Bouverie Preserve seeking to fight fire with fire
Spring will bring prescriptive burns to valley grasslands
“We need to reapply fire to our landscape,” John Petersen told staff and neighbors at Glen Ellen’s Bouverie Preserve in early March, outlining a modest plan to reinstate some of the techniques original valley dwellers used to manage the landscape for thousands of years.
Petersen is executive director of Sonoma Valley’s 500-acre preserve that is dedicated to protecting “natural and human communities through land preservation, nature education, and conservation science.” David Bouverie bequeathed the property to the Bolinas-based Audubon Canyon Ranch to be used for preservation and teaching.
Petersen underscored the potentially disastrous consequences of the national policy of squelching forest fires adopted in the early 1900s.
“The Mayacamas are a disaster waiting to happen,” he said, referring to the mountains just east of the property. There are tens of thousands of dead trees on the mountains, from Sonoma through Healdsburg, including short-lived knobcone and bull pines used for reforestation after the 1964 fire, and Douglas firs dying from drought-induced bark beetle infestation.
“Come up Trinity Road, to the first curvy part, and look to the north,” Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department Chief Will Horne said. “There are several hundred acres of standing dead bull pines. They have that at Bouverie, too. They will burn smaller brush, then cut trees and stack ‘em. We are working with Calfire to see about that plan.”
Petersen said nature and the environment have evolved to need fire and that long-term suppression has led to the build up of heavy and hazardous fuel loads that burn extremely hot in a wildfire. These loads are behind the severity and extent of recent fires throughout California, including those in Clear Lake and Napa in the last two years.
Fire also is necessary to kill harmful bugs and bacteria as well as fend off the flora that began invading with increasing frequency after the arrival of Europeans and the continuously increasing population density.
“Controlled burns,” as deliberately set fires have been called, are not new. Farmers and ranchers have burned their rangeland to improve forage and seed stock for thousands of years, all over the world. Locally, the practice died out in the late ‘60s. Today, however, “prescriptive burns” are being planned, a term that emphasizes that they are designed to deal with specific targets.
The ACR program is a small part of a much larger state and national program to re-address land management policies and how wildfire is considered. The California Forest Improvement Project, the Fire Learning Network, and the Northern California Prescriptive Fire Council are all part of this ongoing reassessment of fire in wildlands.
Fire ecologist to oversee project
Dr. Sasha Berleman sets fires. She grew up in Los Angeles’ canyon country, developing a healthy fear of fast moving fires that threatened her family home. Rather than run away, however, she elected to learn about wildfires, recently earning her Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley. She is Bouverie Preserve’s fire ecologist.
Berleman has done the planning and will provide the direction to several small fires this spring, weather and bureaucracies allowing. She is planning to do a small test burn on March 13 (after this paper went to press) if the weather cooperates, torching piles of Sudden Oak Death victims that have fallen down. These burns are no different from vineyards and landowners burning old vines, slash and other debris on approved burn days.
The prescriptive burns will happen after May 19 and sometime before mid-June, Berleman said, and are designed to clear two parcels, one 13 acres and the other four acres.
Bob Bonino lives next to where the fires will be set, with a house and vineyard producing grapes for Imagery Winery, a few driveways south.
“I’m worried about this house burning down or other trees catching on fire,” he told the Bouverie staff. Bonino was 17 in 1964 when a huge Mayacamas wildfire consumed thousands of acres of the mountain, including his family’s summer cabin and barn.
He has talked with local fire officials at Calfire and the Glen Ellen Fire Department and feels that they will be watching events carefully. “Burning on the flat is different than burning up there, but I’m concerned about the fire running away.”
He asked for a copy of Bouverie’s fire insurance policy.
Jeffery Landolt was also on hand, representing Benziger Family Winery interests. He’s their director of Vineyards and Estate Properties.
“I think the concern is always timing for us,” he said. He agrees that the May-June timing is good, with the grass just dry enough to burn, but not so dry as to flame too fast.
Landolt is concerned about possible smoke contamination to the young fruit.
“We are nervous about every fire,” he said. “Smoke taint is almost impossible to get out of wine.” Even so, he feels confident that Bouverie’s going about the job responsibly and working with everybody concerned. “I hope it’s a non-issue for us.”
As planned, the two burns will be done in about two hours, start to finish. The weather will be monitored every day for weeks up to the fire date, with permission only being granted by the Bay Area Air Quality Control Board at the last minute, and only if all conditions are ideal.
Those conditions include wind direction, air pressure, moisture content of the area to be burned, and availability of all necessary control people and equipment.
“God knows we don’t want to see a nasty wildfire at the end of year,” Landolt observed. “This is the best way to prevent something catastrophic.”