Che Casul, a seventh-generation Sonoma County rancher, badly wanted to see his woods on fire. With three others, he walked along the edge of a 33-acre patch of oak woodlands on his family’s Bodega Highway ranch. They carried drip torches filled with diesel fuel and gasoline. As they paced their way through the forest, they released small flaming droplets meant to coalesce into a wider curtain of flames creeping along the earthen floor — a prescribed fire.
But it was a damp December day, with light rain falling by afternoon across this corner of southwestern Sonoma County, so the flames that did spread were subdued, producing a blue smoke that hovered just above the ground, swirling around the two dozen men and women clad in yellow firefighter gear and spread throughout the woodland.
Casul, 34, had invited the firefighters onto the property, part of a controlled deployment of fire that had been in the works many months earlier — as catastrophic wildfires once again overtook California, burning a record 4.2 million acres, including more than 290,000 acres of Sonoma and Napa counties.
For Casul and the team of firefighters and volunteers assembled on his 213-acre spread just inland from the Sonoma Coast, conditions were less combustible, partly by design.
Casul employs a variety of tools to reduce wildfire risk on his ranch. Prescribed burning is just one of them. The weather has its say, too.
“Honestly, for me it didn’t burn as hot as I wanted it to,” he later said.
Yet, after a full survey of the treated acreage, Casul professed to being amazed by the skillful approach with which the crews had targeted the most obvious hazard fuels: dead trees, towering stick dens for wood rats, and the limbs hanging down from oak and bay trees — dangerous for their ability to draw flames up into the canopy and cast embers that spark more wildfire.
“Even in the most challenging conditions to do a burn, they were able to burn epic amounts of these big trees and big rats’ nests and big jackpots,” says Casul, who carries his cheery demeanor above a set of broad shoulders on a stocky frame — one rooted in a family that has raised cattle and other livestock in this part of the county since 1851. Across Bodega Highway from the family ranch stands the historic one-room Watson School, built by Casul’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.
In a sense, the prescribed fire lit on the ranch that winter day — one of four controlled burns happening simultaneously across the county on Dec. 11 — is part of another tradition that landowners, fire officials, local tribes and ecologists are reviving to blunt the rising risk of rampant wildfires in a warming climate and provide other landscape and cultural benefits.
Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls, who oversees Sonoma County, says it’s a must-have campaign — a way to create defensive buffers around and between developed areas and establish strategic fire breaks in increasingly fire-prone regions like the Mark West Creek corridor north of Santa Rosa.
That’s where the wind-whipped Tubbs fire raced out of the canyon in October 2017 and into flatland neighborhoods, leveling thousands of homes on both sides of Highway 101. Some of the same ridges dividing Napa and Sonoma counties proved vulnerable again last summer, when in a matter of hours, the Glass fire sped west over the hills and into Santa Rosa, wreaking more destruction.
“When millions of acres burn and the skies turn orange for days on end, clearly we need to do something different,” Nicholls says.
A growing movement
Harnessing wildfire for human use is nothing new. Across California and much of the western United States, native people have used flames to clear out cluttered forests, promote plant growth and flush game.
But after more than a century of fire suppression on public and private lands, with sometimes disastrous consequences, the push for greater use of “good fire” has grown stronger in recent decades, especially in the face of a new, more explosive era of megafires.
Civilian volunteers are enlisting in large numbers for prescribed fire training, seeking a proactive alternative to waiting in dread for the next major blowup.