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Living in a Biocracy
Paying Attention to Soil, Plants, and Animals in Relation to Fire Prevention
In The Dream of the Earth, writer Thomas Berry suggests that it isnít enough, as we move into the Ecological Age, to live in a democracy but that we must live in a Biocracy, an earthly home where all creatures have a voice. ďAs humans,Ē he says, ďwe need to recognize the limitations in our capacity to deal with these comprehensive issues of the earthís functioning. So long as we are under the illusion that we know best what is good for the earth and for ourselves, then we will continue our present course, with its devastating consequences on the entire earth community....We need only listen to what the earth is telling us.Ē
What this means in relation to this document is that in our efforts to right the wrongs from years of fire exclusion, we donít want to, well, jump out of the frying pan into the fire. We donít want to make worse the land; we want to listen to its needs for healing. The following items dealing with various elements of our ecosystem should help us do whatís right in our attempt to develop a fuel reduction strategy for our lands.
A Preliminary Caution to the Steward of the Land
Itís true that most of the Applegate Watershed has a problem of fuels build-up due to 100 years of fire exclusion that makes it a high hazard for catastrophic wildfire. However, you donít have to go overboard in thinning your land to reduce the fire hazard around your home.
Do you still want to have songbirds around? Do you like seeing deer and smaller wildlife on your property? Do you want the stream that runs through your property to be a healthy home to fish and other aquatic life? Well, put down your loppers and chain saw for a moment and consider a lighter touch in making a fuels reduction plan for your property.
Youíve probably heard that thinning ladder fuels from your woodlands will prevent a ground fire from climbing into the canopy and becoming a crown fire and that providing a fuel break where trees are thinned so that canopies donít touch will cause an intense crown fire to stop spreading and drop down to become a low intensity ground fire that wonít harm large trees. It is important to do these things, particularly at the perimeter of your property, around your structures, and along the roadways leading into your property so that fire crews will not be afraid to drive their trucks in and protect your house.
However, you can still leave islands of dense foliage for wildlife habitat. Critters need places to hide where they donít feel exposed to predators. The key is to provide fire breaks around these denser clumps of habitat so that if they begin to burn, the fire wonít spread. Also, you donít want the denser places to be close to your house or the property line where fire may spread to (or from) your neighbors.
A ceanothus brush field can be a tremendous fire hazard. Some species of ceanothus contain volatile oils that make them burn like roman candles on the 4th of July! However, instead of clearing your whole brush field and turning it into a barren emptiness, leave some bushes here and there scattered in clumps. Little birds love this kind of habitat and wonít stick around if you donít provide it. Deer also will eat ceanothus and similar shrubs if they can find the tender new shoots. A 30-year-old ceanothus bush consists mostly of dried up dead branches that deer donít like. Prune it down so that new shoots grow all around the outside. Your added bonus - it wonít burn as well now.
A riparian zone (or the area of dense foliage that naturally exists alongside streams) can be a natural fire break. (However, if you have created a ďfire safeĒ landscape everywhere except in a narrow riparian area, a fire will still burn most intensely there, where the most fuel lies.) Streams occupy the lowest places in the landscape, and groundwater comes to the surface there. The bushes and trees that live there have their feet wet, so to speak, and stay moister (even when streams are dried up in the summer) than upland foliage. These wetter plants provide important shade and a moister microclimate that keep the stream cool for fish and other aquatic creatures. You donít need to thin riparian foliage at all, but you can provide a fire break to prevent fire in the uplands from reaching the riparian areas (and vice versa). Typically, fires go out when they reach riparian zones (particularly if thereís water in the stream). Also, please donít use herbicides or other chemicals anywhere near streams or ditches. Aquatic life is much more sensitive to chemical pollutants than is terrestrial life.
Many people like to have hedges and trees around their homes for privacy. As long as you provide some kind of fire break or thinned area between the outlying forest or shrub lands and your hedge or vegetative screen, it probably wonít be a problem as far as fire goes. But donít forget to do this between your vegetative screen and your house, too!
Finally, another way to look at whether or not youíve done too severe a thinning job for fire hazard reduction as far as wildlife is concerned is this: suppose a dozen kids are playing hide and seek in the lands around your home. If there are lots of kids who canít find hiding places behind bushes, logs, or clumps of trees, then youíve probably gone too far (and wildlife wonít like it either)!
One good way to get an idea of what to do on your land is to visit well-treated areas similar to yours to see what theyíre like. If you like how they look, you can mimic that work; if some things donít appeal to you, you can make adjustments as you reduce the build-up of fuels on your own land.
There are no obvious adverse effects on soil for most of the fire reduction treatments suggested in this paper, although the following exceptions should be carefully noted:
To avoid erosion, construct fire lines across the slope (contoured), not up and down the hill. If fire lines must be constructed up the hill, install water bars at adequate intervals, and mulch the fire lines with weed-free straw and seed them with native grass species.
Always be careful of harming the soil when using fuel reduction treatments by mechanical means. Heavy equipment used on wet or moist soils with a significant clay component can compact the soil, which could then impede vegetative growth by inhibiting root growth and water retention. Because compacted soils have a reduced capacity for infiltration and permeability, they also increase runoff and the potential for flooding. Therefore, heavy equipment should be avoided on clay soils and used on other soil types only when they are dry (late spring through early fall, typically).
Mechanical treatments with heavy equipment can also result in bare, exposed soils susceptible to erosion, so such treatments should be used minimally on ultramafic and granitic soils and on all steep slopes no matter what soil type.
Burning piled slash will create localized areas of severely burned conditions, which cause slower revegetation and, consequently, an increased risk of erosion in the area directly under the burn piles. Generally, these areas are small and localized, but in heavy fuels they can comprise a significant percentage of the area. On steep slopes where fuels are heavy, pile burning should be minimized. Follow-up mulching and seeding may be considered to assist in revegetation.
Agencies should keep in mind that broadcast burning may result in severely burned soils in areas with a high fuel load.
To mitigate surface erosion after broadcast burning, insure that soils are protected before the wet season begins with either an established vegetative cover or mulch (weed-free straw, erosion control mats, etc.).
The following points should guide land owners or managers performing forest operations where Port-Orford cedar root disease is a concern:
(1) Separate operations in disease-free locations from those in diseased stands both in space and in time.
(2) Perform forest management projects in stands with Port-Orford cedar, especially in uninfested areas, when conditions are unfavorable for pathogen spread. Work between June 1 and October 1 in order to complete the operations in the warm, dry months. Discontinue operations when wet conditions develop, even if that happens prior to the end of the season. Likewise, operations may be allowed outside of the normal season if especially dry conditions prevail, though such exceptions should be carefully regulated.
(3) Avoid repeated entries onto vulnerable micro sites.
(4) Schedule work to proceed from healthy to infested sites, not visa versa.
(5) Do not move equipment from a contaminated area into a clean one or from a clean area into a contaminated area and back again.
(6) Wash equipment (or vehicles) operating in a diseased area prior to leaving the area. (Washing is complete only when all soil and organic matter is removed from the equipment.) Wash equipment in areas designated solely for that purpose. Do not allow wash water to drain into ditches or stream channels.
(7) Whenever possible, plan access to project areas along routes with the least occurrence of infested sites.
(8) Where possible, coordinate all root disease prevention and management activities with adjacent landowners.
Seek out and take advantage of opportunities to treat mixed conifer, hardwood, and chaparral stands containing rare plants both to improve habitat for the species and to reduce fuels and the risk of catastrophic wildlife. Some species closely associated with more closed canopy and late successional conditions may need to be buffered from activities. The kind of fuel treatment used (e.g., how much if any of the canopy cover is removed) and the methods used (manual thinning vs. mechanical thinning) may need to be modified in some areas containing rare plants, depending on the species and habitat conditions present.
Since spring burns can kill emerging rare plants, itís best to treat stands containing rare plants in the late summer through late winter, during the dormant season. However, it is difficult even for professional land managers to burn safely at this time of year, and such activity is not advocated for non-professionals.
Minimize soil disturbance in areas containing rare plants to prevent damage to underground roots and bulbs.
Before treating areas, evaluate them for listed noxious weeds such as yellow star thistle, Canada thistle, etc. In doing any work in areas in close proximity to or containing such weeds, you might need to use manual, cultural, chemical, or biological controls to prevent an invasion of the noxious weeds prior to the action. Youíll probably have to do follow-up treatment for a few years, too, especially if a noxious weed seed bank is present. Always use noxious weed prevention techniques: wash all equipment and vehicles before entering a weed-free area and wash all equipment and vehicles when moving from a weedy area to another area.
Sow native grasses in disturbed areas where appropriate, especially in oak woodlands and open mixed conifer communities that historically had open under-stories dominated by grass and herbaceous species. If non-native grasses are used on private lands, use short-lived, non-persistent species (e.g. cereal rye, annual rye, etc.). Avoid the introduction of persistent non-native grass or herbaceous species whenever possible.
Although surveys for rare plants are not required on private lands, as they are prior to ďdisturbance-causingĒ activities on federal lands, they are recommended. If you are a private land owner, you are encouraged to coordinate with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for populations of any federally listed plants (e.g., Gentnerís fritillary) and to develop conservation strategies or habitat conservation plans prior to beginning serious fuel reduction work. Even though the Endangered Species Act does not prohibit ďtakeĒ of federally listed plant species on private land (no private landowner needs to worry about losing discretion of use of his or her land if a listed plant is found), private landowners are encouraged to voluntarily participate in conservation of listed plants, especially since avoiding impacts to rare plants can be as easy as buffering known locations from ground disturbing activities or doing treatments when the plant is not in bloom.
When deciding on strategies for reducing fire hazard, the land manager sometimes faces contradictions, which can often be resolved by defining personal objectives before proceeding. One example of this dilemma is found in the land managerís decision concerning the forest canopy, the amount of "greenery" overhead that blocks out the sky and that controls one of the many facets of a forestís health.
One important concept to keep in mind is that different plant series need different degrees of canopy closure. One size or "prescription" doesnít fit all. When in doubt about the needs of a plant series on your land, ask an expert for advice.
Full or nearly full canopy closure provides shade, good animal habitat, and moister grounds for some types of wildflowers, ferns, and tan oak. Thinning a standís canopy means thinning the stand, creating more growing space and promoting stand vigor and growth. It also lets more sunlight reach the ground, allowing trees, shrubs, and forbs to regenerate and grasses and weeds to grow. Too much thinning exposes the soils below to the elements and if done improperly can lead to erosion problems. Itís important to maintain a diversity of canopy closures - some small shady areas and some more open ones - to help maintain a natural forest habitat for all species. Itís all about balance.
Regarding wildfire and its spread, it is generally felt that by pruning ladder fuels and opening a standís canopy so that the crowns of trees donít touch, one can more effectively reduce the intensity of a fire. The elimination of ladder fuels can keep a ground fire on the ground (and not in the crown of the trees, which is deadly). Opening the canopy can help prevent a crown fire from spreading even further.
In some situations where a mature stand has a uniformly closed canopy with no ladder fuels, it is possible that a ground fire could burn with less intensity. However, a really hot, intense wildfire would most likely not stay on the ground but travel through the crown of the stand instead. It is not likely that a closed canopy would be the primary factor controlling a fireís intensity.
The best way to make a decision about how much to open the forest canopy on your land is to consider the canopy in its site-specific place, with its unique characteristics, and in relation to your personal objectives for the future.
Perennial or intermittent streams that currently have adequate numbers of large trees and good canopy generally need very little if any treatment. Vegetation management is also generally not necessary at such streams, where the wet soil, combined with increased sunlight when trees are cut, will usually lead to an explosion of new growth, which is counterproductive for fire management. Mature hardwoods and conifers are preferable in these environments, so try to increase the abundance of large-diameter conifers and important hardwoods like black cottonwood, Oregon ash, and big-leaf maple. Manage for larger individual alders while reducing alder stand density, allowing colonization by other tree species. On drier sites, you may have to settle for Madrones and Oaks in addition to the large conifers. It is important to maintain a no-cut buffer zone for the riparian areas with 50 feet a suggested zone for most perennial streams, depending upon the plant community present.
Beyond 50 feet from the stream, you face a trade-off situation. If you reduce ladder and ground fuels but leave a dense canopy, you are taking the chance of a crown fire. If you reduce the density of the canopy, you risk damage to the riparian zone. Where dense brush or small-diameter trees predominate, thin to produce large, fire-resistant trees as quickly as possible. On sprouting hardwoods such as maples, oaks, and Madrones, thin new growth to favor the three largest sprouts per plant. Cutting these species to the ground will cause them to sprout again, often with many individual stems on one plant, and the plant will remain in an extremely bushy condition for many years, rather than reaching a size that is more likely to be able to withstand a ground fire.
Eliminate noxious weeds using methods that will not degrade water quality. Pay particular attention to get rid of the obnoxious Himalayan blackberry.
Riparian areas need large down wood, which is generally not a primary carrier of a fire. (However, if it ignites and is low in moisture, this material will burn intensely and for a long time, frequently burning so hot that underlying soil is damaged.) Although woody material of all sizes is critical for maintaining surface stability in riparian areas, the largest wood will stay wetter, even in drought years, than smaller materials. It also slows flood waters and provides important habitat. Mimic nature, and leave large down wood in streams and riparian areas.
The best fire safety plan for these areas where moisture produces vigorous vegetation is to make sure the surrounding uplands are not overloaded with dense vegetation, especially ground and ladder fuels. At the edges of riparian areas where dense vegetation gives way to more open conditions, pay particular attention to brush and other ladder fuels that could carry a ground fire into the crowns of the larger trees in the riparian area. These "edges" may be a priority for treatment of ladder fuels.
* Be careful not to concentrate or channel the water, which leads to erosion and gullies.
* Be aware of the value of vegetation in these streams in preventing channeling and sedimentation.
* Remember that some soils erode easily if exposed and that removing forest litter by burning or other forest management practices can accelerate the erosion of soil and rock particles
Ephemeral and intermittent streams and draws that are usually dry from spring through fall need a different kind of attention. A primary objective for these areas is to have large, well-spaced trees along the stream with little ladder fuel to allow a ground fire into the canopy. Avoid removal of plants and trees with roots that help to stabilize stream banks and channels. Remove brush and thin vegetation as you do in the surrounding uplands, and eliminate noxious weeds without degrading water quality (e.g., donít use chemicals).
Swales and draws that show no evidence of recent flow (no scour marks or deposits from water) or that do not have a definable channel should be treated like the surrounding uplands, though special care should be taken not to cause erosion and gullies through ground disturbance.
Three points from the perennial streams also apply to these lesser streams:
* Vegetation in the streams prevents damaging channeling and downstream sedimentation
* Large down wood is important
* Burning and other forest management practices to remove litter from the forest floor can accelerate the erosion of soil and rock particles.
It is strongly recommended not to use earth-moving equipment to establish fire lines within riparian zones as part of emergency fire suppression activities. Construction of fire lines should be accomplished outside of the area, preferably on ridge tops or other natural control points, rather than in draw bottoms or parallel to streams. If it is absolutely necessary to construct a fire line within a riparian zone, it should be constructed perpendicular to the stream, to result in the lowest level of disturbance possible, though it is preferable to have the riparian area burn because the line was placed beyond it rather than have the soil disturbance associated with line construction within the riparian zone itself. On the Quartz Fire of 2001, both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management reported that the damage to riparian and aquatic resources resulting from operation of heavy equipment in riparian areas was far greater than any damage caused by the fire itself.
The fish would prefer that you not use mechanisms that increase sediment within 100 feet of any stream. That way you will prevent channels, furrows, trails or any other way for dirt to reach the stream. Coho salmon would also appreciate a no-cut buffer within the first 25 feet of a stream to allow brush stems or trunks to cover the edges of the stream for spawning. Not only will this maintain shade to keep the water cool; it will also allow young conifers, maples, and alders to grow so they can replace older trees. If there is any under-story burning on the land above a stream, you should allow grasses to filter out any sediment. Between 25 and 50 feet from the streamís edge, use a ďlop and scatterĒ strategy for thinning; outside the 50-foot distance, use hand piling to allow for the release of conifers, maples, and alders.
Finally, the fish need small and large logs in the riparian area and streams for cover and nutrients, so donít take out the woody material.
If you are broadcast burning in riparian areas, minimize the number of acres to minimize the impact to neotropical migrants and other species that may be reproducing. If fuel reduction is carried out in riparian areas, hand piles would be favored over broadcast burning for spring burns.
Use hand piles for fuel reduction in late successional habitat to minimize the impact to smaller late successional species. Do not allow piles to remain in position more than one year prior to burning. This will help minimize speciesí moving in and utilizing piles as woody habitat.
For fire suppression, locate potential drafting sites for engines away from known turtle populations, osprey nest sites, bald eagle nest sites, and heron rookeries. Identify late successional vegetation and when possible use ďminimum impactĒ suppression tactics or ďlight handĒ tactics for fires in these areas.
For pre-September fires avoid helicopter operations directly over known nest sites for bald eagles, osprey, herons, etc.
Deer Winter Range
Unmanaged winter ranges, which are often decadent brush fields, help fire to spread to other upland habitats or nearby homes. To mitigate this danger and to take care of both security and nutritional needs of deer during the winter months, forests should be managed for a mosaic of stand ages. Because black tail deer generally live within a mile of where they were fawned, it is logical to manage winter range within square mile blocks or, practically speaking, within a section.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has become increasingly concerned with maintaining high quality forage in this area, suggests a 30-year turn-around time on brush fields to maintain vigor and nutritional value for black-tail deer (Thiebes 1996). With the winter ranges mapped on a GIS layer, it is easy to see where prescribed fire or fuels modification can benefit winter range strategies. ODFW suggests that 3-4% (or a maximum of 19-25 acres) of the winter range within any given section would need to be managed annually to maintain winter ranges in high vigor for deer herds. This formula or strategy might not be feasible on your own property, but the basic concept is something to keep in mind. Local Forest Service, BLM, or ODFW personnel can help answer your questions.
If you are planning fuel reduction work on rangeland, one of your most important considerations should be the spread of noxious weeds via machinery. Itís a good idea to reduce or eliminate any activities, such as mechanical treatments, that disturb the ground and open new sites for noxious weeds. If you must use heavy machinery, wash it thoroughly before and after entry. Reseed disturbed sites.
When using prescribed burns and mechanical treatments for fire management, be sure to avoid damage to fences, springs, ponds, and other rangeland improvements. When using livestock grazing to reduce fine fuels and the risk of fire, remember that passive and continuous season-long grazing rarely improves or maintains uplands and riparian systems. Consider livestock distribution, water availability, and the timing, duration and frequency of grazing treatments in selecting grazing management strategies.
Provide sufficient rest to the land to encourage plant vigor, regrowth, and storage of energy. Avoid grazing during the wet season to prevent compaction of soils.
Finally, in treating wet areas, be sure to retain sufficient vegetation to protect stream banks, to dissipate energy, and to trap sediment during periods of high stream flows (winter season).