Good Fire for California

This area had been thinned and prepped to receive good fire for more than two years before the right combination of weather and climatic conditions became available to burn in late October. (Photo Courtesy of Ian A. Nelson)

By Michael Gillogly
Preserve Manager

I remember pulling out onto Franz Valley Road on October 8th, 2017, as flames raced across the field toward my home, encouraged by the high winds. As I left Pepperwood that day, I knew my home was soon to be engulfed and my life would be forever changed. That my family and I escaped with our lives is something for which I will be forever grateful. But like so many of our neighbors, we lost much that night.

Many of you will understand how I felt – you were likely feeling it too. For months after the Tubbs Fire a bitter anger would rise inside me as I walked the charred landscape, seeing again and again in its vacancy the ghosts of what was and the reminder of what was lost. it was a huge setback for our community, and the worst part was that I knew it didn’t have to be that way. This last notion is what, in time, transformed my anger into a steady resolve – a commitment to do everything I can to ensure we never have to suffer such a tragedy again.

California is a fire-adapted place; in fact, it needs periodic fire to thrive. It is not our choice whether California will burn, but we do have an active role in affecting how it will burn. This is why, alongside our Native Advisory Council, Pepperwood has embraced the use of good fire as an integral component of our land stewardship. Prescribed and cultural burning can create conditions where wildfires are less severe, less catastrophic, and produce less hazardous smoke (largely by ensuring fewer homes burn).

The demands of climate change necessitate that we take action to safeguard our communities and wild landscapes. Forest stewardship, of which prescribed fire is a part, is one way Pepperwood works to improve wildlife habitat, sequester carbon in large fire-resistant trees, and reduce vegetation fuel loads. However, it is not a panacea; there’s much we still must do to protect ourselves like harden our homes, improve escape routes, and support emergency response agencies.

Pepperwood sits along a north/south ridge that has been identified as a strategic location to stop advancing wildfires. It is our responsibility to do what we can to support emergency response before it’s needed by providing the land stewardship necessary to make this area more resilient. Two years after the Tubbs Fire, this critical role was clearly demonstrated when CAL FIRE, using our carefully stewarded property, made a stand here and stopped the 2019 Kincade Fiire from moving into the then rebuilding Mark West corridor.

Since 2006 Pepperwood has been thinning forests and grazing grassy uplands which proved critical to CAL FIRE’s success. Some might wonder why it’s necessary to burn if the thinning and grazing worked so well. Like mastication, forest thinning just re-arranges the fuel, it doesn’t remove it. We asked this question once too, and instead of burning the thinned slash, we decided to allow it to decompose over many years. Unfortunately, wildfire came through before enough time for decomposition occurred, and in those areas where we’d left the slash we found an increase in tree mortality. Now we had the scientific evidence to support fuels reduction work. In response, we are now burning the slash in prescribed broadcast burns and with winter pile burns.

Measurements of temperature, wind, humidity and fuel moisture are taken the day of the burn. If the correct conditions have not been met, then the burn is canceled or postponed until conditions are favorable. (Photo Courtesy of Ian A. Nelson)

For each type of stewardship there is a timing and a protocol. Perhaps the most rigorously prepped type of stewardship is prescribed burning. These burns happen under very specific conditions that have less to do with the time of year than they do with the fuel moisture, humidity, temperature, and wind, among other metrics. The fire proceeds only if the correct prescription can be met. Months, sometimes years, of preparation precede a burn. The entire burn area is within a pre-established fire line. An overwhelming force of fire fighters are on hand, and these crews stay onsite for days to monitor the site.

A prescribed burn is typically completed using a “backing fire” starting at the top of the site and igniting in small strips and letting the fire slowly burn downhill. The fire moves slowly in an orchestrated fashion until all the ground fuel is consumed. It does not go into the canopy of the trees, but rather burns through the forest understory. Thinning beforehand helps mitigate the risk posed by ladder fuels, but the low intensity nature of the fire also keeps it naturally closer to the ground.

Most fears around prescribed burning center on two main concerns: smoke health risks and escapement. Where there’s fire there’s smoke, and in California we must live with fire, and therefore also smoke. But there are ways we can mitigate the worst kinds of smoke such as those caused by high intensity wildfires, particularly as they burn through our homes.

Regular prescribed burning reduces the amount of smoke over time because it reduces fuel loads, thus shortening the timeframe during which there is poor air quality. We can take precautions for ourselves and our loved ones to protect against the harmful impacts of smoke. And there’s also a good side to it that we can include with our estimation: Indigenous fire practitioners talk about how the smoke in their cultural burns is necessary to cleanse the trees, ridding them of pests and pathogens and improving their overall health.

Now to address the second concern: escapement. An escaped prescribed fire is always possible, but it is rare. When evaluating the risk of prescribed fire, it is essential to evaluate the risk of the alternative: not doing anything. Inaction has led to catastrophic wildfire after catastrophic wildfire, and for ours and other California communities this has resulted in devastating consequences in recent years.

I still can’t tell my story of October 8th without tears. Emergency vehicle sirens still trigger me. I live with the trauma every day. My home, along with the other buildings at Pepperwood destroyed that night, have now been rebuilt. The vegetation has rebounded. The wildlife is flourishing. Nature has evolved with fire here in California, and I see evidence of Nature’s resilience each day. This gives me hope and affirms my belief that we can do the same. It is time we learn from our Indigenous leaders and evolve to utilize and live with fire.

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  1. Judith Fenley says:

    What a phenomenal letter Michael! Soft tear well and grace my cheeks as I read your recounting the experience and reflections of that time. I am struck by your detail and candid sharing the depth of your feeling. Thank you! As I read on I ponder considerations for how I can participate and support Pepperwood’s efforts and my own exposure education in being a more responsible steward.

  2. Janet Anderson says:

    Thank you for your informative and heartfelt newsletter. It is comforting and awsome to learn that Pepperwood stewardship has shifted back toward a model of fire protection and prevention.

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