Pile Burning on Working Lands: Siskiyou County

On a chilly March morning in Northern California, a group of ranchers, land stewards, and fire practitioners held an all day workshop on a land management practice called pile burning.

Justin Sandahl and his wife run an organic dairy and ranching operation in Montague, California, which is about 30 minutes north of Mt. Shasta. At around 2,500 feet elevation, the region experiences dry and cold conditions, and is dominated by grasslands. Over the past 70 years, juniper stands have been encroaching the grasslands on the Sandhal’s land.

View of Mt. Shasta to the south from Sandahl Dairy

Workshop at Sandahl Dairy

Hosted at the Sandahl’s, the pile burning workshop was supported by the Siskiyou Prescribed Burn Association, Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District (RCD), Watershed Research and Training Center, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and the Scott River Watershed Council. CalFIRE and the Siskiyou County Air Pollution Control District were also there to present on permitting and regulatory aspects of the practice. Farmers, ranchers, landowners, and any interested community member was invited to attend. Five wildland firefighters (“bomberos” in Spanish) from Spain also attended. The Watershed Research and Training Center sponsored their participation as part of an effort to provide more culturally relevant support to mono-lingual Spanish speaking landowners across California. This was part of an ongoing effort to expand the accessibility of land management practices focused on prescribed fire. The Bomberos were excited to contribute their unique methods and tips for pile burning, while also learning about new ecological situations and considerations that they could apply back in Spain. They wish that proactive fire management techniques like pile burns and underburning were practiced more in their homeland, as opposed to the suppression-dominant mindset they typically encounter. Above all, the workshop provided a space for folks from diverse walks of life to get to know each other and connect over their common need to make working lands healthier and more fire resilient.

What is Pile Burning?

Pile burning is an important land management tool. You might make burn piles as part of a fuel reduction project to create defensible space around your home. A pile burn can also be a cheap and easy way to convert leaf litter and slash after a different fuel reduction project like thinning, or tree-limbing. These fuel reduction projects reduce ladder fuels (sapling trees, low-hanging branches, or densely growing medium-age trees), which during a wildfire, can allow ground fires to climb up into tree canopies. Pile burns are also used to prepare an area for prescribed fire called either an underburn or a broadcast burn. An underburn is a prescribed fire that occurs under a forest canopy. It features low flame heights that burn only surface fuels. A broadcast burn is often hotter, has a higher rate of spread, and is typically used in open range or grassland ecosystem types. The more rapid fire behavior occurs because the grassland vegetation type features ‘flashy’ or quickly burning fuels. Both typically burn in a patchy mosaic pattern. Patchy burns promote a greater diversity of plant regeneration after the fire and support a healthy forest ecosystem.

During the workshop, attendants learned about what a pile burn is, the ecological functions it can serve, pile burn lighting techniques, weather considerations and how it compliments other land management practices. They also learned how to correctly harvest limbs and arrange fuels. Finally, participants got experience in building and burning actual piles with the help of experienced practitioners.

The group learns techniques for building burn piles.

Learning and Burning

Pile burning observation
Observing as a pile burns.

The all-day workshop also had some unexpected lessons. Covering all the planned material took a bit longer than expected. The group talked about techniques on pile burning in two languages, as well as ecological considerations, safety, and permitting requirements. Piles weren’t ignited until early afternoon. Winds often pick up in the afternoon which, can make for riskier burn conditions. Furthermore, resident cows on the dairy had used the piles as scratching posts couple days prior to the workshop. They inadvertently removed the protective tarps. To make sure you can successfully ignite a burn pile, a sheet of plastic is anchored over the pile, covering a significant section of it. The cows had displaced the plastic sheets however, and poorly timed rain 3 days prior soaked the burn piles! When it comes to farming and land management, weather and timing is everything. Even with these challenges, the group was able to burn the piles due to the highly flammable oils found in juniper cuttings.

New Piles, New Connections

Using the techniques they had just learned, the Bomberos also offered to create new piles to be burned. This gave participants an opportunity to observe and test the cutting and stacking methods with green material. The unexpected challenges became important lessons that can be applied to similar settings and ecological management goals in future burn events. It was also a lesson in collaboration. The group came together and figured out a way to successfully burn the piles. This is exactly what makes workshops on prescribed fire and other ecological management techniques so important. The workshop brought folks from different organizations, farms, and tribal groups together. It was an opportunity to find common ground in the land management challenges that affect everyone.

Celebrating a successful day of learning and burning!

Interested in learning more? Check out CAFF’s Wildfire Resilience Program, and your local Prescribed Burn Association, RCD, or UCCE center to get connected to folks in your region that can support you in plugging in deeper to wildfire resilient landscape management methods!

Written by Josh Harjes, CAFF’s 2023-2024 Wildfire Resilience Program Grizzlycorps fellow.