The Union Democrat
On the line
Forest Service ignites prescribed burn on top of Mount Provo
Agroup of firefighters, burn bosses, trainees, and support staff gathered before 8:30 a.m. Tuesday where Mount Provo Road meets Forest Road 2N09 to brief on their plan to proceed with drip torch ignitions and carefully set the top of Mount Provo on fire, a prescribed burn operation intended to reduce fuels and prevent a massive megablaze like the 2013 Rim Fire.
Fire personnel totaled 47 altogether, 31 with the U.S. Forest Service and 16 with Cal Fire, and no inmate crews.
“We looked over the whole unit and it’s a mix of brush, oak, and mixed conifer,” Forest Service burn boss trainee Dan Guse told the firefighters. “With Jake’s firing plan, there shouldn’t be anyone above you when you go out with your drip torches. Hydrate. It doesn’t feel hot but it will be 68 degrees.”
Guse was working with Jake Trevino, fuels technician for the Summit Ranger District, burn boss Shawn Craig, Carol Ewell, a fire management planner with the Stanislaus National Forest, and the Stanislaus Hotshots, among others.
They drove in vehicles up another section of 2N09 to a spot where water tank trucks, a portable water tank, and other fire vehicles were parked, and walked a quarter-mile or so up a dirt trail to the 4,845-foot summit of Mount Provo. A pair of firefighters lit their torches and began setting fire to pine needles and leaves covering the broad, flat mountain top, setting a test fire to see how it burned. By then it was 9:30 a.m.
“The test fire, we see how the fuels are and how they’re burning,” Ewell said. “Fuel consumption and smoke, how much smoke are we getting and which way is it going?”
Firefighters, foresters, forest managers, and scientists have known for decades that prescribed fire and other fuels reduction treatments benefit the drought-and-bugkill-impacted mountain forest of the Central Sierra, throughout the Golden State, and across the western states.
Each year, the Stanislaus National Forest and managers of other federal forests set hoped-for targets to burn
more acres of fuels, and many times they fall short of those targets. Part of the problem is a consistent, year-afteryear, lack of understanding from people who stand to benefit the most from prescribed burning and other fuel reduction strategies.
By 10:20 a.m., the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office was getting phone calls from people reporting the prescribed fire as a real blaze.
“The S.O. is getting a lot of calls. I should probably get out by the highway,” Ewell said, before adding, “I live in Twain Harte. I’m glad to see more burning, to make the town safe. All this work we put in preparing for this burn, prepping for the risk of being so close to town, it’s very much worth the effort.”
Public education about the benefits of prescribed burning is a challenge for the Forest Service, though there are other factors also holding the agency back meeting its targets.
“Several things have been preventing us from burning as much as we want,” Ewell said. “Funding. Staffing. The availability of Cal Fire. The weather. Those storms in October, it was too wet to burn for a while. COVID, too.”
“The workforce is the real story,” said Rich Pasquale, a fuels management officer with the Stanislaus National Forest. “You need the people to do the work.”
The Forest Service and Cal Fire had been waiting several weeks to get out working on the Mount Provo prescribed burn operations. Weather forecasts for Tuesday were favorable for burn bosses and firefighters to go ahead and proceed with their plans.
A plan for the Mount Provo burn called for controlled burning to occur over one to two days with ignitions beginning in the last week of November.
Burning is supposed to be contingent on weather, fuel moisture, and air quality. It’s all monitored and conducted in accordance with state and county air quality guidelines, and closely coordinated with county air quality control districts.
The plan for Mount Provo is to burn a total of 58 acres, treated with low-intensity fire, with ignitions on 25 to 58 acres a day. The size of the burn may vary with weather and fuel moisture conditions, as well as permissible air quality burn days.
Pasquale said prescribed burning and other fuel reduction strategies are natural elements of Central Sierra ecology, environment, and history, and they are as vital to forest health as rain itself.
“This process is natural like rain,” Pasquale said. “What happens if you remove the rain?”
Lightning-strike fires and humans lighting and managing fires to reduce fuels are practices as old as the indigenous peoples who lived in the Central Sierra for thousands of years before Europeans arrived and the 1850s Gold Rush.
“One of the biggest challenges is the people who stand to benefit the most from these natural processes, they don’t have a complete understanding of how they work,” Pasquale said. “And how long these processes have been part of the natural progression. If we can at least get our western public to understand this part of our ecology, our environment, it would be easier for us to communicate the need for it.”
Fire scientists called the Mount Provo burn a prescribed broadcast underburn of low intensity. Its objectives include reducing the buildup of flammable forest fuels, surface fuels, and ladder fuels; reducing the threat of uncontrolled, large and damaging fires; improving protection of life and property in the community of Ponderosa Hills; enhancing and protecting wildlife habitat and improving deer browse; and protecting the North Fork Tuolumne River watershed, campgrounds, and forest and private infrastructure.
The Forest service wants people to know the Sierra Nevada is a fire dependent ecosystem, where fire is part of the natural forest process.
In spite of the challenges foresters and burn bosses face in and near the Stanislaus National Forest, they exceeded their prescribed fire target set for October 2020 through September 2021.
Beck Johnson, fire chief for the Stanislaus National Forest, said Tuesday the forest’s prescribed fire target for that year was 4,100 acres, and the total treated was 7,673 acres. Most of that was prescribed pile burning, Johnson said.
Ewell and others in forest management say it’s time to embrace more prescribed burning and increase annual targets for it and other fuels reduction strategies by 10-fold.