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Fire

Native Americans used to burn small areas of land every year to cultivate the indigenous grasses and bulbs they harvested for food. When lightning struck, big fires would sometimes occur. Yet destructive, cauldron-like fires were far less frequent.

Due to dry conditions, fires have been a big problem recently. In the past two decades, the area burned by wildfires throughout the state has increased from 350,000 acres to 600,000 acres.

As temperatures increase due to climate change, our summers will become drier, and our winter rainfall much more unpredictable. This places a lot of responsibility on government land managers to create environments that burn slowly, mildly and often, and to prepare biodiversity hotspots for unplanned fires.

Rarely, if ever, has a wildfire been started as a result of an authorized campfire in a state-park campground. State Parks reduce the risk of fire by managing fuel buildup and protecting against vandalism. Parks also limit the interface of wild land and urban areas, helping to buffer our biodiversity hotspots.

Parks help motivate improved fire management in adjacent lands. Also, parks buffer both their own resources and adjacent development from fire, as well as providing refuge in park campgrounds for evacuees, and serving as a base for emergency services.

Prescribed Burn at Calaveras Big Trees State Park State Parks staff use small-scale controlled-burns (like this one at Calaveras Big Trees State Park) to encourage native plant growth, and to help protect against larger, out-of-control fires.

One of the prime victims of the upsurge in fire is oak woodlands, which have declined in the state by a millions of acres since the 1940s. California’s expanding development puts increasing pressure on them, adding to losses from deforestation through urban and agricultural development, sudden oak death, and livestock grazing. Projections are that another quarter million acres of oaks will be lost by 2010.

In addition to the oak woodlands of Southern California, the forests of the Sierra are at risk from climate-related temperature rises, variability in moisture and increasing drought. As only 20% of oaks are protected in parks and preserves, we must invest the resources needed to care for these precious habitats.

by Caryl Hart, Ph.D, and Jackson Vanfleet-Brown