MENDOCINO Co., 11/10/21 — Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to conduct prescribed burns on a million acres of the state’s land every year. That would be 500,000 acres apiece for the state and federal agency. So far, neither the state nor the Forest Service are having an easy time meeting that goal, but things look like they’re moving in a more positive direction for the latter in at least one forest.
Last month, the U.S. Forest Service released a draft environmental assessment on its strategy for conducting prescribed fires across various landscapes, excluding designated wilderness areas, on 688,700 acres of the Mendocino National Forest. “We will have different goals depending on where we’re implementing it in the forest,” Angela Chongpinitchai, the forest’s fire planner and fuels specialist who wrote the assessment, said in a September interview. “And so it could be from something like cleaning up the fuels that are left from these catastrophic wildfires or it could be going in for the first time and introducing fire to a green area that has not had fire, but needs fire.”
The Forest Service has already been doing prescribed fires, but nowhere near the scale it needs to be doing them to have a real impact on fire behavior, she said. Taking a landscape-wide approach allows the agency to reduce the time and money spent planning multiple small projects while also increasing the staff’s flexibility to treat areas at times and using methods that are most appropriate for that particular location.
“Past Mendocino National Forest land management practices have not restored key ecological processes at scales large enough to influence wildland behavior and outcomes,” the assessment states. “This document will provide an avenue by which Mendocino National Forest can address the one side of the wildland fire triangle that humans can influence – fire. The other two sides of the triangle are controlled by things humans cannot readily influence – weather and topography.”
Prescribed fires are usually low-intensity fires that are set intentionally for a variety of beneficial reasons. “It increases resiliency to pathogens and pests, it increases the biodiversity of both plants and wildlife, it creates more desirable wildlife habitat in those mosaic patches, and it maximizes carbon sequestration in the trees,” Chongpinitchai said. One of the most obvious benefits is the reduction of hazardous fuel buildup that have been leading to catastrophic wildfires that encroach upon nearby communities, she said.
“When we do prescribed fire, we’re able to control when, and how and where we put the fire on the ground,” Chongpinitchai said. “That allows us to have a set of conditions that are much more conducive to getting the results that we want to see on the landscape.”
The recent August Complex fires left behind a mosaic of different post-fire conditions and each area will need to have a treatment tailored to it based on factors like whether the area is a grassland or a riparian reserve and how long ago it was exposed to fire. The agency may also do thinning with chainsaws and other tools beforehand if the vegetation is too dense for the staff to be able to safely conduct a prescribed fire. The resulting slash would be piled and burned on site or scattered and left in place to assist with the spread of understory fire.
An alternative plan the agency is considering includes using mechanical treatments, which can range from using small tools like chainsaws and rakes to large machines like bulldozers and wood chippers, to reduce fuel loads. “In some places and under some conditions it may be too difficult to safely use prescribed burning and inefficient to hand-thin dense stands of small trees,” the assessment states. “This is where the mechanical treatment of hazardous fuels can be a valuable tool.” That method would only be used to mulch or remove trees less than 14 inches in diameter and understory shrubs.
For more details, you can read the draft assessment here and submit a comment until Nov. 22. You can email comments about the assessment to [email protected] with the subject line “MNF RX Fire” or mail your comments to: Mendocino National Forest, Attn: Angela Chongpinitchai, 825 N. Humboldt Ave., Willows, CA 95988. You can also fax your comments to (530) 934-7384.