Reintroducing controlled fire to the Pepperwood landscape

A momentous day for Pepperwood

On June 10, 2016, after months of planning, CAL FIRE implemented a prescribed burn on a 7-acre grassland plot at Pepperwood Preserve. Part of our Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative, the burn presents critical research opportunities including how our regional ecosystems respond to fire, and what land managers can do to aid recovery of native plants in areas affected by wildfire.

CAL FIRE initiated the burn at 11:53am near Three Tree Hill at the center of the preserve, a location chosen because of a large population of invasive Medusahead weed. Guided against the wind by CAL FIRE crews, the fire moved at a slow and controlled pace across the hillside and remained inside the fire lines drawn in preparation for the burn. The burn ended at 1:20pm, and crews remained to ensure all areas of the burn zone were extinguished.

Watch a time-lapse video of the burn below!

June 2016 Pepperwood Prescribed Burn – short version from Pepperwood Preserve on Vimeo.

Prior to the burn, Pepperwood reached out to our neighbors and held an open meeting in partnership with CAL FIRE where they could learn about the process and ask questions. We’re grateful to our community for supporting the effort!

Read about the burn in a Press Democrat article.

Reintroducing fire to the landscape

Fire has been an integral part of California ecosystems for millennia. In fact, many plant species native to fire-prone vegetation communities such as chaparral and oak woodlands can only reproduce with exposure to fire. Fire can provide numerous other ecological benefits, from recycling nutrients back into the soil to clearing the understory and making room for new growth. Safari West Staff Writer Jared Paddock just published a newsletter piece inspired by Pepperwood’s prescribed burn that includes a great introduction to fire ecology. Click here to read it.

Recognizing the importance of fire in the landscape, the peoples native to this region regularly used burning as a management tool. “For thousands of years fire has played a key role in how people have interacted with our environment,” says Michael Gillogly, Pepperwood’s Preserve Manager. “When native cultures were restricted from using fire to impact vegetation we lost a key impact that has been an evolutionary driver of this landscape.”

We deeply value the support of our Native Advisory Council in reintroducing fire to the Pepperwood landscape.

Targeting invasive weeds with fire

The area chosen for the burn contained a large population of the highly invasive Medusahead weed, which has become an increasing nuisance to land managers in Northern California and reduces biodiversity by outcompeting native species. Pepperwood’s Research and Preserve Management (RPM) team partnered with Sasha Berleman, a PhD candidate at the UC Berkeley Stephens Lab, who has been researching the most effective ways of deploying fire to destroy Medusahead.

The burn was timed to catch the Medusahead in a particularly vulnerable state, with seed clusters exposed at the top of the plant. Accumulated thatch dropped by the plants in previous seasons created enough fuel load to achieve a temperature hot enough to destroy the seeds. CAL FIRE did an outstanding job of guiding the fire, and Sasha was present to advise on an optimal burn speed and intensity—slow and steady in this case.

Prior to the burn, Preserve Ecologist Michelle Halbur did a thorough assessment of the targeted area and mapped the composition of plant species in the grassland community. After the fire, she did a preliminary post-burn assessment and will be returning over time to monitor and analyze the impacts of fire on the ecosystem. Michelle will be able to determine how effective the burn was in reducing the Medusahead seed bank, and the extent to which it promotes native biodiversity. She’s curious to see if it will activate the seeds of any rare native plant species that have been lying dormant in the absence of fire.

The RPM team will also be studying three different methods for reseeding the burn zone with native plants to determine which is most effective.

We look forward to more opportunities to bring controlled fire into the Pepperwood landscape and produce research that will help make our local ecosystems more resilient.

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