Posted by: Bonnie Phelps | March 4, 2016

Controlled Burn info for Palomar


Fire agencies in county, with input from biologists, use prescribed burns to head off threat in backcountry  BY J. HARRY JONES  LAGUNA MOUNTAINS  In the Laguna Mountains, not far from San Diego State’s observatory east of Sunrise Highway, a thick bed of dry pine needles and decaying wood carpets the ground amid towering Jeffrey pines and oak trees. The ground covering— plus the multitude of downed dead trees and limbs that litter the forest floor — act like kerosene when a wildfire blows through. This particular spot hasn’t burned in at least 50 years, not even when the great Laguna fire in 1970 burned from the mountains all the way to El Cajon. On Tuesday and Wednesday, about three dozen firefighters from various agencies, led by the U.S. Forest Service, were in the area conducting prescribed burns, designed to reduce the amount of lowlyingbrush in the area. Similar burns were done over the past several days on Palomar Mountain and in an area about five miles south of Pine Valley. Wednesday’s burn was called off after about an hour when a test fire ignited quickly, getting into the canopy of trees. The previous day, crews burned about 34 acres of  SEE CONTROL • B3


An inmate from a McCain Valley fire crew threw brush cut from the fire line they were making around the burn area. The U.S. Forest Service has been performing a series controlled burns in the Laguna Mountains with help from other firefighting agencies.  JOHN GIBBINS U-T

CONTROL    One goal: Keeping flames out of canopy of trees  FROM B1 brush, taking care to avoid sensitive plants such as the horkelia, the host plant to the endangered Laguna Skipper butterfly.  All burns are mapped out in advance, with input from biologists.  “This is a two-part burn — community defense (the observatory) and ecological,” said Forest Division Chief Talbot Hayes. “We’re mostly trying to reduce the ground fuels so when we get a fire here in the summer, it just doesn’t take everything.”  Forest Battalion Chief Rick Marinelli, who specializes in fuels, said one of the main goals is to “scorch” trees in the area to the extent that lower limbs are burned but not ones higher up. The lower limbs otherwise would act as “ladder fuels,” with the fire jumping higher and higher from limb to limb and eventually getting into the canopy of the forest. Once the canopy catches fire, if the winds are blowing, there often is little firefighters can do to slow or stop it.  The need for prescribed burns is easy to understand, Marinelli said— just look at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where the 2003 Cedar fire bore down and consumed nearly everything in its path. Nearly 15 years later, much of the park is still dotted with dead trees. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent from happening,” he said. “Cuyamaca didn’t get a lot of prescribed burns or anything. Then the Cedar fire came through and pretty much nuked everything. Now it’s almost reset the fuel model up there. It’s pretty much brush now instead of timber and trees.”  He said without the forest canopy that the oldgrowth trees had provided, the brush gets full sunlight and just takes over.  There are two basic types of controlled burns — pile and broadcast.  Pile burning is when workers gather needles and brush from the forest floor and put it into piles that are burned. That technique is more commonly used in areas near homes and structures.  Broadcast burns are when a section of land is burned, usually 50 acres or less at one time. Special attention is given to “jackpot” areas— parts of the forest floor that are rich with fuels like large downed trees. Those are common all over the Cleveland National Forest and elsewhere in the backcountry, thanks in part to the Gold Spotted Oak Borer, which has killed thousands of mature oaks in the county. The drought has made the problem worse, officials said. Dead trees, whether felled or still standing, are dry hunks of wood ready to burn quickly when wildfire strikes. That’s an added threat that didn’t exist during the mega-firestorms of the last decade. To minimize the danger, controlled burns are often planned when rain is in the forecast so the wet weather can help extinguish any remaining hot spots.  The forest service conducts several dozen burns each winter, as does Cal Fire and other agencies. But because the forest encompasses thousands of acres, prescribed burns can have only a limited effect. Burns are augmented throughout the year by other management techniques, like forest thinning. “The forest service is a land-management agency at heart,” Marinelli said. “We’re definitely good at wildfire suppression, and that’s what we focus on. But we do a lot of land management stuff with the prescribed burns and the thinning and the brush removal.”  Whenever a controlled burn is scheduled, public notices are put out and road signs are erected in the area. The goal always is safety, officials said. Burn now, so it doesn’t burn out of control later.


A Forest Service firefighter wet down around the base of a pine tree so that the fire wouldn’t climb into it and damage it during a prescribed burn.  JOHN GIBBINS U-T

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