Modern Fire Management and Ancient Land Stewardship Traditions

San Vicente Redwoods prescribed burn. Photo courtesy of Sempervirens Fund
San Vicente Redwoods prescribed burn. Photo courtesy of Sempervirens Fund
After witnessing the many wildfires that occurred over the past summer, it’s hard not to think of them as extremely destructive. However, fires are misunderstood; they play an integral role in the unique ecosystems that California has to offer.

Oak woodlands are historically linked with fire. They are made up of grassland, shrubland, and woodland patches, which rely on regular disturbances to help cycle nutrients throughout the system and develop the overall stand structure.

When regular, low-intensity fires move through oak woodlands, they burn up much of the brush, fallen twigs, etc. that collectively serve as fuels. After the fuels burn, decomposition speeds up, and the soil is left highly nutrient rich. This recycled soil helps support new life including the germination of seeds. Also, with the clearing of brush, smaller plants on the forest floor gain access to sunlight that they did not have before.

In early October, the League, along with Peninsula Open Space Trust (external link) and Sempervirens Fund (external link), performed a prescribed burn on the San Vicente Redwoods property in the Santa Cruz mountains. This burn was part of the management plan and was performed in the understory of the oak woodland forest in order to remove the massive buildup of fuels. Going forward, this will help prevent large, destructive wildfires and promote new growth of native hardwoods such as oak and madrone.

Prescribed burns help lower the risk of catastrophic fires.
Prescribed burns help lower the risk of catastrophic fires.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection performed the 10-acre burn and was ready to intercede if the flames got out of control. Thanks to their expertise and some cooperative weather, the prescribed fire was successful and went according to plan. Also participating in the burn was the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (external link) which is a tribal organization of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, native to the San Juan Valley and the Pajaro River Basin. They performed a ceremonial lighting of the fire as an effort to revitalize some of their traditional stewardship practices.

Tree ring data shows regular fires moved through these forests. These fire cycles are attributed to Native American stewards who burned the land to help control the buildup of fuels. In a continuing attempt to revive Amah Mutsun stewardship practices, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust is also conducting research on how controlled burns affect important natural resources such as hazel and acorns.

Learn more about the Native American use of fires and how fire can help us manage and protect the forest.

Avatar for Sonia Morris

About the author

Sonia spent her summers in college interning for the League before joining in 2016. She currently serves as a Conservation Analyst and brings with her an extensive knowledge of the fish and invertebrates of the Bay Area.

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One Response to “Modern Fire Management and Ancient Land Stewardship Traditions”

  1. John Oda

    Thank you for all your efforts in preserving Our Environment. We are and will move away from the Cowboy Culture of Greed and Exploitation to the Spaceship Culture of Good Stewardship and Preserving the Commonwealth. Again Thank you for all you have done, are doing and will do.


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