Fire as medicine with BLM’s Folsom Lake Veteran Hand Crew
story and photos by Benjamin Cossel, Bureau of Land Management
GALT, California — Across the American West, the relationship between fire and the humans who call the landscape home is a complicated one. On the one hand, fire is often a catastrophic force ravaging across an area, destroying everything in its wake without prejudice. On the other, fire is a tool for fuels reduction and habitat restoration, especially in those places where native flora and fauna have, through centuries of evolution, adapted.
It is that latter use, the restorative, that saw firefighters and biologists at the Cosumnes River Preserve (CRP) early in the morning of May 5, 2021. Firefighters with the Bureau of Land Management’s Folsom Lake Veterans’ Hand Crew and biologists with the Mother Lode Field Office set a test blaze at approximately 9 a.m. to determine if the days mission could go forward. With a successful test, the days operation of prescribed burning (RX Burn) nearly 50 acres to remove invasive foxtails, medusa heads and other weeds began in earnest.
“This is a two-fold operation,” said Mark Ackerman, biologist with BLM’s Mother Lode Field Office. “Primarily, we’re working to remove the non-native thatch that chokes out the native grasses.”
Ackerman explained the native grasses provide food and habitat for the many migratory water-fowl, including the sand hill crane, that call the preserve home.
“The native grasses here are adapted to fire,” Ackerman said. “So not only will we burn out the non-natives, we’ll provide room for the natives to flourish and allow that dormant seed base to come up.”
While providing habitat restoration was a critical component of the operation, reducing fuel loads at the reserve was also top-of-mind for the crew. The preserve lays parallel to a busy stretch of California’s Interstate 5 providing two of the three key elements of the fire triangle: heat (in the form of vehicle fires, sparks and other ignition sources) and fuel.
“Besides the biological benefits of the CRP Rx fuels reduction was a benefit from the burn,” said Burns Brimhall, BLM Fire Management Specialist, Central California District. “With the I-5 Interstate next to the preserve a lot of unintentional starts happen every year. This burning is more on our terms with the appropriate resources rather than a random start in August.”
Brimhall explained that because the Mother Lode Field Office isn’t designated as a suppression office they called in local resources to assist with the project. In addition to BLM’s organic Folsom Lake Veteran Crew, firefighters from the Thornton Fire District 17 and the Cosumnes CSD Fire Department were on-site, assisting in the operation.
“The Mother Lode Field Office doesn’t have the suppression capabilities a lot of other BLM offices do. Cal Fire has the Direct Protection Area (DPA) for all BLM lands within the Mother Lode Field Office,” Brimhall said. “Because of this, relationships with local fire districts are extremely important and it also helps them with training their fire fighters.”
With the burn taking place early in the fire year, the local fire departments weren’t the only ones receiving training that day.
“Early season prescribed burns like this are a great opportunity to dust some of the cobwebs off from the winter,” said Jason Schroeder, crew superintendent, Folsom Lake Veterans’ Hand Crew. “The BLM depends on a majority seasonal workforce for wildfire suppression. We typically bring the seasonal firefighters on in early May, so they only have a few weeks of training before they are thrust into the heart of fire season.”
Schroeder noted the training was coming just in time. With much of the western United States experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions and rainfall at near record lows for the month of April, conditions are set for a tumultuous fire year.
“With the little amount of rainfall the state received this winter and spring, the grass and brush are drying out much faster than they typically do, I think we are going to be seeing big fires much sooner than we have the last couple of years,” Schroeder said.
Making one final sweep of the area to ensure all flames were extinguished, Brimhall and Ackerman were pleased with the days work. Brimhall dispatched the local engines to make one final pass for safety and called the team to the rally point for an after action review, a process where the team discusses what went right and things they might do in the future to improve.
“This was nearly as flawless a burn as one could ask for,” Ackerman said as he stood among the group surveying the charred results of the team’s efforts. “You guys pulled this off to near perfection and I promise come this time next year, this place will be transformed.”
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