Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2018

California’s Fire Season

January 2, 2018

Like many of you, we at Bay Nature have spent this fall thinking and talking about fire. We’ve been on the rolling wave of emotions and questions and search for answers along with everyone else. From learning that lives were lost, to family members and a Bay Nature board member having to evacuate Santa Rosa, to the many partners and organizations that saw homes, buildings, and facilities destroyed, the fire and its long tail have permeated much of what we do. And it’s with weary hearts that we now watch the fire season push into late December in Southern California.

There’s solace in knowing that the land in the North Bay will, for the most part, be fine and benefit from the natural clearing and germination fire brings. In areas that need “re-oaking,” the California Native Plant Society continues to lead volunteers in an effort to plant last fall’s acorn harvest through 2018. With spring will likely come a much-anticipated wildflower bloom, and we will continue to report on what researchers learn from the fires. We are also closely watching the La Niña weather patterns projected for this winter (looks warm and dry) and the implications for erosion and North Bay watersheds.

But what’s on our mind most—again, as with many of you—is this moment, the brief period when the smell of smoke still saturates roadsides, ranches, parks, and preserves and change is most plausible. What will the North Bay, the state’s southern counties, and California as a whole do with this moment, this opportunity to recalibrate our relationship to fire and how we live with it?

In November the Bay Area Open Space Council hosted a nine-person panel moderated by Bay Nature to discuss the North Bay fires. (An audio recording of the panel discussion is online at openspacecouncil.org/2017novgathering.) We heard from land managers who have been working feverishly to assess damage, gather data, and help staff, the public, and private landowners get back on their feet. We also heard from Cal Fire that the 2017 fire season is “the new normal” and from Robert Doyle, the East Bay Regional Park District’s general manager, on the long, long recovery from the Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people and burned more than 3,000 structures 26 years ago. Doyle advised, “Right now the emotion, pain, sadness, and the fear dominate, but over that 26 years what we have seen is that people forget, and they forget how fires can happen again…ten years from now when you’re still going to have the fire problem, there will be very great resistance and very strong opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong to do.”

If Doyle’s cautionary tale was sobering, his closing words struck me as comforting in their familiarity to the conservation community in the room: build coalitions, educate the public, and prepare for the marathon.

Our cover story, by Zach St. George, looks at prescribed burning — practiced by Native Americans for millennia in California — as one fire management tool that is embraced by many fire ecologists and land managers, but whose implementation is complicated and not without risk. We hope the story brings together new voices, offers insight, and illustrates that fire has been part of California for a long time. We are all now in a race to learn to live with fire, rather than fight it.

About the Author

Victoria Schlesinger is the editor in chief of Bay Nature.

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