Summit meeting looks at grazing to slow fire threat

Issue Date: January 23, 2019
By Ching Lee

With California wildfires increasing in frequency and severity, a clear message came from ranchers, academics, and other stakeholders at a "rangeland summit" meeting: Improved vegetation management using livestock grazing, prescribed burns and other land-management tools could reduce wildfire risks and bring resiliency to landscapes.

The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition held its 14th annual summit in Stockton last week, focused on the topic of preventing catastrophic wildfire and the role for livestock grazing.

In looking at the history of forest management and fire suppression, Lynn Huntsinger, a professor of rangeland ecology and management at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that native Americans used to manipulate forests such as by burning to keep land open in order to use it. But people's long-held beliefs of what is "natural," and efforts to keep national forests as wilderness by eliminating human use of the land and discouraging burning of any kind, have changed the ecosystem, leading to overgrown forests that are more prone to wildfires, she said.

Though regular, light burning can restore forest health, Huntsinger said it is difficult to do once a forest is dense and crowded. Her study found that regular livestock grazing combined with other treatments such as burning and mechanical thinning proved effective in managing fuel loads—but she said these practices should be done early, when plants and shrubs are still small, such as after a fire.

Letting "nature take its course," she added, "is not working out so well right now."

Permits to allow California ranchers to perform prescribed burns have dropped significantly since the 1940s and 1950s, when some 200,000 acres were burned under permit to reduce fire hazard and improve grazing for livestock and wildlife, said Jeff Stackhouse, UC Cooperative Extension livestock advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. In the last 15 years, CalFire was responsible for fewer than 10,000 acres a year of prescribed burning on private lands, he noted.

Allowing CalFire to perform the task is low cost and relieves landowners of any liability, but considering the agency's recent track record, getting it done could be slow and is not guaranteed, Stackhouse said. Using a private contractor would get the job done faster, with no worries of liability, but costs range from $10,000 to $15,000 a day. Landowners may choose to do the burns themselves, but the main drawback to this option is having to obtain air-quality permits and liability.

A more promising option, he said, is using a Prescribed Burn Association, in which landowners and other interested parties work together on a voluntary basis to burn each other's properties. Landowners are still liable should fires escape, but they could hire a "burn boss" with insurance, which could run $1,500 to $2,000. He encouraged those considering this option to involve neighbors, because "the bigger the burn, the cheaper it is," though he said they should start with small, simple units.

Sharing his study on the frequency of fire on public versus private lands, Van Butsic, a Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley, showed that land ownership, firefighting and vegetation management play major roles in determining fire risk. Using historical fire data dating back to 1950, he found that for every time period studied and for every vegetation type, fire probabilities were higher on federal land than on nonfederal land. The difference increased over time, with wildfires from 2000 to 2015 more common on federal land compared to similar nonfederal land.

One possible reason for the greater increase in fire probability on federal land, he said, is a desire to increase fire frequency in an effort to restore historic fire-management practices. For land where that is not practical, he said vegetation management and firefighting could reduce fire risk.

Two ranchers who've lived through recent wildfires shared their perspectives on the experience. Ventura County rancher Mike Williams spoke about the Thomas Fire, which started in December 2017 and burned nearly 300,000 acres. He lamented that in his region, doing prescribed burns was not a tool often used, even though in the 10 years prior to the fire, the county had developed a plan to do small burns.

Yolo County rancher Adam Cline is a ranch manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribe and went through a fire that started last June in western Yolo County and eastern Napa County, burning more than 100,000 acres. Though the fire prompted evacuations and caused air-quality concerns, Cline characterized it as a "good fire," because it stayed mainly in the hills and was a medium-intensity burn that cleared some of the less-dense brush on lands he managed—though not as much as he'd wanted, he said.

In studying the effects of post-wildfire grazing on the recovery of plant species on public rangelands in Northern California, Laura Snell, UCCE livestock and natural resource advisor in Modoc County, found that whether the land rested or was grazed after a wildfire, the same types of species came back. But fire intensity on the site and climate variables did affect species richness, with grazing management outcomes varying. For example, on sites that saw moderate-high burn severity, more cheatgrass returned, dominating other plant species.

In trying to determine how wildfires affect the soil's seedbank and whether reseeding is necessary to encourage forage regrowth, Matthew Shapero, UCCE livestock and natural resource advisor in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, took soil samples across burned landscapes to capture the patchy variations of the burns. He concluded that seeds to establish new grass could be limited under high fire severity, though severity doesn't change much in shrubs.

Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen's Association, highlighted two pieces of legislation approved last year that attempt to address wildfires in the state. Senate Bill 901 contains several forest-management initiatives aimed at reducing wildfire risks, including streamlining regulations and funding for forest health, fuel-load reductions and prescribed fire. SB 1260 provides additional training for burn bosses and changes the liability provisions for prescribed fires that escape. Prior to SB 1260, CalFire's role as a lead agency vacated any liability for the landowner, Oldfield said.

"Under SB 1260, CalFire can now assess a portion of the liability on the landowner, subject to an agreement by both parties," he added.

The California Farm Bureau Federation remained neutral on SB 901—supporting its forest-management provisions but expressing concern about provisions affecting utility ratepayers' responsibility for wildfire damages—and also took no position on SB 1260.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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