Controlled Burning a Safety Measure for Fire Protection



Commentary by Janice Dickenson, Santa Paula

On a nice California day back in 1962, 12 year old Bruce Dickenson was on a horseback ride on the ranch in Fagan Canyon in Santa Paula with his grandfather, Ralph. At one spot, for no apparent reason, granddad stopped, got off his horse and handed Bruce his reins and instructed him to wait there. Ralph walked off and disappeared around a hill. In a short time Bruce heard crackling and smoke began rising from the direction his grandfather went. Though most certainly alarmed, Bruce, as instructed, remained in place on his mount, holding his grandfather’s horse. Ralph reappeared with a pot lighter in hand, took his reins back and remounted. They then rode a short distance to the top of a hill close by and watched the fire burn. Ralph did not tell Bruce prior to their ride but he had prepared this area for a controlled burn. The pot lighter was on site; Ralph did not have it on his horse going in. It’s likely the conditions were not ideal to ignite it on the day he prepared the acreage so he left the pot lighter in place to wait for prime conditions. Controlled burning was something Ralph was an ardent believer in and outspoken advocate of.

Government constraints

Today, the new term is called “prescription burns.” The why behind the name change is a mystery but it evokes thought. Government constraints have made it nearly impossible for ranchers to perform “prescribed burns.” And the government isn’t performing many on government owned land either. This commentary’s focus is on the good old fashioned -historically proven benefits of—“controlled burning.”

Ralph purchased the Fagan Canyon property in 1940 and one of the first things he did was set fire to it. Not all at once, but in thoughtfully sectioned and prepared pieces. The reasoning behind controlled burning is basic. A news article written in 1961 stated that Ralph had “burned off more than 500 acres of chest high brush” on his land, reseeding it with native grasses, which cost him 60 cents an acre, and in turn not only gave fire protection but erosion protection and provided cattle feed.

Ralph was born into a multigenerational ranching and pioneering family. He was an innovative person and progressive thinker but he was also wise enough to look to the past for knowledge. Ralph knew that for centuries Native American Indians practiced controlled burning and he publicly advocated the age old custom. He flew to Sacramento and gave demonstrations to government entities on his other cattle ranch in Tracy, California. He gave jeep tours to local officials of the Fagan Canyon ranch and, in addition to being at times President of both the Ventura County and the California Cattlemen’s Associations, he became the chairman of the Range Improvement Committee of the California Cattlemen’s Association, focusing on land management.

This back pasture of Flying D Ranch in Fagan Canyon was burned in a controlled burn years ago and has since been grazed by cattle. The Thomas Fire had little interest in it and cattle, horses and wildlife found safe refuge. Smoke from the then still-burning Thomas Fire can be seen in this photo. Photo by Janice Dickenson.

Native Americans did it

Native American Indians lived off this land for thousands of years. They practiced controlled burning to protect their villages from wildfires as well as to clear land for new growth of grassland and plants they used for food and materials. The quality of the new forage growth attracted wildlife and with the heavy brush and debris cleared they could hunt and gather food more easily.

With the arrival of the Spanish land grants in the 1700’s, and then the Mexican land grants in the 1800’s, a large part of California was home to Ranchos devoted to raising cattle. They too control burned to increase good pastureland. And that grassland, when fed down, is also a great form of fire suppression.

Ralph recalled in his youth in the early 1900’s, when hunting and fishing in the Sespe and Topatopa Mountains with his father, the fish and game were plentiful and there was a healthy flow of water in the streams. He explained that dense overgrowth of brush not only chokes out grasses appealing to wildlife as food but when the brush gets so dense, it keeps wildlife from even walking in it. Dense brush also soaks up all the water, taking away from good forage foods and flowing streams. During heavy rains, water runs under the brush and without the native grasses able to get any sun to grow and hold the soil, erosion occurs. The hills in this area were mainly grasses in his youth.

Avoiding the next fire

Last December, after a century of declining cattle grazing and controlled burning, the low grasses were replaced with brush that had grown to an all-time height and density. We’ve recently been having drought years, something nature throws our way every so many years. And Santa Ana winds of enormous strength kicked up. And then spark—actually 2 sparks, within 4 miles of each other has been reported. All of the worst-case elements were in place on December 4, 2017 and it resulted in the largest fire in California’s modern history up to that time – the Thomas Fire. And as horrific as it was, it was not too surprising to some.

With charred debris still waiting to be cleared the niggling questions continue to swirl with many of us who were deeply affected. How can a fire such as the Thomas Fire be avoided in the future? How can we better protect ourselves and our homes?

Facts: You cannot control the winds. You cannot control drought. You cannot control Mother Nature, period. You also cannot control spark, whether it is lightening, arson, accidentally or neglectfully human-caused. The only factor of a wildfire that can be managed is the “surface fuels.” And it can be managed. It is historically proven and witnessed again with the Thomas Fire.

The Flying D Ranch in Fagan Canyon is just one example of how good land management is a fire suppressant. The back half of the canyon is mainly pasture that is home to a cattle operation. Much of the front of the canyon is planted in avocados and citrus. In 1985, the Wheeler Fire came onto this ranch in the back pasture and went out on its own and continued around us. It had only been twenty years since Ralph’s controlled burning and the cattle kept the pasture fed down.

In 1993, another fire burned a bit more, but still the pastureland took its strength away and with the assistance of bulldozers the flames never reached a structure or orchard.

The Thomas Fire, however, is a very different story and it is the worst this canyon has ever seen as far as is known. Much damage was done this time but still the pasture and the orchards greatly suppressed it. It’s now been 50 years since any controlled burning has taken place here and some nooks and crannies had become dense with brush. They lit up hugely. But there were vast patches of cattle grazed pasture that didn’t burn at all. Still, embers flew in the high winds and reached other surface fuels and ignited, and this time embers reached the orchards. Crop was destroyed, many fruit trees burned and the irrigation lines were decimated. But, again, without a doubt, the pasture and the orchards slowed the fire.

Patches of land burned and patches did not. It was interesting to study it afterwards. There were roughly 75 head of cattle in the back pasture, plus 20 calves and a few bulls. That night, we found our neighbor’s 20 or so cows and 5 horses up against our fence, with nowhere to go, and\ the fire was coming their way. We opened our gate and gave them our property to escape to. All of the cattle and horses survived the fire, without any injury, because they had fed-down, burnfree, grass pastureland to go to and be safe. The next morning our neighbor’s cattle and horses went home on their own.

When you lessen the fire fuels, you decrease the intensity of the fire. In some areas the fire will extinguish itself but at the very least, lessening the intensity gives firefighting personnel and equipment a chance to fight it. Between good land management, firefighting agencies and friends, all structures on the Flying D Ranch in Fagan Canyon survived. Two sides of this ranch borders over one and a half miles of the city of Santa Paula. Again, with the help of the land management, the fire fighters and residents were able to keep the fire at bay and no structures burned in the city limits.

Land management matters

Many other ranchers can tell similar stories. Good land management makes a huge difference during fires. Tragically, there are some who, though they practice good land management, lost homes and property. The Thomas Fire became so great burning through dense, overgrown brush on neighboring land that by the time it reached their property, those without a fire department on site to assist suffered huge losses. Tragic.

Controlled burning is not only a safety measure for fire protection, it is beneficial to our ecosystem, wildlife future and erosion control. Even air quality, which some will argue, but when you compare controlled burns to the fires such as the Thomas Fire that reached mass amounts of surface fuels, that included huge amounts of toxic materials that people are still suffering effects from… well, there is much to debate there too. Search the Internet and read. One site I found informational that included other environmental elements is:
Why California is in Flames

Though the price Ralph Dickenson paid 67 years ago to burn and reseed with native grasses has obviously greatly risen, whatever it costs today is still a drop in the bucket compared to the (approximate) 177 million dollars spent on fighting the Thomas Fire. But most importantly, good land management would have hugely reduced the losses of over 1,063 structures, that included over 500 destroyed homes, 280 damaged structures, treasured personal property, 281,893 acres of burned land (440 sq. miles), two human deaths, countless animal deaths (wildlife, farm and domestic), toxic air and well as the additional 21 deaths and over 160 injured and catastrophic property damage from the resulting Montecito mudslides.

According to Richard Atmore of Ventura, in 2010 he and a group of farmers, ranchers and property owners, along with the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen’s Association, Cal Fire and the Fire Protection District, all recognized the serious threat of the overgrown brush covering our hills. They formed the Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council, a 501c3, non-profit organization, specifically focusing on protecting the hillsides above Ventura and the Santa Clara Valley. They drew up a Community Wildfire Protection Plan along with a Five-year Burn Plan that was met with unanimous support by the Ventura Board of Supervisors. However, by 2017 only about 2% of the plan was accomplished due to government constraints. Visit their website for more information at VC Community Wildfire Plan

Richard gave a presentation to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in January of this year that is very informative regarding land management. It can be watched at:
Atmore Board of Supervisors Presentation.

And you can clearly see the differences between properly managed land versus unmanaged land with regards to the Thomas Fire in a short video presentation Richard gives at:
Atmore Video

Senate Bill 1260 offers hope

There is hope on the horizon. After the Thomas Fire, Senator Hanna Beth Jackson presented Senate Bill 1260 that, as her website states, “Clears the path for responsible wildfire fuel reduction by authorizing federal, state and private landowners to implement prescribed burning on federally and privately owned property in the state. Additionally, the bill creates training standards for personnel authorized to conduct prescribed burns and clarifies liability for landowners operating under a CAL FIRE permit. The bill also allows the state’s fire agency to provide input during subdivision planning in fire hazard regions, and calls on the California Air Resources Board to develop an air quality and smoke monitoring program for prescribed burns.”

There is a long road yet ahead between getting Bill 1260 passed and then implementing it. The Thomas Fire has cleared the hills for now, in turn giving us time to correct things, but we must be diligent in seeing those changes through because, if we don’t, a Thomas Fire will happen again. Our laws and our government agencies must make changes and it’s up to our generation to make sure those changes occur before people forget what happened.

From Google Earth. The light colored area in the center is Fagan canyon and you can clearly see how the fire completely ignores much of the back pasture. And you can also see the fire burned clear through the ranch to the edge of town, yet there are still green patches of orchards and structures survived. Look how black it is all around it.

Reprinted is courtesy of the Santa Paula Times

Janice Dickenson has been living on the family’s Fagan Canyon Ranch in Santa Paula since marrying husband Bruce in 1985. She is an active member of the community and has served on the board of directors of the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula, Santa Paula Society of the Arts and the Santa Paula Historical Society. A historian by hobby, Janice particularly enjoys the local history and considers researching a treasure hunt. She occasionally writes articles for various newsletters as well as the local Santa Paula Times.

“The Thomas Fire was a life changing experience my family. One we will never forget. And it was devastating to so many people we personally know. We need to do all we can to avoid it ever happening again.”

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Source: Janice Dickenson. Written May 27, 2018. Originally Published in Santa Paula Times August 17, 2018 . Reproduced with permission.
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