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Prescribed burns, cattle grazing aid in fire reduction

Issue Date: July 8, 2020
By Ching Lee

As catastrophic wildfires continue to plague California, renewed interest in and support for prescribed burning has made more funding available for groups to plan and carry out controlled fires to reduce fire hazards.

The latest counties looking to form "prescribed burn associations," or PBAs, include San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz, which recently received a grant from Cal Fire to do so.

Details for developing such an association and results of a preliminary study investigating how livestock grazing influences fire safety in the state were shared during a virtual workshop hosted last week by University of California Cooperative Extension.

The $350,000 Cal Fire grant—awarded to UCCE in San Benito County and the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County—will be used during the next four years to develop a PBA in the three-county region, said Devii Rao, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor in the region.

"The reason we decided to apply for this grant is that we saw a lot of ranchers and a lot of land-management agencies in our area were really interested in burning their lands, but for a variety of reasons hadn't been able to," she said.

Rao said she hopes to hold the region's first burn trainings next spring or summer, adding there will be several meetings "in the near future" to begin developing the PBA. People interested in being involved may contact her at or 831-205-3125. Information about local PBAs may be found at a new website,

Similar to range-improvement associations that ranchers have participated in for decades, PBAs have broader goals of improving rangeland conditions plus reducing fire risk, weed control, habitat restoration and whatever the landowner seeks to achieve, Rao said.

The grant will allow the association to hire someone to coordinate prescribed burns and conduct training, outreach and education, she said, adding that the association plans to host five prescribed-burn trainings in the three counties.

People who want to do burns at their own convenience and assume all liability must obtain a permit from Cal Fire, said Jonathan Pangburn, a forester for the agency's San Benito-Monterey unit. Another option is a cooperative agreement with Cal Fire under either the vegetation management program or a new vegetation treatment program, in which Cal Fire does the burning and assumes all liability.

"That sometimes can be really promising to certain individuals, based upon circumstances with their property and maybe a contentious relationship with the neighbors, but it comes with the caveat that we are a bureaucracy," Pangburn said, adding that the process requires an environmental analysis and documentation, and "can take a fair amount of time." Even with such an agreement, Cal Fire may not be available in certain years due to unplanned fire activity, he said.

Individuals or groups that use government funding for burning must employ a private contractor, known as a burn boss, who specializes in prescribed-burn planning and implementation, said Phil Dye, a burn boss with Prometheus Fire Consulting Services of San Jose. Not only do contractors have extensive experience in prescribed fire, he said, but many have worked for fire-suppression agencies and can leverage existing relationships to provide resources important for implementing prescribed burns.

Burn bosses also are experienced in writing burn plans that can ease the permitting process, Dye said, noting that smoke-management permits are required year-round for burns in virtually all parts of the state.

Aside from prescribed burns, rangeland management—in particular livestock grazing—is often cited as a way to alter fire behavior and reduce wildfire severity, according to Felix Ratcliff, a rangeland scientist with LD Ford Consultants in Santa Cruz County, who shared results from a study to assess the benefits of cattle grazing for reducing rangeland fire fuels.

"Cattle are by far the most widespread and prevalent livestock species grazing on rangelands in California," Ratcliff said, "and for that reason, many park districts, water districts, habitat conservation plans and regional policy groups have included cattle grazing in their planning for fuels reduction."

Cattle grazing has its greatest effect on rangeland fuels by reducing grasses and forbs, also known as fine fuels. Grazing also slows or stops encroachment of shrubs or other woody species into grassland ecosystems—particularly important in coastal areas of the state where shrubs can encroach rapidly into grasslands, Ratcliff said.

The study found that in 2017, about 1.8 million head of beef cattle grazed in the state, and those animals removed more than 6 million tons of forage/fuel.

On average, 650 pounds of fuel were removed per grazed acre, the study found, with removal varying between zero pounds per acre in counties such as Imperial and San Francisco, to about 2,200 pounds per acre in Tulare County. Generally, the amount of fuel removed per acre was higher in the Central Coast region, the Sierra Nevada foothills and northern counties, whereas fuel removal was lower in the desert and southern counties. Across all rangeland acres, fine-fuel removal averaged about 290 pounds per acre.

Areas with high fuels removal are also areas with high forage production, Ratcliff noted, adding that it's not how much fuel was removed that matters but how much was left behind.

"Unfortunately, we don't actually know how low we need to graze grasslands in California to significantly alter fire behavior in meaningful ways," he said, noting that "there's ongoing research on this topic right now."

Wildfire behavior models show that reducing fine fuels in grassland systems can dramatically affect fire behavior, he said. The models suggest reducing residual biomass by 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per acre can significantly reduce flame height and rate of spread, both of which can be kept low across a range of wind conditions when fine fuels are kept below 800 pounds per acre, he added.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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