Prescription Fire: A Hot Topic on the ARP

While mapping social trails on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, I am often approached by curious walkers, cyclists, and other Parkway users. They’re interested in what I’m doing with my GPS and maps, and when they learn that I’m interning for the County of Sacramento, the main governing agency on the Parkway, they often have some suggestions for how the river corridor could be better cared for.

Simple solutions have also occurred to me as I’ve learned more about the problems facing the Parkway. But the more I ask about why these steps have not been taken, the more I encounter layers of complexity that exist below the surface of Parkway management issues.

For example, a common question I receive on the Parkway is, “Why doesn’t the county use prescription burns more often?” In prescription burning, an experienced fire crew ignites and manages a controlled burn in a predesignated area. These controlled, low intensity burns can also be used to safely eliminate flashy fuels, like grass, which can fuel more damaging fires if ignited under unsupervised conditions. A multi-year program of prescription fire is a viable option for eliminating the seedbank of certain nonnative plants. One such plant is yellow starthistle, which is widespread on the Parkway. County Parks understands these facts and yet uses prescription fire only sparingly. Why?

One reason involves the local air quality restrictions. Regulations surrounding small particulate emissions have become increasingly stringent as the corresponding negative health effects have become more well understood. Fires produce large amounts of these dangerously small particulates, which can lodge in the lungs and cause or exacerbate respiratory problems. On days when air quality is already poor, a prescribed burn can push the particulate level over the regulatory limit. Under these conditions, burns are called off, negating months of prior planning. When burns are cancelled at the last minute, it can be very difficult to reschedule them because of the number of variables that must be considered.

Ecologically, it is a challenge to find a time of year when animals and plants will benefit rather than suffer from burning. In winter and early spring fuels are typically too green and wet to burn effectively. Late spring is often a time when fuels are dry enough to burn and when weather and air quality are most amenable to prescribed burning. But spring is also nesting season for many ground nesting birds including red winged blackbirds and ducks. These birds often nest in the same fields of grass and star thistle that are being considered for burning, thus precluding these areas from the burn prescription. Summer and fall in Sacramento are typically so hot and dry that even carefully controlled burns with large attendant crews are at high risk of escape, overburn, habitat damage and other issues. Fire crews are also busy fighting wildfires all over the state, and are typically unavailable for planned summer burns. In addition to these problems, summer often brings notoriously bad air quality, again preventing burns.

Another slew of factors also affect the County’s ability to pursue prescribed burning as a management tactic. One such factor is the mixed public opinion surrounding burning. Some people disagree that the benefits of prescribed burning outweigh the risks. Others oppose the use of fire because it can escape the control of even watchful prescribed fire crews. The Parkway runs directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods, and an escaped fire has the potential to endanger people living beyond park borders. Even fires that remain under control produce smoke that can bother, concern and alarm neighbors.

The sheer number of considerations that go into even a single prescribed burn make the task of scheduling a program of larger scale prescribed burning for management goals a daunting prospect. But despite the issues of complexity and jurisdictional conflicts faced by managers, the intensity and size of accidental and arson-ignited fires have been increasing during the past few years of drought.

To minimize the risk of a wildfire fire escaping the Parkway into adjacent neighborhoods, the County Parks Department maintains park boundaries by removing ladder fuels near private property. Ladder fuels, including low-hanging tree branches, vines and dead wood, can channel fire from the ground into tree canopies. Once the fire reaches the treetops, it presents a much higher risk of igniting rooftops in adjacent neighborhoods. The Department also implemented a new set of ordinances allowing park rangers to enforce rules against hazardous behavior in areas of extreme fire danger. County staff has created wide firebreaks by mowing vegetation along maintenance roads. Access roads used by emergency vehicles were mapped, signed and maintained to ease communication and response during fire events. In addition, the use of grazing goats is increasing in popularity as an effective way to reduce flashy fuels. Goats have already been successfully employed for this purpose at some Regional Park sites. Because the goats digest and kill the seeds of the plants they eat, they may also represent an alternative method for the management of specific invasive plants in certain areas.

The issue of fire prevention on the Parkway will remain pressing as the drought continues. But managers aren’t just taking large, simple steps to achieve their goals. There are layers of legitimate obstacles, regulations, tradeoffs and stakeholder preferences operating behind the scenes. No policy issue operates in a vacuum, and managers understand that.

Korbi Thalhammer is a sophomore at UC Berkeley studying forestry and natural resources. He is interning at the Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks as a Matsui Local Government Fellow.