Fighting wildfires before they start
Not having a wildfire is the best way to avoid the incredible destruction these events have been wreaking on California counties in the past few years. More than one hundred years of targeted fire suppression has had the unintended consequence of allowing heavy growth to continue unabated, accumulating billions of tons of tinder-dry kindling ripe for any spark, natural or man made, to set off uncontrollable conflagrations in forests and back country already severely stressed by drought and insect invasions.
The Sonoma Ecology Center has been active in seeking ways to reduce wildfire hazards for years, and has sponsored controlled burns in Sonoma Valley for the past two years, emulating methods once used by indigenous people to keep the environment balanced and local plants thriving.
Jason Mills is a restoration program manager at the Center who believes that the job has to be tackled head on, with hard work and focus.
“The only way we’ll manage these fires safely and effectively going forward is through proper vegetation management – specifically fuel reduction with an ecological approach,” he said in a recent SEC article. “Someone has to do the work.”
Mills is a certified restoration and fire ecologist, botanist, arborist, and licensed tree and landscape contractor, and oversees SEC’s services throughout the North Bay. His team helps to manage fuels while protecting habitat in wildland-urban interface areas.
A fortunate meeting at a St. Helena Cal Fire workshop last year brought Mills together with Peter Lacourt, also an ecologist who shares Mill’s opinions about fuel reduction as a way to reduce fire danger. Lacourt manages an 1,100-acre experimental forest for Pacific Union College located in nearby Angwin.
The entire area has been evacuated in the recent LNU Lightning Complex fires, but not before 22 of 32 designated acres had been thinned by Mills’ crew of trained specialists. Weather only slows down the work when winds pick up to dangerous speeds or the resident spotted owls enter mating season.
It’s too early to gauge the impact of the work on the current fire’s destruction, but Mills feels that “the work we did should help to prevent the fire from carrying at the same speed now that we have the ladder fuels down,” Mills said. “The goal is to allow for better access to buy more time for fire crews to set up and potentially back-burn before the wildfire reaches the forest.”
“The strategic thinning of understory and ladder fuels in forested areas is a method that can and should be used in Sonoma Valley where appropriate,” Frances said. “Along with grazing and prescribed burns, these fuel-reduction methods – conducted by trained professionals – are essential tools for managing future wildfires in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County and throughout the West.”
Mills has overseen fire hazard reduction projects with restoration crews, prescribed burning and grazing over the past year in preparation for this fire season.