Fire’s return to Sonoma Valley marks growing effort to use flames to aid ecology, reduce risk

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A large plume of smoke that rose above an oak-studded hillside in Glen Ellen on Friday marked the return of flames to a part of Sonoma Valley that was badly burned and is still recovering from the destructive Nuns fire of 2017.

But the fire that spread across sloping grasslands and oak savanna at Bouverie Preserve this time around was small and intentionally set, with the aim of restoring ecological balance and reducing fire risk.

Yellow-clad firefighters torched the land in staggered lines — bright orange walls of flame rising quickly, fiercely, amid loud snaps and crackles in the tall dry grass, before dying down just as fast, leaving blackened ground and dark smoke behind.

Charred Douglas fir and knobcone pine stood as eerie sentinels on a ridgeline blasted by the Nuns fire two years ago. But the blue oaks and live oaks at lower elevations demonstrated the fire resilience for which they are known. On Friday, they showed no ill effects as crews burned light, flashy grasses around some of them.

“These oaks can take a lot,” said Brian Peterson, a fire ecologist with Audubon Canyon Ranch, owner of 535-acre Bouverie Preserve.

The controlled burn comes amid growing interest and improved understanding of fire’s historic presence in California’s semi-arid landscapes —a force long harnessed by native people, but largely barred over the past century to the detriment of both ecological health and public safety.

Now, organizations including Audubon Canyon Ranch are turning back to fire as a land management technique and defensive tactic against the escalating threat of extreme wildfires like the those that swept over nearly 140 square miles of Sonoma County in October 2017, killing 24 people and destroying more than 5,300 homes.

The less-intense more frequent and controlled introduction of flames allows fire-adapted plants to reproduce and thrive, suppresses certain invasive species and reduces dead and dry vegetation that can fuel wildfires, experts say.

Local land managers have started slowly, with projects on the properties they control. But they’re building the capacity to broaden the effort to include individual property owners, said Sasha Berleman, who called the shots during Friday’s fire as consulting director for Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program.

“The only way to better tackle this is on this landscape scale,” said Tony Nelson, Sonoma Valley program manager for the Sonoma Land Trust.

A key initiative is the new Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative, through which six public agencies and conservation organizations that manage 18,000 acres across 11 different sites in Sonoma Valley have agreed to work together on prescribed fire and vegetation management in conjunction with Cal Fire in hopes of providing a buffer against the next big wildfire.

Members include Audubon Canyon Ranch, Sonoma Land Trust, California State Parks, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks and Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation.

Though conceived some years ago, the collaborative did not come to fruition until after the Nuns fire, which in 2017 burned through 56,556 acres of largely steep terrain around the valley as wildfire exploded around the region incinerating large swaths of open space, including state and county park lands.

“We’re really excited about being a part of the collaborative — that bigger picture perspective that models how we can better protect the Sonoma Valley and protect these 18,000 acres,” Berleman said. “It’s a really exciting project.”

Friday’s 27-acre burn was the first of several fuels treatment plans to be developed under the collaborative. An 18-acre fire in spring of 2017 — before the fall firestorm — was accomplished under a less formal cooperative, Berleman said.

A prescribed burn also is scheduled Monday on 34 acres of Sonoma Valley Regional Park across Highway 12 from Bouverie.

That fire is expected to run from about 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and also will produce visible smoke. Only grass will be burned on the eastern boundary with the highway frontage, park representatives said.

The park will be closed both Monday and Tuesday.

Bouverie, like Sonoma Valley Regional Park, was overrun by fire in October 2017. The preserve, which served as headquarters for the nonprofit Audubon Canyon Ranch, was burned over 75 percent of its acreage and lost eight of 10 structures, including its offices.

Still, the nonprofit has made a particular commitment to reincorporating wildfire in its care of the landscape, with an eye on building resilience against future disasters and expanding expertise in the limited field, said John Petersen, the group’s executive director.

ACR prescribed fire specialist Jared Childress heads up the Good Fire Alliance, a group of private landowners and organizations learning to utilize controlled burns and other management techniques such as livestock grazing and shaded fuel breaks to control fuel on their properties.

The nonprofit is a founding member of the Bay Area Prescribed Fire Council, an organization of more than six dozen fire agencies and other organizations sharing best practices around controlled burns.

This spring, ACR hosted a basic wildland training course for 40 trainees at its Martin Griffin Preserve in west Marin County. Several of those firefighters were among the 29 who participated in the controlled burn Friday.

“We’re fully invested in this program,” said Petersen, the executive director. “It’s one of the reasons we can convene an event like this and people will come.”

ACR spokeswoman Wendy Coy said the nonprofit also hopes to develop an equipment cache that it can lend to private landowners for their use.

“There’s a high interest in the community,” she said in an email, noting that a meeting held with the UC Cooperative last winter drew more than 50 people from around the region.

Friday’s fire, which began under foggy skies, was another lesson. Supervised by a contract company called Firestorm Inc., the crew included firefighters from Bodega, Geyserville and Mayacamas volunteer fire departments, the Laguna Foundation and ACR personnel.

Brook Edwards, lead land manager for the sprawling Jenner Headlands Preserve, was also on hand.

Sonoma Mountain resident Tim Farley, who with his siblings, controls a foundation created by their parents, was among several interested observers.

The Farley Family Charitable Foundation has provided a two-year, $660,000 grant to the Fire Forward program to support such projects. Friday’s outing showed that interest in fire’s helpful role on the landscape appears to be growing, Farley said.

“What’s important to me is to see all the partners that ACR has brought together today,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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