Forest Service manages forests with fire
Flames from a tree trunk in the Mabie Burn Defensible Fuel Profile Zone near Mohawk add to the billows of smoke that fill the air in early November. Photos by Carolyn Shipp
The crew at Beckwourth Ranger District has been busy with fire in Eastern Plumas County. Many residents of the area might have spotted the billows of smoke coming out of Gold Mountain on A15, and some might have noticed it seep its way into Quincy.
The district has been cleaning up the forest with the natural vacuum that is prescribed burns. The most recent of these burns has been the Mabie Underburn project, which started Nov. 4. Though the smoke from the burn can be a nuisance, the result of the burning operation is meant to be beneficial for all.
According to the district’s fire ecologist, Sara Billings, the prescribed burns are necessary for two reasons.
First, they provide a better chance of extinguishing unexpected fires, which could threaten communities and environments. Second, they improve the state of the forest. Because the Forest Service has worked so hard to suppress fire for the past century, it has taken a toll on the forest’s ecosystem.
“We’re trying to get back to a healthier ecosystem. We want the forest to go back to a place where fire is again the natural regime,” said Billings.
According to Beckwourth Fire Prevention Officer Courtney Wood, the Mabie project has been in progress since 2004.
For almost 10 years, the ranger district has been working on a plan to make a strategic fuel break in the forest, which would remove excess trees and ground fuel.
The burns are under heavy regulations, however, and the process to commence a burn is a tedious one.
The district must start by writing a burn plan in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. When the plan is approved machines and district fire fighters begin thinning the forest.
Billings said the Mabie project had excessive overgrowth, and their burn plan allowed for a 10 percent removal of all trees.
After the hand thinning was complete, the first stage of burning began. Employees gathered piles of logs and forest debris, accumulated through the thinning process, and burned them.
This usually occurs during the winter, as the flames can get fairly high and the cold weather and snow hinder the flames from traveling.
After the piles are burned the Forest Service must wait for the window between fall and winter in order to burn any undergrowth.
Wood said the district is held under strict weather and environmental regulations and can only burn if conditions fit the criteria according to the Environmental Protection Agency and Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District.
Which is why, Wood said, a fire ecologist is necessary on these projects. It is Billings’ job to examine the weather patterns of a particular burn area and determine if it would be suitable to burn that year.
The Mabie burn was divided up into different units in order to maintain control over the fire. The more complicated the landscape, the smaller the unit.
Wood said there were usually 30 people staffed in a unit during the day, and the area is not staffed overnight.
“We only start lighting what we know we can control,” she said. “The temperature and humidity level have to be in the right place in order for us to know it is safe to leave the burn.”
After the firefighters and staffers call it quits for the day, they leave the smoky atmosphere with red eyes and heavy lungs and return the next morning to recheck the previous burn sites, and make sure the flames are all out.
“Every day we walk every inch of the burn. We treat it like a real fire,” Wood said.
The igniting process is a slow one, said Wood. One person starts from the top of the mountain and works his or her way down, walking back and forth with the torch. The flames stay very low, and should not exceed 4 feet.
In steep areas such as ravines, the process is even slower because the safety of the workers is at hand.
Wood said trees might get singed in the process, but their protective bark prevents any permanent damage.
The ecosystem and environment plays a big part in the orchestration of the burn. Along with a fire ecologist, there is also a hydrologist and an archeologist on site.
The firefighters must avoid certain plants, such as bitterroot, as it is food for deer. If there is an endangered species habitat in the fire area, the Forest Service is faced with strong restrictions in that section.
According to Billings, animals generally flee the area, and it is rare for any to get caught in the flames. She said because the fire provides room for new growth, animals often return shortly after to enjoy the fresh forage.
It is also the district’s job to monitor the smoke in the surrounding areas. A patrol truck is stationed in the towns and the fire ecologist receives reports on the status of the smoke in the community.
If the air quality district contacts the district about excessive smoke, staffers must shut down the project temporarily until conditions change.
That is why, Billings said, having about an 8 mph wind to lift the smoke away is ideal for prescribed burning, though risky because it could make the flames travel unexpectedly.
The district will continue to burn for as long as conditions allow. Billings said there are many other projects in the area that they look forward to starting, and they appreciate the community’s cooperation and support through the smoky days.