Why Sonoma County’s parks are embracing fire as a tool again
State parks manager Cyndy Shafer doesn’t remember exactly when they decided to discontinue prescribed burns at Trione-Annadel and Sugarloaf Ridge state parks, but she thinks it was “some time in the early 2000s.”
At the time, “I think it got really challenging. There are always concerns about air quality and smoke management,” the California State Parks natural resource program manager said, looking back. “But I think the tide has turned as far as the public understanding of the benefits of prescribed fires.”
Likewise, since the wildfires of 2017, there has been a tidal shift in land-use management to curtail the spread of future fires across parks and preserves in Sonoma County.
Prescribed or controlled burns — where firefighters set slow-burning fire to a contained plot of land during ideal weather conditions, to destroy brush and other low-lying fuel that allow flames to spread quickly during wildfires — had become much less common across the county over the past two decades. But in June, a revival of the tool — one employed by Native Americans before Spanish settlers arrived — proved a success on both private property, at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve, and on public land at Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
“It was the first prescribed fire in the history of Sonoma County regional parks,” said Hattie Brown, natural resource manager of the county park system. “It was quite a feat and a practice that you’re only going to see more of, not only from regional parks, but other land-owning organizations, both public and private.”
The June burns, organized only two days apart, were part of a larger movement that signals a new willingness to pool resources and collaborate among preserves, parks and other landowners. “As we all know, fire knows no boundaries,” said Tony Nelson, Sonoma Valley manager for Sonoma Land Trust. “It makes most sense for us to be looking at this across the landscape, instead of each in our own little silos.”
In Sonoma Valley, where the Nuns Fire burned more than 36,000 acres in 2017, a consortium of landowners formed the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative covering more than 18,000 acres, including California State Parks, Sonoma County Ag and Open Space, Sonoma County Regional Parks, Sonoma Land Trust, Audubon Canyon Ranch and Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation.
Plans are still in the works, but Nelson estimates they might implement controlled burns annually on around 200 acres or more annually on collaborative land if Cal-Fire has the resources and the funding is in place.
“There’s not the opposition that we used to get,” Nelson said. “In addition, the air (quality) board, I think has changed their ideas about it also. It was really difficult to get permits and it got more and more difficult.”
At this point, much of the strategy and park policy since the fires is a matter of refocusing priorities and capitalizing on new funding. The SVWC recently signed a more than $1 million grant from Cal-Fire, which will be used largely for thinning, establishing shaded fuel breaks and right-of-way clearance across 18,000 acres over the next 2½ years.
Many of the shaded fuel breaks are along preserve and park boundaries adjacent to communities like Glenn Ellen and Kenwood. In creating breaks around 100 feet wide, crews keep large trees while removing lower branches and clearing out most of the brush.