Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Prescribed fire restores landscapes, protects life and property

Photo: Crew working on prescribed burn stands in back of landing craft.
Crews working on the Green Mountain prescribed burn were ferried via landing craft. Forest Service photo by Anna Wright.

CALIFORNIA — In February fire managers on the Shasta Lake Ranger District of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest were able to take advantage of fair weather conditions and continue prescribed burn operations in the Green Mountain area. The Green Mountain project, which began in 2003, is located on the east side of Shasta Lake between the Pit and Squaw arms of Shasta Lake.

“When the project began, the area was so dense with brush, downed woody debris and closed stands of immature timber you could hardly see off the roads, let alone walk through the vegetation,” said District Fire Management Officer Jeff Michels.

Today, Green Mountain is what project managers describe as more open and mosaic—one can see several hundred feet off the existing roads. The thick brush and trees within the 9,070-acre project area being thinned are creating a network of oak woodlands, timber stringers and brush. This makes it easier for wildlife to move through and find food, and creates desirable habitat that will encourage elk to return to their historic range.

An additional benefit for this prescribed fire project is the reduction in hazardous fuels, which in turn creates a more resilient landscape. This means that during the warmest, driest time of the year, if an unplanned fire occurs in this area it will be less severe, making it safer for fire personnel to access the fire.

Forest Service fire ecologists analyzed fire history scars on trees, and, historically, this area of California would have experienced a fire every 4 to 15 years. These frequent fires cleared the understory of dead and down materials and leaf and pine needle build up, aided in the soil nitrogen cycle and limited the amount of trees that were able to get established. Historic fires were typically less intense, smaller and patchier than those we see currently. These small low-intensity fires were critical to maintaining habitat and food sources for the native plant and fauna as well as the native peoples that lived here. 

Policy changes in the early 1900s mandated that fire personnel extinguish all vegetation fires by 10 a.m. the following day. This firefighting policy, known as the 10AM policy, was a reaction to large deadly fires in the early 1900s and was intended to protect our valuable timber resources. However, after 100 years of aggressive suppression tactics it is clear to fire managers that removing this key disturbance from our western forests have altered our landscape; our forests are denser, more prone to insect and disease and large catastrophic fires. Prescribed fire and managing naturally ignited fires is fundamental in restoring our overgrown landscapes. Projects like Green Mountain are designed to have multiple prescribed burns so that landscape can return to a more historic fire regime, with fire entries on a regular, more historic interval. 

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest implements prescribed fire on approximately 5,000 acres annually.  Currently, it is evaluating the use of fire to expand the capability to manage naturally ignited fires in remote areas of the forest for multiple ecological objectives. They are also aiming at minimizing exposure to firefighting personnel while allowing managers to focus on other priority fires that may occur closer to our communities.

Fire personnel from every district across the forest and the neighboring Whiskeytown National Recreation Area assisted in the project planning, preparation work, igniting and holding operations. Ignition operations were completed by hand-lighting the perimeter and using a helicopter outfitted with a Plastic Sphere Dispenser Machine. By using the helicopter, fire managers can burn more acres within an allotted timeframe while minimizing exposure to fire personnel on the ground. The helicopter also allows fire managers to apply fire in a manner that achieves the desired fire effects established by the prescription and can ensure that they take advantage of favorable winds to disperse smoke away from smoke sensitive areas.

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest has prescribed fire projects planned on every unit, ranging from the burning of hand piles to larger landscape-sized projects. These will help complete Forest Service objectives of reducing hazardous fuels to protect life and property, restore landscapes and maintain taxpayer investments like timber plantations.

Photo: A line of fire trails a member of an ignition crew lighting the perimeter of a prescribed burn. The trail leads into a forested area.
Ignition crews lighting the perimeter of one of the Green Mountain Units, Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Forest Service photo by Anna Wright.
Photo: Helicopter flies over forested area. Smoke rises from the trees.
A helicopter outfitted with a Plastic Sphere Dispenser ignites the interior portions of a unit at Green Mountain. Forest Service photo by Anna Wright.