Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Fighting Fire with Fire

Is the Solution for High Bidwell Park Fire Danger Some Very Traditional Fire Management?

By Kim Weir

Here’s a scenario Bidwell Park lovers typically wouldn’t want to imagine: It’s a crackling fall day, dry as toast. After no rain for many moons there’s finally a brisk nip to the air. Change is coming.

A north wind kicks up, gusting down dusty paths. Wildfire suddenly explodes across Lower Bidwell Park—one spark fanned into a firestorm that ignites dry grass, roars through thickets of shrubs and young trees and then wicks up wild grape vines to torch the tops of majestic old oaks and sycamores. Red-hot ashes rain down on the wood roofs of million-dollar houses that flank the park, setting entire neighborhoods ablaze.

It’s almost unimaginable, an instant inferno in the verdant heart of Chico. Yet a major urban wildfire is quite possible here, given the right conditions—and given the park’s heavy “fuel load,” in firefighter lingo. Imagining this disaster is at least a step toward preventing it.

Pyrogeographer, associate professor at CSU Chico, and field director at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER), Don Hankins is as well versed in fire safety practices as in the ecological uses of fire. So far he has used controlled burns only in upper reaches of the watershed, but he is comfortable with using fire in lower parts too.

“It’s one of the most inexpensive tools we have to manage vegetation,” he says. “But there has to be a willing, well-informed public to support it. And sometimes public education takes a while.”

The native Concow people who inhabited this area regularly used fire for particular purposes,according to Hankins, clearing paths to favorite waterholes, establishing basketry plants and encouraging bunch grasses and abundant acorn crops.

But native people using fire to manage plant and animal habitat didn’t have to contend with air quality concerns and no-burn days, which complicate controlled burns these days.

California native plant communities are adapted to fire, Hankins points out, certainly oak-woodland areas such as Bidwell Park. Some species require fire before dormant seeds will germinate and sprout. Because of native plant adaptations, fire helps them compete against otherwise dominant interlopers.

One example of this: the perennial bunch grasses once common here; introduced annual grasses have all but choked them out here and throughout the valley.

Almost as dramatic is the case of valley oaks, which in Lower Bidwell Park aren’t successfully reproducing. Acorns sprout and become seedlings, but these don’t survive to become the adolescent and middle-aged trees needed to replace the park’s aging mature oaks. Regular burning would thin out seedlings and young trees—including competitors such as the park’s non-native black walnuts—leaving adequate room for developing oaks plus plenty of fertilizing ash.

Fire even diminishes the effect of oak gall wasps, which produce airy, apple-shaped galls that sap essential energy from young trees, Hankins says. For reasons no one yet understands, regular burning also practically eliminates mistletoe as a tree parasite.

Using fire for habitat management is as much art as science, according to Jeff Mott, director of the BCCER.

“It’s taken us a long time to figure out how to use fire—when to use it, and where—and to make it work,” he says. But the preserve is now having notable success, such as expanding native bunch grass habitat and producing “phenomenal” acorn crops, which the wildlife appreciate.

Frequency of fire is crucial, according to Mott and Hankins. Burns need to be frequentto eliminate annual grasses, for example. Timing is also critical. Fall burns—right after the first rain, when vegetation is dry but humidity is high—are ideal for most purposes.

But lighting intentional fires in Lower Park as an ongoing practice? Hankins suspects people will be resistant.

“At what point would they get fed up with doing this continuously?” he asks. “Public education—that is the key. The community would need to support this.”

According to Dan Efseaff, new parks and natural resources manager for the city of Chico, there has been very positive feedback for prescribed park burns. During his tenure about 150 acres total have been burned so far, but only in Upper Park and Middle Park.

Volunteer work to remove non-native vegetation in Lower Park has reduced fire danger, he says. Yet the potential for controlled burns is limited because that stretch of parkland runs perpendicular to prevailing winds, which can limit the “fetch” or unhampered movement of fire. Using fire to help establish shaded firebreaks throughout Lower Park is nonetheless a goal.

“I’m hoping in the next few years to start using prescribed fire in Lower Park,” Efseaff says, starting in the old walnut orchard along Vallombrosa.

Yet controlled burns in Lower Park can’t be the entire answer, even if public opinion comes to support them, according to Jim Bishop. A former fire behavior analyst for Cal Fire, Bishops points to far different fuels, ignition frequency, and ecosystem features than in earlier times.

“It is too simplistic to think that introducing a program of late-season, low-intensity fire will somehow restore the ecosystem to its natural state and reduce the overall ‘fire danger,’ he says. “It will take a combination of managed fire, purposeful plant introductions, protection for vulnerable plants, and some experimentation to find the optimal approach.”

Susan Mason is on the invasive-plant front lines in Bidwell Park, coordinating Friends of Bidwell Park volunteers who regularly remove unwanted vegetation. She estimates it took at least 2,000 hours to remove the non-native blackberries for the Sycamore Restoration Project, a very small patch of ground where aggressive non-native berry vines were stifling young sycamore trees.

“One problem is, the city of Chico is short of money and so short-handed they can’t even haul away vegetation for me. They barely have time for the mow-blow and cleaning bathrooms, the things most people care most about.”

The first thing that needs to happen, she says, is raising awareness—while also raising money to properly care for the park.

“People concerned about fire danger should get involved. We need an endowment fund, which could simply be a fund set up with the North Valley Community Foundation, so people who want to give money to support Bidwell Park can easily make a contribution.

“Get involved,” Mason says. “Do some fundraising for the park, talk to your friends. And if you live near the park and have a wood roof—I’d call a roofer right now and replace it.”

This article is the first in an occasional series of articles about fire in the California landscape, a collaboration between the Chico News & Review and Up the Road.


All photos by Karen Laslo. From top to bottom:

Photos 1 & 2: The tangle of native grape vines and other vegetation in Bidwell Park—just as appealing now as during the filming of the original Robin Hood—would be “ladder fuel” directing fire into the tops of the park’s trees in the event of an urban wildfire. According to some experts controlled burns could lower wildfire danger, and also diminish the damage done to younger trees by oak galls.

Photo 3: Don Hankins studies the traditional use of fire by native peoples to manage natural habitats, here in the U.S. and in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Photos 4 & 5: According to pyrogeographer Don Hankins, carefully executed controlled burns in Lower Bidwell Park would help thin out thickets of young trees that prevent seedling valley oaks from developing into the adolescent and middle-aged trees needed to replace the park’s aging giants

Photos 6 & 7: Fallen limbs near the trunks of mature trees pose a major fire danger, but branch piles in open areas aren’t really a problem. They can be left to decompose naturally — in the meantime providing habitat for native birds, bees, and other critters.

Photo 8: Susan Mason and Friends of Bidwell Park regularly remove unwanted and overgrown park vegetation. Given the current fuel load, for safety’s sake Mason suggests that folks living near Lower Park replace wood roofs with something less flammable.

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