Using fire to manage grasslands

Fire has come to the forefront of our consciousness as Californians. In Solano County, fires directly threatened several communities in 2018, and we all spent months under the oppressive, surreal haze of poor air quality from large fires throughout the state. Reducing fire risk is a priority for all of us, and you may be asking yourselves, can we really fight fire with fire?

Historically, yes. Long before European settlement, indigenous Californians used fire as a tool to manage vegetation and improve habitat for the plants and animals they needed to survive. Light- to moderate-intensity fire can refresh an ecosystem, removing dead plants and releasing nutrients. Following light to moderate fires, it is common to see a flush of new growth, which can attract deer and other animals. Fire can also help control invasive grasses.

Controlled burns

Not all fires are created equal. Fire intensity refers to the energy produced by a fire, and severity refers to the damage left after the fire. Scientists agree that modern fires, with heavy fuel loads resulting from fire suppression policies, are burning more intensely and creating more severe burns with lasting ecosystem effects.

To reduce fuel loads, land managers practice methods such as removing woody material with machinery or using grazing and browsing animals. Another way that fuels can be reduced is through prescribed or controlled burns. A prescribed fire is a tool that is carefully planned and designed to meet management objectives.

Rush Ranch green

Solano Land Trust has a history of using fire as a management tool. If you have ever visited Rush Ranch, you may have witnessed controlled burns that have been part of a training program in partnership with the Montezuma Fire District.

In 2018, three unplanned fires affected Solano Land Trust properties (Rush Ranch, Lynch Canyon, and Paradise Valley). In each case, the fires began on the shoulder of public roads and were carried by the wind onto Solano Land Trust properties. Fortunately, all the fires were of low intensity and severity. You may notice how well vegetation is recovering from those fires. In some ways, these unplanned fires were a test of vegetation management. If fuel loads had been higher, the fires would have been more severe.

Your support of responsible land management practices, such as cattle grazing, ensures we can continue maintaining the resiliency of our lands.

By Jasmine Westbrook, project manager. Photos courtesy of Ken Poerner, Tim Malte, and Tom Muehleisen.