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Public Safety

Napa's landscapes sometime burn -- with a purpose

Some want to see Napa County's wildlands ablaze more often, not with raging, out-of-control fires, but with targeted, lower-intensity burns that reduce the tinder of built-up vegetation.

But pulling off prescribed burns is tricky. The stars recently aligned for the Land Trust of Napa County when it burned 60 acres on its Missimer Preserve at Snell Valley in remote, northeast Napa County.

Various agencies had granted approvals. The day wasn't too hot or windy. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District gave its day-of-the-burn blessing. No pressing wildfires erupted elsewhere, so Cal Fire could provide 40 firefighters to do the work.

Land Trust officials called it hitting the “wildfire mitigation and habitat restoration jackpot.”

But it was a close thing, as it almost always is with controlled burns.

“We had sustained winds up to 3 mph, with gusts up to 8 mph,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Ben Sitter said in a Land Trust press release. “Anything over 10 mph and we would not have done it.”

When crews lit the fire, Land Trust Stewardship Program Manager Mike Palladini no longer had to sweat things out. Something he had started preparing for last fall became reality.

“It’s very gratifying when all these things come together,” he said.

Precisely how many prescribed burns take place in Napa County is unclear, though those involved with such efforts say not many. An effort is underway to increase the number to help avoid massive wildfires like those that ravaged the landscape in recent years.

Palladini pointed to the benefits of burning the heavy buildup of fine fuels that feed wildfires. Previous controlled burns provided a kind of “safe zone” for firefighting equipment during the 2104 Butts Fire and 2018 Snell Fire.

He sees another benefit for the 240-acre preserve, which has 290 native species. Prescribed burns get rid of the invasive Medusahead and barb goatgrass, leaving room for the native pink star tulip and purple-flowered Jepson’s navarretia.

But often, the work put into preparing for a controlled burn has no immediate payoff. Just ask Peter Lecourt.

Lecourt is manager for Pacific Union College’s forest at Angwin in the mountains east of St. Helena. He worked to have a 20-acre prescribed burn in the forest in early March.

The crews came on the targeted day and everything was set. Then Lecourt learned that the expected temperature at 1 p.m. combined with the humidity would cancel the burn. The size of the crew didn't align with those conditions.

“We’re going to do it next year,” Lecourt said on Friday.

So it goes in the world of prescribed burns. Palladini recalled a Snell ranch burn that took about three years to make a reality.

“These require patience and perseverance,” he said.

Setting up the aborted PUC forest control burn cost about $6,000, Lecourt said. Still, much of that money was spent on planning that will translate to the future prescribed burn, whenever it happens.

Lecourt described the prescribed burn as a return to the past, to a natural regime where the land burned at times. He sees prescribed burns as helping to solve California’s fire problems.

The Land Trust prescribed burns were done by Cal Fire, which sees a public benefit, Palladini said.

Another route is to use a local prescribed burn alliance or PBA. Private landowners and land managers help each other with the work, along with other interested individuals and experts. A “burn boss” oversees the process.

"Being a part of your local PBA is similar in concept to a barn-raising or a calf-branding: neighbors help neighbors implement burns by providing labor, equipment and skills," the California PBA says on its website.

Pacific Union College used a prescribed burn alliance for the canceled forest burn by working with the Good Fire Alliance of Sonoma County.

Napa County doesn’t have a prescribed burn alliance of its own. That might change.

The Napa County Resource Conservation District is working with the Napa County Farm Bureau and Napa County Fire Department to explore the idea. It is using the Good Fire Alliance as a model.

“Fighting fire with fire,” is how Resource Conservation District Executive Director Lucas Patzek described prescribed burns.

Work is in the early stages and involves looking at cost models and liability issues. Funding is needed to buy basic protective gear and provide training for a cadre of community members, he said.

On the same morning, the Missimer Preserve burned, State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, was talking about prescribed burns before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Dodd championed his Senate Bill 332 to increase liability protection for controlled burns that get out of control. He wants to alleviate concerns that those doing the burns could get billed for state fire suppression, absent gross negligence.

Rarely have prescribed burns caused unintended damage, according to Dodd.

California has suffered $148 billion over the last decade in wildfire losses, Dodd told the committee. Experts say the state should be treating a minimum of 500,000 acres with prescribed fires each year and the state accomplishes a fraction of this. Florida treats as much as two million acres, he said.

"Encouraging more prescribed burns than currently occur in the state is the goal of SB 332," Dodd said.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, the fire advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, urged the committee to endorse Dodd's bill, which it did.

"The time has never been more ripe to advance this kind of critical work," she said.

Prescribed burns are far from being a new practice in Napa County.

Napa Valley's Native American tribes burned the landscape before the Spanish arrived. That practice promoted edible native grasses and wildflowers, improved soil fertility, kept the valley open for hunting, and reduced the risk for catastrophic fire, according to the Napa Valley Historical Ecological Atlas.

The Land Trust of Napa County held a prescribed burn at its Missimer Preserve in Snell Valley on June 22.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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