Visitors to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park this fall may notice CAL FIRE crews and park rangers conducting prescribed burns in the grassland area near the visitor center.

California State Parks and CAL FIRE plan to begin a series of prescribed burns in Prairie Creek, Humboldt Redwoods and Sinkyone Wilderness state parks from mid-September through early November, according to a California State Parks press release. Motorists along the bypass on U.S. 101 and Newton B. Drury Parkway through Prairie Creek may notice smoke and flames from the road, according to the release.

Smoke and flames may also be visible from Mattole Road near Humboldt Redwoods State Park, according to the press release.

State park and CAL FIRE personnel have burned the Boyes Prairie area near the Prairie Creek visitors center periodically since the 1980s, said Lathrop Leonard, forester for the California State Parks’ North Coast Redwoods District. This is done to maintain the prairie as an open grassland and prevent woody vegetation from encroaching and converting it into another ecosystem, he said.

“We haven’t needed to close the bypass or even the parkway,” Leonard said, referring to U.S. 101 and Newton B. Drury Parkway. “The parkway goes through the middle of the unit, and what we’ll do is burn one side and then the other side, and we’ll have traffic control there so that if it’s smoky enough we may hold up cars for a period of time or go down to one-way traffic depending on what conditions are like.”

Weather conditions and the availability of fire crews will determine when the burns are conducted and how much acreage is burned, Leonard said. Both CAL FIRE and state parks officials will do an assessment and determine if there are enough fire crews to conduct the burns safely while making sure more personnel are able to respond to other incidents if needed, he said.

Leonard said he and other state park staff are hoping to begin conducting burns as soon as next week, but it depends on the severity of California’s overall fire season.

“Last year, for example, we were able to burn one day before the Sonoma stuff erupted,” he said, referring to the Tubbs Fire that burned parts of Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, including Santa Rosa, last year. “And then things settled down and we had one day to burn before it poured down rain and we were done for the year, so you just never know.”

Leonard estimated that depending on the variables, state parks and fire personnel have burned between up to 1,000 acres. This year, depending on crew availability and weather cooperation, they hope to burn between 500 and 1,000 acres, Leonard said.

Wildlife such as deer and the parks’ Roosevelt elk herds depend on open grasslands for survival, he said. Visitors to the park also appreciate the scenic vistas the prairies provide, according to the press release.

According to Leonard, Native Americans have used fire to maintain Boyes Prairie and other areas as open grasslands for thousands of years. A small fire can kill a conifer seedling that’s about a foot tall, but a 50-foot tree is much harder to eradicate, he said.

Woody shrubs are also difficult to kill when they’re well established, Leonard said. At six-feet tall a fire will burn the top, but it will sprout back because its root system is still intact, he said.

At Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, state park officials are hoping to keep Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and western hemlock from encroaching upon Boyes Prairie, Leonard said. They also burn to eradicate non-native exotics such as Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom, he said.

“It gets a little confusing. Hemlocks and spruce are obviously an important attribute of old growth forests in this area,” he said. “The closer you get to the edges of the prairie, the less likely you would see trees of a species that don’t tolerate fire very well, such as spruce and hemlocks. You see a different forest type right on the forest edge. If we weren’t burning Boyes Prairie it would become a forest and certainly Doug fir, hemlock and spruce would be able to move in.”

Conducting these prescribed burns will also make the parks more resilient to wildfire, Leonard said. The prescribed burns will be low-intensity blazes that don’t harm old growth trees and are easier to control, Leonard said.

“Often we let these fires burn under into the forest edge and so by doing that we’re reducing fuels in the forest and getting rid of some of the ladder fuels,” he said. “So if we have a wildfire, the fire’s less likely to be one of these stand-replacing fires.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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