Observer at November 2006 Big Basin State Park Prescribed Controlled Burn, plus long-term strategy from George Gray.
Report by J. Zimmerman,
with assistance of
David Auerbach and
We are very grateful to Tim Hyland for not only being willing to let us observe, but for mentoring us during our visit.
Redwood prescribed burn (2006 Big Basin S.P.):
Forest fire costs.
Robert J. Whelan's The Ecology of Fire.
Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change
by George E. Gruell.
Forest and Tree Home.
Alphabetic List of Articles.
the current hottest books on trees and forests.
The Berry Creek Falls Loop Trail.
Monthly reports on Berry Creek Falls Loop Trail:
Report of what we saw
- Reduce forest fuel in order to prevent a catastrophic fire in Big Basin, particularly
around the Park Head Quarters,
and to lessen the chance that a fire in Big Basin would endanger properties outside the Park's perimeter.
- Return fire to the Redwoods at an interval to match what occurred naturally (or accidentally) before absolute fire suppression in the parks.
The target Mean fire Return Interval (MRI) is said to be approximately 40 years.
- Follow the burn program designed two decades ago by then-ecologist George Gray,
burn a different sector each fall after the first rain of the season.
Each burn in a California State Park has a prescription, which should:
- Have a predeclared 'prescription,' as in this information relayed by
David Auerbach from the burn team:
RH (relative humidity) 25-80%
Wind speed 0-10 mph
10-hour fuel moisture 8-14%
Duff and litter moisture 2" rain
[2" (or more) rain needed to open the burn window.]
- Meet requirements of CDF for safety and the regional air quality board for air quality.
George Gray, the ecologist who initially designed the
long-term burn plan for Big Basin State Park, tells us:
Unit burn plans follow a general outline that is common for many plans.
First you decide what you want to accomplish (the objectives), then
you list all the natural and cultural resources found in the park,
study the fire history and fire frequency, then describe all the
things needed to burn.
A burn plot has roads, trails, and creeks as boundaries, and sometimes we rake
firelines straight down hills where the roads and trails are difficult to hold.
Frequency of burns is determined by studying fire scars on trees, and
an analysis of lightning-caused fires.
Fire plot sizes are determined by roads, creeks, and trail location,
and we usually burn the plots that are highest, driest, and downwind first.
The burn team was led by the burn boss.
Chris Spohrer was burn boss on the first burn day (November 8th, 2006).
Tim Hyland was burn boss on the third burn day (November 10th, 2006), when
David Auerbach returned.
- The pre-burn briefing (mostly by the burn boss) of the team included:
- Introductions of the team members.
- Burn-day approvals.
- Summary of burn area, including the digging by hand of a 'hand line.'
Under the conditions, only a ground fire was expected,
and not one that would carry.
The fire would certainly not become a mid-level fire or a crown fire that might jump the
- All public access to the area is closed for the duration.
- Weather: expectation of 70-75% humidity and light humid wind with possible
16-20 mph gusts from west-north-west.
- Burn predictions: "I would not expect any carry today" and
"don't expect smaller fuels to burn".
- Next few days will have the same weather till a rainmaker on the weekend will put out the burn.
- Hazards: Slippery steep slopes; things can roll; you'll be carrying heavy objects
including your drip torch (the ignition tool use most)
and other hand tools.
The greatest hazard is trees falling down and burning.
No poison oak in the burn area; few yellow jackets.
- Radio communications set up.
- Safety: Roads and downhill are the safe places to be.
Think about what a fire would do.
- Grove signs: do not burn them; scrape duff away from them with your feet, hands, or a McCloud.
- Planning for the overnight watch and patrol, to make sure the public stayed out of the area
and that the fire did not pick up. Four people volunteered.
- Food and water: drink lots of water and "Never get separated from your food."
- "We're in a good position to meet our objective here,
which is to remove the heavy fuels."
These were the approximate boundaries (as estimated by
David Auerbach from the provided map):
- Gazos Creek Rd (from intersection with Middle Ridge to point roughly one mile NW at 1000 ft elevation - hairpin right)
- Hand line cut due west from Gazos Creek to Sunset Trail.
- Sunset Trail, crossing over and running along West Waddell Creek
- Sunset Trail (or West Waddell Creek) to intersection with Timms Creek Trail
- Timms Creek Trail (or West Waddell Creek) to intersection with Skyline to the Sea Trail.
- Skyline to the Sea Trail (or Kelly Creek) to due west of local high point (1420) on Middle Ridge Rd.
- Hand line cut due east from Skyline to the Sea, crossing Skyline to the Sea, to Middle Ridge Rd (1420')
- Middle Ridge Road North to Gazos Creek Road.
- On November 8th, 2006, the burn boss divided the team into two divisions:
- Division A would work along the fire road and the Sunset Trail,
and 50 yards or so into the woods.
- Division B would work along the hand line
and 50 yards or so into the woods.
- We all headed for the Division break at highest point of the target area,
where we would begin.
"This is the crux of the burn. We want to get this safe today ... We'll burn
the fuel against our lines. Once we feel more safe with this, we can burn more aggressively in here."
- The burn boss monitored the two Divisions and the fires all day by:
- Continually monitoring weather conditions. Division leaders did this also.
- Checking face-to-face and by radio with crew members and accounting for all crew members.
- Monitoring for trouble areas in burn unit and at the firebreaks (fire road, trail, and hand line).
- Monitoring borders of the burn unit, and snags, stumps, and burning brush till extinguished.
- Initially I hung out with Division B initially, where a half dozen newbies were being taught
the basics of prescribed burning in the redwood forest:
- Ten yards in from the fire road we made a test burn of duff in a small area to check fire behavior
and smoke drift.
We picked redwood needles because they are pretty flammable and usually dry out quickly.
Due to the over-night showers, the needles went out soon.
This meant that a ground fire would not succeed.
- Ten yards away, we lit a pile of cut branches,
and pulled branches from the ground, piling up a substantial bonfire.
We found pieces up to 12 feet long.
- Nearby was a 9-inch diameter downed redwood branch on a slope.
We piled duff and twigs at the lower end and lit them, giving a
heat reservoir that would start a slow all-day burn up the branch.
- About 70 yards down the slope from the fire road,
each person was to pick a spot, use dry needles to build a fire stack,
and add more fuel as the fire can bear it.
Under a log is often an especially good dry spot.
These fires have varying success, but after a while some of the more successful ones spread out,
especially up the hill toward the fire road.
- Then I hung out with Division A along the hand line.
- Every ten yards was another bonfire, on which nearby branches had been piled.
- I volunteered to tend one of these piles, adding branches.
I was surprised how large were some of the fallen redwood branches not only
on the surface but also hidden in the duff.
Each wind gust makes the bonfires flare up.
- From here we can see the success of Division B on their slope where their fires are burning, even if sedately.
- Suddenly, about 40 yards into the wood, is a huge flare.
It comes from a micro-grove of three redwoods with a deep duff pit among them.
The team had lit the duff and let it smolder.
A wind gust kicked up the fire.
I go to tend it, though one might as well think of tossing tooth picks into a steel mill's Bessemer converter.
After I have slowly worked my way more than sufficiently close,
the line boss calls me back up to the hand line.
- Mid-afternoon I returned to Division B who had now reached Sunset trail:
- These were the biggest fires that I saw.
Mostly they were set in the goose-pen regions that had been opened by previous fires in the
bases of redwood trees.
Duff that had drifted into those areas was burned.
On November 10th, 2006, David Auerbach reports,
the burn boss divided the team into three divisions.
"They did spot burning today ... not building piles ... but burning
jackpots and cat faces. [The burn boss indicated]
that the burn window was shutting. That they will not come back this
year to Big Basin if the rain comes tonight" reported David Auerbach.
Gear for the firefighter team included a lot of hand tools, such as
These were the main things they wore:
- Fire-retardant clothes.
- Hard-hats with fire-retardant cloth that can be let down as a smoke screen.
- A fire shelter in case they could not outrun a fire.
- Day pack that included food, water, first-aid gear.
The next day, after two hair washings and showers I have almost de-smoked
my hair, but my to-be-washed clothes and day pack smell rather, um, hellish.
- cat face (n.)
- A scar at the base of a tree. Caused by a previous fire, and more likely to burn in a subsequent fire.
- CDF (n.)
- California Department of Forestry.
- drip torch (n.)
- The ignition tool used most.
Heavy-duty sealed cylindrical can with a curved output that is lit during work.
From this, fuel (usually a mix of gasoline for fast
burning plus diesel for a subsequent steadier burn) can be dripped
as an accelerant
on to what is to be burned, and at the same time set on fire.
- hand line (n.)
- Perimeter line to a planned burn area; cleared or dug by hand to remove combustible material for two
or more feet; intended to be sufficient to stop the path of a ground surface fire.
- jack pot (n.)
- A localized large fuel burden.
- McCloud (n.)
- A heavy rake on a medium-sized pole;
the rear of the rake is a flat-bladed chopping tool.
More books for you
Biswell, Harold: Prescribed Burning In California Wildlands Vegetation Management, University of California Press (1989).
Carle, David: Burning Questions: America's Fight with Nature's Fire, Praeger Trade (2002).
- Gruell, George E.
Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849.
- Whelan, Robert J.
The Ecology of Fire.
The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California
, by James C. Hickman (Editor), Willis Linn Jepson.
First published 1925, Willis Linn Jepson's Manual of the Flowering Plants of California
is a standard reference for teachers, students, and naturalists.
This new volume includes a wealth of material accumulated over almost a century.
Two hundred botanists across North America contributed to this comprehensive resource and authoritative identification guide.
Recommended for those with (or pursuing) formal education in botany and plant ID identification.
A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter
by Colin Tudge.
Forest and Tree Home,