When it comes to the “lop, drop and burn,” as he calls it, Kyle Keegan is something of a pro.
No, this Salmon Creek resident is not at the forefront of some new dance craze. Instead, he’s skilled in something decidedly more down-to-earth: land restoration.
The type of restoration work he practices includes limbing and felling trees, mostly small conifers that are encroaching on grasslands. That’s the lop and drop. Then he sets alight the resultant woodpiles. Which is the burn part of the three-step process.
Actually, there’s a fourth step. Scooping up the nutrient-rich charred remnants with snow shovels and depositing them in the vicinity of “food-producing plants” such as huckleberry, thimbleberry and wild strawberry. Also oak saplings — which when they mature will produce acorns, popular with many species, like deer, elk and humans.
“We’ve learned that these plants respond well to the nutrients in the ash,” Keegan explained.
A self-styled “restorationist,” Keegan said the work, carried out on the 80 acres he has lived on for the past 19 years, is an attempt to imitate the impact that a low-to-moderate intensity fire would have on the landscape.
“What we’ve been doing is fire mimicry. Because we’re not ready yet to burn any acreage, [although] we hope to in the future.”
Keegan is one of several speakers at an upcoming workshop on prescribed fire that’s taking place at the Redwood Playhouse on April 14 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Another is Bill Eastwood, who has conducted prescribed fires in the Briceland area.
Sponsored by a number of organizations, including the California Fire Science Consortium, the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Institute for Sustainable Forestry, it’s billed as an opportunity “to learn more about the nuts and bolts of prescribed fire.”
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the fire council and a “fire advisor” for UC Cooperative Extension, said the workshop is intended as a tutorial of sorts for private landowners. “We’ll introduce some basic ideas about prescribed fire [such as] who uses it and what its uses are.”
“People use prescribed fire for a variety of reasons,” she went on. “The main ones are fuels reduction and ecological restoration.”
An issue in Southern Humboldt is the encroachment of conifers into oak woodlands, prairies and meadows. That’s the problem Keegan is attempting to address through his thinning and pile burning.
The conifers “are taking over,” Quinn-Davidson explained. “They outcompete the oaks and the oaks eventually die. If you use prescribed fire you can keep stands open and maintain oak woodlands and prairies.”
The problem with conifer stands is that because they shade out competitors, “there are not a lot of plants in the understory.” In other words, the shelves in the conifer supermarket are a bit bare.
The opposite is true in oak woodlands, which thanks to their openness have a “rich, herbaceous understory” for critters to feast on.
“Burning promotes open grasslands and rich plant communities,” Quinn-Davidson summed up.
Native Americans, for whom acorns were a critical food source, evidently understood this. Fire history studies based on tree ring growth and fire scars tell a tale of frequent, low-intensity ground fires that only occasionally flared up into the crowns of trees.
“For any individual fire you can’t necessarily say what caused it 200 years ago,” Quinn-Davidson allowed. “But around village sites you often see a higher frequency of fire recorded in these fire scars.”
This indicates that “Native Americans used fire a lot as a tool. So prescribed fire as we know it today attempts to mimic Native American fire use.”
Of course, things are more complicated these days than they were then. A private landowner who sets a fire on his land without first getting the proper permits risks running afoul of regulators. And if the fire gets out of control and escapes onto neighboring properties, he will be held liable for damages.
To educate folks about the proper way to go about it, John McClelland of Redwood National Park is giving a talk at Thursday’s workshop about “Burn Planning and Preparation.” And Marty Hobbs, Cal Fire’s Garberville-based battalion chief, will provide information about the burn programs his agency offers.
Quinn-Davidson said that under Cal Fire’s Vegetation Management Program, “Cal Fire does all the planning and preparation, builds the [fire] lines and actually does the burn. Cal Fire does it all.” In exchange, she said, the landowner chips in 20 percent of the cost.
When asked what 20 percent amounts to for a typical prescribed burn, Quinn-Davidson declined to be specific. “I don’t want to list hard numbers,” she said, explaining that prescribed burns “are highly variable.”
“It depends on how complicated the project is and what the fuel types are. You can have logs that will burn several days that require monitoring. Or you can have grasses that will burn in a couple of hours.”
“It’s more complicated,” she added, “than thinning.”
Nonetheless, she said prescribed fire was “one of the most cost-effective options [available to landowners] for fuels reduction. You can treat large areas in a relatively short period of time.”
In terms of permitting, Hobbs of Cal Fire said last week that no matter when a prescribed fire is set, a landowner needs to obtain a permit from the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District. Additionally, a burn permit from Cal Fire is required during the fire season, which begins May 1 and ends when the fire season is declared over.
As for the Vegetation Management Program his agency offers, Hobbs said “there are catches” — in particular, the need to jump through various regulatory hoops.
“When we’re involved, you need to abide by CEQA” — meaning the California Environmental Quality Act. “That’s a time-consuming process.”
Hobbs said that other regulators would also need to eyeball the project ahead of time, such as archaeologists, water quality experts and personnel from the State Fish and Wildlife Department.
“Everyone needs to make sure that it’s a viable project that won’t do harm,” he explained.
Looking at the landscape as a whole, another one of the speakers at Thursday’s workshop, Mathew Coking, a forester with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that several hundred years ago fires were much more frequent in Northern California than they are today. Not just because of Native American burning but also because lightning strikes would spark blazes that would burn for months.
Since Smokey Bear wasn’t around to put out every fire, the ecosystem became shaped to a significant degree by flame. “Lots of communities of plants and animals, especially plants, evolved with frequent fire disturbance over thousands of years. So there was a selection of traits that were more resilient to fire.”
“It’s those species that suffer when fire is taken away,” Coking continued, explaining that many plant species depend on the heat furnished by fire to reproduce and release their seeds.
Thirty to 40 years ago burning by Native Americans in Southern Humboldt had been replaced to some extent by burning conducted by ranchers. But even that has for the most part gone away as ranchlands have been subdivided and turned into residential parcels.
While some burning is done on public lands in the region — Coking pointed to prescribed fires conducted by California Start Parks in the Sinkyone Wilderness as an example — he said private lands are “in a severe fire deficit.”
“We are pretty badly fire-starved” on private lands in Southern Humboldt, he added.