Birch (Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA) 

Much of California’s ecosystem diversity is rooted in human uses of fire to tend landscapes in combination with lightning-caused fires. One management tool we need to understand and use more is lightning-caused wildfires to reach land management objectives, especially when these opportunities are located where management success is high and in the right season. This management option is often mislabeled or misunderstood but is an important tool for maintaining and restoring the ecological process of fire on public lands while also increasing the scale of resilient landscape characteristics. Our public lands have Land Management Plans that can include goals, guidelines, and standards to foster the use of lightning-ignited fires. Managing lighting fires typically includes more risk considerations when compared to suppression type fires. This risk is tied to the longer amount of time to achieve management objectives and ecological outcomes, as well as the staff and expertise needed to safely meet these goals. Regional and national fire activity can rapidly deplete fire management staff and modules trained in remote fire management to help meet natural resource benefit objectives. Land managers commonly use point protection or suppression strategies to protect human communities and infrastructure, sometimes with tradeoffs that contribute to lost opportunities to manage lightning-caused fires in more remote areas to maintain or restore natural fire frequency. Reduced fire behavior, or backing fires, associated with lightning ignited fires often creates more desirable wildfire outcomes, such as lower-mixed fire effects and progress towards increasing ecosystem resiliency. The Fire Behavior Assessment Team’s dataset and a few small studies will demonstrate this. To change our current destructive California wildfire paradigm, we must become better stewards of our ecosystems, so let’s move forward together to learn how to live with wildfires.

28.5    Cultural fire maintains ecological heterogeneity, oak woodlands, and indigenous lifeways in Northwest California

Tony Marks-Block (California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA, USA)

In northwest California, the Karuk and Yurok Tribes have maintained, and are revitalizing cultural burns for multiple objectives. Areas that have been culturally burned 3 or more times from 1989 – 2019 exhibit distinct overstory species composition, wherein California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) and other hardwoods are dominant. This contrasts with adjacent areas where cultural fire has been excluded, or only recently re-introduced, which are dominated by Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Hence, cultural fire is a critical ecological process that maintains and creates landscape heterogeneity, while also sustaining Indigenous resources such as acorns and basketry materials.

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