Shepherding Fire

Shepherding Fire

Lessons from our first Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes Workshop

april newsletter 2

As I wrote in a blog post in February (Working with Fire), at one time, fire and fire agencies were part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up. At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for improving rangeland conditions and preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires. Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust "civilians" with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.

Last week, we held a Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes workshop at Edwards Family Tree Farm in Colfax. Nearly 30 ranchers, forest landowners, agency staff, and NGO staff joined us for two days of learning about – and actually using – fire to manage fuel loading. During our introductory webinar the evening before the first field day, my colleague Jeff Stackhouse, from Humboldt County, encouraged us to embrace "cowboy burning." The next morning, our host landowner Allen Edwards told me, “Dan, try to shepherd that fire down to the next check line.” Jeff and Allen made me realize that using prescribed fire, in many ways, is very similar to low-stress livestock handling. This might seem like a stretch, but let me explain!

  • Communication is critical! Before we struck the first match, our workshop leader (Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief and prescribed fire practitioner) led us in a pre-burn briefing. We discussed our burn plan, our safety measures, and what role each of us would play during the burn. We continued communicating during the burn, and Chris ended the workshop with a post-burn debriefing. Similarly, when we're moving sheep at the ranch – or working cattle at someone's ranch, we try to talk through our plan (even if it's simple) before we get started. Outlining expectations – and what to do when plans change – is vitally important! And we also talk when we're done - identifying the things that worked (and more importantly, the things that didn't) make us better prepared the next time.
  • Don't force it – observe behavior and respond as appropriate. My predecessor Roger Ingram, who had a chance to work with legendary stockman Bud Williams, says this about our attitude when working stock:

Old Attitude: “I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want.”

New Attitude: “I'm going to LET that animal do what I want.”

This shift in attitude requires careful observation of livestock behavior – if we pay attention, the animals will tell us when they're comfortable – and when they're stressed!

Chris taught us to pay attention to what the fire was telling us. A subtle shift in the wind, or a change in fuel type or dryness, changed fire behavior. Chris and Allen prepared the burn unit to help account for these variations – pre-established check lines and the strategic application of just a little water, for example, helped us LET the fire consume the fuels we wanted to impact while protecting the trees we wanted to save.

  • Movement is good! When I first started riding horses or training sheep dogs, my natural tendency when things started moving too fast was to shut down all movement. A standing horse couldn't buck me off; a dog in a lie down wouldn't chase the sheep. As I gained more experience, though, I realized that we all made progress (me, dogs, and horses alike) when we were moving. I could begin to shape behaviors and improve communication by working through those times when we were all responding to one another.

My entire previous experience with prescribed fire was with pile burning – where movement of fire is undesirable! Last week, I learned about broadcast burning – about how to keep fire moving across the landscape safely. Chris and Allen showed us how to use simple techniques, like moving fire with a pitchfork and burning pine needles. By burning down-slope and into the wind (a backing fire), we were able to keep fire safely moving through the acre-plus demonstration site.

  • Never stop learning! As I've gained more experience in handling livestock (and working my border collies), I've realized how much I don't know. Stockmanship, I think, requires a lifetime of observing and learning. Getting my first hands-on experience last week with broadcast burning was similar; I am realizing how much more there is to know about fuel types, burn conditions, terrain and topography, timing, etc. – we barely scratched the surface. Like stockmanship, prescribed fire requires both an intellectual understanding of the tool AND hands-on experience in a variety of settings.

Most importantly, last week's burn seemed simple, thanks to Chris and Allen. Most of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitchforks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box. I'm looking forward to learning more!

By Dan Macon
Author - County Director, Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor