Burn at Audubon Canyon to support coastal prairie and fire resilience

10/09/2019

In a small step toward a more fire-resilient ecosystem, Audubon Canyon Ranch will burn nine and a half acres within the Martin Griffin Preserve as soon as weather conditions are safe. As early as Oct. 20, fire ecologists and their partners will ignite young, dense Douglas firs and overgrown brush along the Bourne Trail Fire Road, which sits between Bolinas and Stinson Beach, in an attempt to thin out the forest and expand coastal prairie habitat. “Most of the brush, you can’t even put your arm through a gap in it—it’s that thick,” Sasha Berlaman, director of the ranch’s fire forward program, said at a presentation at the preserve on Monday. While the forest has grown, the coastal prairie habitat has vanished. Most grasslands in California host non-native species that are replaced by a new crop every year, but native grass bunches in coastal prairies live up to 40 years—storing carbon, providing year-round forage and hosting greater biodiversity. Since Audubon Canyon purchased the property in 1962, fire and grazing have ceased on the preserve, reducing this habitat and increasing potential flame lengths. Although the environmental conservation and education organization has undertaken prescribed burns on other preserves, this is its first in Marin County. The burn, which will take place on a Sunday or a Monday because the preserve hosts students during the rest of the week, will create a fire break along the overgrown fire road so it is easier to fight fires from there. Already, the fire team has treated the forest by cutting branches and small trees in preparation. Up to 133 tons of Douglas fir fuel will burn in an area of less than 10 acres, making the fire relatively small from an operational perspective, said Jordan Reeser, a Marin County Fire captain. “That doesn’t mean it’s not complex with challenges, but this is something that the Marin County Fire Department—who has fire protection responsibilities over this land—is encouraging.” When the humidity, fuel moisture, wind speeds and other forecasted factors are appropriate, Marin County Fire and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District will give Audubon Canyon the go-ahead. Before starting the burn, firefighters will light a small fire to observe its behavior. During the fire, a team of at least 12 firefighters will gauge flame lengths, smoke dispersal and the rate of spread. If at any time observers feel uncomfortable, they will switch into suppression mode. “Where we try to have resources—people there with fire engines and firefighters—we also really try to use weather as a tool to really burn under safe conditions that we have control over,” said Brian Peterson, a fire ecologist for Audubon Canyon Ranch. At the presentation on Monday, fire officials said the burn would not have a huge impact in the grand scheme of fire preparedness—but the conversation is what is important. The state and the county are encouraging private landowners to maintain their land in the same way. “We’re not encouraging people to be pyromaniacs, but we are encouraging people to think about where they can utilize fire on their land,” Mr. Reeser said. “There are some really good applications that, if done at the right time of the year under the right conditions, can be very effective to not only protect the land they live on and manage but also to help with landscape resilience.”