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Prescribed fire at Dolason Prairie. National Park Service Photo
Prescribed fire at Dolason Prairie.
National Park Service Photo

Lately we have been thinking a lot about fire. It is fire season in California and sadly huge fires in the west are making headlines with their destructive activity. So, we’ve been discussing ways to decrease these devastating forest fires.

When it comes to managing forests and protecting old-growth redwood trees for future generations to admire and enjoy, there is one method of management that doesn’t seem like an obvious choice at first: burning the forest with fire. As many know, this was a common practice by Native Americans for centuries; and when that stopped, large amounts of fuel (shrubs, small trees, leaves, bushes, etc.) grew, leading to large, catastrophic fires. Since the mid-1990s burning of the underbrush has seen resurgence, eliminating the fuel load somewhat so that larger fires won’t happen as frequently. There are also other benefits to this practice, which is technically called “prescribed burning” or “controlled burning”.

Prescribed burning has been gaining popularity among the experts in forest management, and groups such as the National Park Service and US Forest Service are actively using prescribed burning methods and talking about it a lot more. There are numerous guides and workshops to educate landowners on how to properly burn in a managed way and teaching people about the benefits of prescribed burning.

In an old-growth coast redwood forest, those benefits include:

  • Reducing duff material and small dead and fallen material that act as fuel for large, severe fires
  • Providing habitat for native understory plants like Dudley’s Lousewort, redwood sorrel, western sword fern, western trillium, and wild ginger. Dudley’s lousewort especially thrives when the soil is disturbed by fire
  • Allowing older trees to continue to grow larger by reducing smaller, competing trees

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for prescribed burning. Every forest is different and so the intensity of the fire must vary. But, at a time when huge forest fires are devastating our landscapes, plants, animals and human lives, prescribed burning may be one method we can use to decrease those catastrophes.


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About Jessica Neff

Jessica joined the in 2011 as the Land Project and Stewardship Manager. She has worked in land conservation since 2005 in land project and stewardship management.


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