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

15 11 2017
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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 experienced 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).

Read the rest of this entry »

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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!

 





Forest restoration after the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, CA

5 03 2017
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Forest devastation following the Valley Fire in Lake County. Photo taken in October 2015.

In 2015 a devastating wildfire consumed large areas of Lake County, California. Prior to the fires I had been working with some properties affected by the fires and soon afterwards I visited these areas, volunteering my time, to help guide the land managers on how best to manage their lands after the fires. Yesterday I heard back from one of my friends asking about specifics in restoring their forests. My response seems appropriate for a wider audience, so I am posting it here as general informati0n for those who have been affected by wildfires, as well as those who have not . . . Read the rest of this entry »





News headline: “California Sudden Oak Death Reaches Catastrophic Levels”

29 10 2016

Yesterday I read a news report with the headline “California Sudden Oak Death reaches catastrophic levels“.

Yesterday I also read a news report “Standing Rock: militarized police from 5 states escalate violence . . .

Now it may seem obscure to most, but these two issues are intimately related. Let me explain how.

The first report states that California is experiencing a crisis in tree mortality with over 66 million dead trees, all attributed to a single disease (Sudden Oak Death) and a single insect pest (Pine Bark Beetle). The report features statements from two experts, a pathologist and an entomologist. Neither scientist mentions a single word about possible solutions.

And to make matters worse, regardless of which way the weather trends, they say that the death of the trees will be exacerbated. More drought will fuel Pine Bark Beetles, and wet weather will favor the spread of Sudden Oak Death. All appears hopeless in any direction.

Now I have no problem highlighting the serious forest health issues we are having in California. Trees are dying and it is affecting us all. The problem I have is that this issue is not reducible to two species of organisms. Even if we could find a cure for Sudden Oak Death and Pine Bark Beetles, the trees would still be dying. There are dozens of other diseases and insect pests that would fill their niches.

When one recognizes that the problems affecting our forests are not pathological or entomological, but are ecological and ethnographical in nature, then solutions become self-evident. California forests that were tended with fire by native people for thousands of years are now declining due to over-competition and soil acidification. Diseases and pests that are normally controlled by fire are now flourishing.

As the Standing Rock protest illustrates, we have lost our connections to the people and practices that gave us such magnificent lands and forests. Honoring our native people by tending to their legacies is one way of supporting all that they live and stand for.

This website is offered as testimony to the promise of traditional values and knowledge in forest health and restoration. Contained here are many hundreds of photos documenting the recovery of sick and diseased trees using solutions based on practices and materials used by native people for thousands of years.

In other news from yesterday – a sick oak that has been treated with traditional practices is making a steady comeback . . .

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Talk on Gaia and trees for Gaia University

21 06 2016

A few weeks ago I gave a talk on “Applying Gaia theory to forest restoration”. The talk was arranged and recorded by my lovely daughter Ava Klinger, who works for Gaia University. I’m also proud to be involved with Gaia University as an external reviewer of students.

The link to talk is here. Enjoy!

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Grandfather oak revisited

4 08 2015
Grandfather oak before and after 7.5 years of healing.

Grandfather oak before and after 7.5 years of healing.

Last week a group of volunteers, assisted by Greg Laden of Marin County Open Space, visited a 400+ year-old coast live oak growing on King Mtn. I have reported on the progress of this oak in two previous posts: Grandfather oak and Grandfather oak – April 2011 update. This oak lies along the main trail up King Mountain and has captured the attention of many a hiker. Donna Shoemaker is one of those hikers. In the Fall of 2007 Donna contacted me about her concerns for the health of this oak. When I inspected it I found it was indeed in poor shape with signs of disease and insect infestation. I proposed a plan to her that could help the oak, but I was not optimistic that it would ever be cured. Donna organized a volunteer party to treat the oak and in December of 2007 we gave the oak its first of several fire mimicry treatments. There was an article by Richard Halstead in the Marin IJ (Sudden Oak Death Roars Back) that described the event, adding that “scientists studying the disease expect the (fire mimicry) treatments will prove futile”.

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Volunteers assisting in the fire mimicry treatment of Grandfather oak, July 2015

Grandfather oak volunteers - July 2015

Grandfather oak volunteers – July 2015

Well, I’m happy to report that 7.5 years later have NOT proved futile (UC scientists take note!). Grandfather oak is still alive and is noticeably healthier than before treatments began (see photos). The scientists studying sudden oak death have yet to come to terms with the success of fire mimicry. This is not surprising as their research is based on the disease model of forest health, whereas the fire mimicry approach is based on the ecological model of forest health. More than $100 million dollars has been spent studying one disease organism, Phytophthora ramorum, the pathogen that scientists claim “causes” sudden oak death. They are not about to disrupt that gravy train by expanding their scope of study to include ecological factors such as fire regime and soil pH. Their closed mindedness is our loss of so many oaks. Some day one oak too many will die and the mindshift will be inevitable . . . Read the rest of this entry »





A California oak stonehenge

3 07 2015

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I met Ryan Masters at Tassajara a few months back while I was teaching a workshop on fire mimicry. He is a delightful person and impressed me as knowledgeable and sincere, so I shared some important Native American wisdom with him. He followed up diligently and the result is this fine article about an Ohlone oak stonehenge here in California.

http://hilltromper.com/article/summer-solstice-california-stonehenge

Ryan also wrote this wonderful article about his adventures in the Ventana Wilderness and the Native American “Hands” rock shelter.

http://hilltromper.com/article/tassajara-zen-center-ventana-wilderness

Enjoy!