Prescribed (heart)burn

Prescribed (heart)burn


I live in a rural area that has about the same amazingly fire resistant properties as fluffy cotton ball tinder- on a hot, dry day…. with a butane torch held under it for good measure.

Our family ranch in Sage (on Sage Rd) is surrounded by large amounts of dry Sagebrush, dry chaparral, oaks (with dry leaves), occasional pines (with dry needles) and dry debris, with plenty of dry invasive grasses to add extra oomph to the potential conflagration. (Bonus! Now with more fuel!) This leads to conditions that might be generally described as “you’re f*^#ed!” when fire season comes around. We pretty much know each of the local firemen by name. We’ve run the fire prevention gamut: prescribed burns, backfires, helicopters dropping water and retardant in wide swathes like graffiti from giant orange spraycans across the land.

Each time a backfire or prescribed burn is suggested, my heart drops down into my stomach and panicked thoughts run through my head; what about the safety of the process? The possible risk to land and home? Will the animals make it out alright if something goes wrong? Will we?

Our family homesteaded this land. That’s pretty uncommon in California, with its big box stores, strip malls and cookie cutter houses. Here everything is new- anything over 10 years is considered dated. 20 is old and venerable and fifty is practically enshrined as ancient. Our family has lived here for over a century and a half. Most of the houses and structures are well over 100 years old and have housed several generations. That may not seem like too long on, say an evolutionary scale, but it’s plenty long enough to grow more than slightly invested and attached. Every time a fire passes nearby a chill runs down my spine. The suggestion of purposely setting a fire as a preventative measure makes me nervous- even if I see the necessity.

Several years ago, 3 adventurously dumb kids with motor bikes and a desire to avoid boredom in the most destructive way possible set a fire (by mistake, one sincerely hopes) near our property. The blaze proceeded to burn a large section along our Northwest flank, leaving the land resembling an unhealthy bald patch on a mangy dog.

The fire department took one look at the fire raging (ushered along by our good friend, the Santa Ana wind) and made the decision to let it burn through a section of overgrown, dense chaparral to remove the accumulated dry debris. In essence this was an accidental form of a ‘prescribed burn’. It was a nervous time for us- there is always the fear of the fire escaping the tenuous ‘controls’ and burning down everything that we’ve built. But as quickly as it had come, the darn thing decided to peter out. The winds died down, and the fire quickly followed…

Later next year, a much larger fire swept through the area again (not an odd occurrence in an area where we have a fifth season- Fire season), ravaging much of the land to our Northwest. We watched from (relative) safety as the fire block provided by the accidental “prescribed burn” from the year before protected our house, leaving us in a little island of our own.

Breathing in the air heavy with smoke particles (some of them so large I could swear that I could feel them rolling grittily down my throat and into my lungs…) Oddly enough, despite feeling a bit sick to the stomach and having a pounding headache from the smoke, I ended that day feeling rather good. Our home wasn’t a crisply charred black charcoal shell, my garden with its bounty of luscious tomatoes was still there, the old butchering oak and hammock with the view of Mt. San Jacinto still stood in place, swaying in the breeze.

I know that there are many obstacles that fire managers face when using fire as a management tool- The unpredictability of wind and weather, the issue of obtaining enough funding and crew with experience necessary to carry out the job, the need to make extremely quick decisions concerning millions of dollars of property and human lives that will later be judged by the general public are just some of the difficulties in fire prevention and prescribed burning.

I’ve been in this situation myself, and even though my heart was pounding the entire time and my stomach does flip flops until the last flames die down, I have been more than happy with the results. Thank you, Sage volunteer fire crew.

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