CA State Parks ‘Reintroducing Fire’ With Prescribed Burns at Wilder Ranch State Park

PK Hattis – Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

Oct. 11—SANTA CRUZ — Fire crews, decked out in bright yellow suits and helmets to match, dotted the parched meadowland at Wilder Ranch State Park Wednesday, methodically igniting light brown blankets of grass with orange flame as part of the latest round of prescribed burns in Santa Cruz County.

The effort, which aims to collectively burn 300 acres of grassland, shrubbery and forest understory at the park within the next four to six days, is being led by California State Parks but includes crew members from Cal Fire, Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association and graduate students from San Jose State University.

“Fire is a natural process, just like the water cycle and the carbon and the nitrogen cycle, that is fundamental to the landscape,” said Portia Halbert, a senior environmental scientist with State Parks and the incident commander leading the roughly 40-person crew Wednesday. “We are reintroducing fire to its natural role in the environment and it is an incredibly valuable tool for helping to manage the landscape. It does so many different things.”

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Chief among these benefits, says Halbert, is a reduction in fuel loads in the event of a wildfire.

“It’s not a matter of if it burns, but when it burns,” said Halbert, and when it does, these prescribed burns can turn down the heat.

In addition to that, fire recycles key nutrients for plant growth, scarifies seed banks — affording some an opportunity to germinate when they otherwise may not — reduces pathogens and provides the critical topsoil disturbance needed for coastal grasslands to thrive.

But until recently, fire was not prioritized as a mechanism for these kinds of benefits. On the contrary, according to the U.S. Forest Service, the goal has been to prevent or suppress wildfires in many areas across the state for more than a century. That perspective is now shifting as authorities are using prescribed burns to make the land more resilient to growing fire threats and have borrowed techniques used by Native Americans for several thousand years.

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According to a 2022 report from the state’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, California invested $1.5 billion in wildlife resilience in 2021 and has set a goal of deploying “beneficial fire” on 400,000 acres of land annually by 2025. Halbert estimated that State Parks covered nearly 700 acres of land in Santa Cruz County with prescribed burns and 900 acres the year before that. The annual average is likely 300-400 acres annually, she said.

That doesn’t mean the process is without its challenges.

Halbert said daily weather conditions, such as wind speed and smoke dispersal, are forecast by the Monterey Bay Air Resources District and dictate the total acreage and habitat her team is allowed to burn. If conditions are poor, that total can be zero and the burn gets moved.

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“Right now, it looks really good for this entire plot this week,” said Halbert.

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(c)2023 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com

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PK Hattis – Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. Oct. 11—SANTA CRUZ — Fire crews, decked out in bright yellow suits and helmets to match, dotted the parched meadowland at Wilder Ranch State Park Wednesday, methodically igniting light brown blankets of grass with orange flame as part of the latest round of prescribed burns in Santa Cruz […]

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