California’s Fire-Adapted Landscapes
Many of California’s landscapes are fire adapted, which means vegetation that has experienced frequent fires has developed certain traits that make it resilient to fire, such as thick bark, fire-stimulated flowering, resprouting, seed release and germination. Here in Sonoma County our oak woodlands, redwoods, and grasslands have evolved with frequent fires set by Indigenous Peoples to maintain healthy and vibrant ecosystems.
When the first European explorers encountered these landscapes, they marveled at their picturesque, park-like quality. For the most part, this was because Indigenous Peoples managed many of these landscapes over thousands of years with fire. Intentional fire cleared dead and downed woody material, released nutrients into the soil and re-initiated a flush of new, nutritious growth on which the animals and Indigenous Peoples depended.
Over the last 150 years as Sonoma County was settled by Euro-Americans, wildfires were frequently suppressed, leading to the buildup of large amounts of woody debris. In tandem with this, logging often removed the largest trees, leaving a regenerating forest to grow into dense stands of trees. Foresters call these “dog-hair thickets;” a dense wall of impenetrable vegetation, with many trees packed into a small area fighting for limited resources. This, along with invasive pathogens like Sudden Oak Death (SOD) which kills tan oaks and drought-related bark beetle outbreaks that kill vast areas of pine forests, has led to the volatile combustibility of local forests.
Along with these events, climate change has greatly exacerbated fire intensity and severity by increasing daily temperatures and extending the dry season to often be year-round. As a result, we now see catastrophic wildfires on a yearly basis throughout California.
It has taken more than a century to create our current conditions, but there are solutions that can nurture our landscapes back to ecological health. However, it will take time and a commitment to work with the ecological processes that have shaped these landscapes over eons.
Our goal is to use prescribed fire as one of the many management tools in our toolbox to transform our existing young and dense forests and woodlands into mature, self-sustaining, healthy ecosystems that are reminiscent of the past and resilient to the ecological conditions of tomorrow.
Land Management and Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fire is a vital element that has been missing from our landscapes for over 100 years. It is one of the many tools that can help reduce fuel loads, help protect our communities, and revitalize ecosystems. At Regional Parks, we are implementing a multi-phased approach that includes creation of shaded fuel breaks along trails and roads to reduce the fuel load for emergency responders. This will help them fight a wildfire directly or set a backfire to extinguish the fuels in front of an approaching wildfire. These fuel breaks can also function as control lines during a prescribed fire.
Prescribed fire is the purposeful use of fire in an area. It is carefully planned and carried out under very specific weather and fuel moisture conditions called a “prescription.” Re-introduction of prescribed fire reduces the buildup of surface and ladder fuels – which, left untouched, enable fire to climb like a ladder into the upper canopy, fueling high severity fires that can reduce forests to ash. Even with the use of prescribed fire, future wildfires will still occur, but reducing built up fuel results in lower-intensity fires. This kind of fire can also help re-initiate ecosystem processes, such as nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, germination, reduction of pathogens and protection of mature trees that will continue to sequester carbon and ultimately help to protect adjacent residential communities.
By managing our landscapes with low-intensity prescribed fire, we will re-introduce a missing element to protect our community and make our parks more resilient to climate change and future wildfires.
If you'd like to learn more about the use of prescribed fire in our parks, visit the links below: