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Bringing the “Good Fire”

January 20, 2024

A Successful Prescribed Burn at Mount Madonna Center

Written by Allie Wells with technical support from Soma Goresky

Photographs by Sadanand Ward Mailliard and Soma Goresky

On December 16, 2023, Mount Madonna Center successfully conducted a prescribed burn of 15 acres of forest land, led by a dedicated team of 40 trained staff and volunteers. The burn had been meticulously coordinated over one and a half years with Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA) and foresters, aimed to reintroduce “good fire” to the land through the practice of “Cultural Burning” inspired by Indigenous Peoples. This historic method used for centuries managed the environment for the collective benefit to the land itself and all who live upon it.

To ensure the controlled burn remained safe and effective, CCPBA’s experienced “burn bosses” and “holding bosses,” firefighters specifically trained and certified to safely facilitate prescribed burn events, managed the burn. Rigorous briefings, test burns, and ongoing monitoring post-burn were integral parts of the safety protocol. While the main priority during a prescribed burn is to maintain the boundaries of the fire and prevent unintended spread, the larger aim seeks to strike a balance between promoting a sustainable ecological environment and minimizing the impact on existing flora and fauna.

In addition to preventing future catastrophic fires, a prescribed burn holds vital ecological advantages through fostering native vegetation growth and aiding the adaptation of animals to rapid habitat change. Forest dwellers like reptiles and amphibians respond to evolutionary cues and, when the slow fire comes, they bury deep within the land to avoid heat. Keeping burn areas small and the fire slow and controlled allows ample time for larger animals to relocate. By strategically burning the forest understory, prescribed burns reduce the “fuel ladder,” the region of vegetation that allows fire to climb into the higher tree canopy, which mitigates the impact of potential wildfires and safeguards mature trees, nearby buildings, and the surrounding forests and communities.

Today, the landscape looks charred; however, over time new growth will appear, and the natural process of regeneration will unfold. We at Mount Madonna Center look forward to experiencing and monitoring this transformation, and give thanks for the expertise and energy of the many fire professionals and volunteers who made this effort possible!

A Q&A About the Prescribed Burn Practice

  • Why does Mount Madonna choose to engage in prescribed burns? For hundreds of years the Indigenous Peoples of this area used this practice, now being referred to as “Cultural Burning.” It was a practice that managed the environment for the benefit of people, animals, herbs, grass, and forest. It brought the community together around creating and maintaining a sustainable environment on their land. Inviting “good fire” was a key way that Indigenous Peoples managed the land that sheltered and fed them across this continent. Cultural burns were a community event and it is in this spirit that we are inviting “good fire” back to our land and community.
  • What are the goals of prescribed burns? Do they help the forest? Prescribed Burns help prevent future catastrophic fires, as well as benefit native herbs, grasses, trees and animals that acclimated to this practice for hundreds of years. Early European settlers were. “strangers to the ecosystem and fire’s role within it” and suppressed the practice in the mid 1800’s
  • What are the measures of success? Well for sure, a well controlled and safe fire is the first measure. The prescribed burn completed in December 2023 felt safe and well controlled throughout the whole process. We are excited to monitor the forest and hopefully verify others’ accounts that fresh, new vegetation and encouragement of native plants occurs after prescribed burns. The fresh vegetation has been shown to yield a better and wider variety of food sources for all the surrounding critters. Healthy new growth is also less susceptible to disease. Additionally, decreasing the “fuel ladder” by burning the understory of the forest helps to reduce the impact of wildfires, giving greater protection to both the mature trees as well as buildings and our development adjacent to the forest.
  • How do we mitigate the danger of a controlled burn getting out of hand? CCPBA (Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association) has “Burn Bosses” and “Holding Bosses” and trained personnel, with many with decades of experience in prescribed burns. Calfire differs from this as they have decades of experience in putting out wildfires. We’ve come to learn that these two types of fire are completely different events. Our Prescribed Burn plan was almost two years in the planning. Burn plans describe the conditions in which burns can occur (temperature, humidity, wind, field moisture etc.), the personnel and equipment needed for each prescription/condition in the plan, detail the fuel types in the burn area and outline contingency resources needed should unexpected conditions occur. Briefings are held with all personnel on the day of the burn and a test burn in one area of the site is conducted while all personnel and equipment are present. Test burns are done to confirm the nature of fire, given the present field conditions. Once a successful test burn is completed, personnel and equipment are sent out to their designated areas and the burn is begun. The entire burn area is monitored after the burn for as many days as required to confirm that fire no longer has potential to spread outside the burn area.
  • What about the flora and fauna that are inevitably destroyed in a burn? See above. Additionally, burn areas are typically kept small. Large animals that can move have plenty of time to leave the area. Some smaller animals, reptiles etc have the evolutionary memory to burrow deep enough to be safe from the heat. Burn areas are kept to smaller plots of land so that animals in the adjacent areas will survive and ultimately benefit from the fresh growth that occurs after a burn.

Resources and further reading

The Author

  • Allie Wells

    Allie is a writer, artist, and former resident of Mount Madonna Center. She lives in San Francisco and spends her time reading, walking in Fort Mason, and drinking lots of coffee.

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