Fire mimicry treatments likely saved homes and oak groves from Sonoma wildfires

15 11 2017
Sonoma fire 3

Compare untreated oaks in the background (right) with oaks in the foreground (left) treated with fire mimicry.

In 2009 I was contacted by a property owner who had just purchased a home and several acres of oak forest near the town of Sonoma, CA. The forest had been neglected for many years and was in poor health. There was also a dense growth of underbrush around the trees and many dead limbs on the oaks. I provided him a fire mimicry treatment plan that involved clearing of the underbrush and pruning the oaks, focusing on removing the ladder fuels near the ground. I also proposed to fertilize the oaks with alkaline-rich soil minerals, removed mosses and lichens from the trunks, and applied limewash.

The owner agreed to this plan and during the next couple years I and several colleagues spent many weeks clearing brush, pruning limbs, burning brush piles, and fertilizing a large grove of more than 50 valley oak, blue oak, and coast live oak trees.

Afterwards, in 2015, another property owner in Glen Ellen, CA contracted with me to care for her oaks with fire mimicry. This grove of about 30 oaks was treated in the same manner as described above.

Both of these properties were impacted by the recent wildfires in Sonoma.  Yesterday I visited these properties and I’m pleased to report that they sustained very little permanent damage. No structures were lost and nearly all of the oak trees appear to have survived. I estimate that the survival rate of trees on both properties is about 98%, although it will be another year or so before we know the exact percentage.

With regards to the first property, the photos here show that the fire burned the adjacent forest severely, with a complete loss of the forest canopy in places. However, once the fires reached the areas treated with fire mimicry, the severity lessened and fire stayed on the ground. None of the trees in the treated areas experience a canopy fire. The boundary between the treated and untreated trees, showing this difference in fire severity, can be seen in the above and below photos.

I should add that while this home did not burn, four nearby homes were completely destroyed.

The second property also had no loss of structures and only minor damage to the oaks (see last photo below). The fire did not spread into the canopies and all of the affected oaks will likely recover.

With regards to the “cause” of these severe wildfires, some focus on the source of the initial spark, such as a downed power line or arson. Others point the finger at climate change affecting the health of the forests.

My take, based on the results shown here and elsewhere in the scientific literature, is that the cause of the severe wildfires is due to the suppression of fires and lack of management of the forests. Historically, oak forests were regularly burned by the California native people to enhance the health of the oak savanna ecosystem. Under a frequent burning regime the fires tended to be ground fires, which rejuvenate the soils but do not damage the tree canopies. Without these traditional management practices, our oak forests have become overgrown and stressed. Now-a-days, when fires do burn, they tend to be destructive canopy fires, rather than rejuvenating ground fires.

The oak forests and homes on these properties were saved in spite of adjacent ignition sources from raging fires. Nor did we change the climate. We simply went in ahead of time and mimicked wildfire in these areas. It is clear to me from this and other studies that proper forest management is fundamental in solving the wildfire problem in California.

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Fence line of property separating burned/untreated oak forests (right) and unburned/treated oak forests (left).

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Upcoming talk – “The cultural modification of trees and forests by California’s Native Peoples”

4 11 2017
CMT madrone

Culturally modified madrone tree in Big Sur, CA

In January 2018 I will be giving a talk “Culturally modified trees and forests by California’s Native People“, co-sponsored by the Sempervirens Fund and REI. Details of the talk are here. The talk is free but you will need to sign up through Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!

 





Black oaks and coast live oaks in Glen Ellen, CA respond to fire mimicry

28 10 2017

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A grove of black oaks and coast live oaks in Glen Ellen, CA treated last year with fire mimicry are showing a nice positive response in canopy health, except for one black oak (see photo below) that has lost it’s leaves early and appears distressed. All of these trees survived the recent fires that burned through the area.

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Positive response of valley oaks in Alamo, CA to fire mimicry

23 10 2017

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In the previous post I showed the improvement of several redwoods to fire mimicry treatments at a property in Alamo, CA. Today I would like to share the results with the valley oaks at the same location. In both years the oaks have already dropped some of their leaves with the onset of fall. However, this year the oaks, in all but one case, are holding onto their leaves longer, despite it being one of the driest summers on record.

While most of the results shown in this blog are for coast live oaks, it is important to recognize that many other native species, including valley oaks, redwoods, pines, and toyons are showing positive responses to fire mimicry.

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Sick redwoods in Alamo, CA respond to fire mimicry

19 10 2017

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Last year I was contacted by a home owner in Alamo, California about his distressed valley oaks and redwood trees. Yesterday I checked on the status of the trees and today am reporting on the results with the redwoods. In a followup post I will report on the results with the valley oaks.

The redwoods were treated last October with fire mimicry methods, and in one year have made notable improvement in canopy health and size. The photos here tell the  story far better than I can . . .

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Oaks in Marin respond to fire mimicry

15 09 2017

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Here are the results of an oak grove in Fairfax, CA that has been treated with fire mimicry a couple of times over the past three years. Most of the oaks have responded nicely.

One tree at a time . . .

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Carmel oaks respond to fire mimicry

13 09 2017

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Three years ago I began treating a grove of mature coast live oaks in Carmel, CA with fire mimicry. Yesterday I checked on their response. As the photos here reveal, most of the oaks show a clear improvement in the leaf density.of their canopies.

I haven’t done a tally on the total number of trees I’ve reported on in the nearly 10 years of hosting this website, but a fair estimate is that it is upwards of 1000 case studies, including oaks, pines, cedars, buckeyes, magnolias, fruit trees, and more. It has been immensely rewarding to witness and report these results, and to demonstrate to all concerned a clear way forward for tending our trees and forests.

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