Prescribed Burns Planned for The Santa Lucia Preserve

The Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA) and Conservancy staff heading out to the prescribed burn site on The Preserve in November 2021. Photo by DMT Imaging. 

October 10, 2022

By Alix Soliman, Communications & Outreach Coordinator

The Conservancy is planning to conduct prescribed burns this fall totaling approximately 90 acres of grasslands in the San Francisquito Flats and the old dairy field, just off of Rancho San Carlos Road at the center of The Preserve. Because prescribed burns are dependent on weather conditions, the dates are not yet set and are subject to change with little notice.

Goals of the Burn

Our burn site in the northwest section of the San Francisquito Flats is a mixed grassland and historical wetland that was partially drained and seeded with invasive Harding grass for commercial grazing during the ranching period about 100 years ago. Today, a majority of the remaining wet meadow contains water for only part of the year. By clearing vegetation to prepare the land for native seeding in the spring and cycling nutrients back into the soil to reinvigorate growth, prescribed fire is a critical tool in our efforts to restore the wet meadow. 

Our Dairy Field burn site (between the New Corporation Yard, employee housing, and Rancho San Carlos Road) has only been grazed twice since the Conservation Grazing Program began in 2013 due to its status as a functioning wetland. A lack of disturbance has led to a buildup of dead organic matter known as “thatch,” which increases fuel and can stifle new plant growth. Bringing prescribed fire to this site will reduce the thatch layer, return nutrients to the soil, encourage native plants to flourish, and prepare the site for more expedient invasive plant removal. 

Map of the prescribed burn units planned for the Preserve this fall. For Preserve members interested in observing the burn, we’ve included a preferred burn viewing area point in pink on Chamisal Pass.

Benefits of Prescribed Fire 

Many of California’s native plants rely on fire to provide nutrients and help seeds germinate. In the absence of periodic, low-intensity fires, fuels accumulate, habitats degrade, invasive plants proliferate, and the risk of catastrophic wildfire increases. By bringing prescribed burns back to the land, we can lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire and help restore fire-adapted landscapes across California. 

Indigenous peoples of California traditionally harnessed the power of fire to clear underbrush, eradicate pests, recycle nutrients, drive wildlife into traps and mark territories, among other uses. After a century of federal fire suppression that has contributed to catastrophic wildfires across the West, cultural and prescribed burning are finally being recognized and encouraged as one of the best tools to reintroduce disturbance to the landscape and restore natural ecological processes.

Creating “Fire-permeability” on Santa Lucia Preserve

The Conservancy has over a decade of prescribed fire experience. We conducted our first prescribed burn in 2009 on two small grasslands covering a total of 47 acres. Since then, we have conducted prescribed burns in San Francisquito Flats in 2010 and 2012, around Moore’s Lake and Ohlone Pond in 2015, and on the Animus and privately-owned lots in 2021. To date, we have sponsored 10 members of our staff in acquiring Wildland Firefighter Type II (FFT2) certifications, participated in prescribed fire workshops, and assisted with several prescribed fires in the region through the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA).

Our prescribed fire work is part of a larger strategy to establish resilient ecosystems and create a fire-permeable landscape that allows fire to move through at a lower intensity, benefiting our native species without threatening life, property, or unique and valuable natural resources. This strategy includes conservation cattle grazing, goat grazing, invasive weed removal, shaded fuel breaks, maintaining strategic fuel breaks in partnership with CAL FIRE, and lot-specific fuel management plans that go above and beyond establishing defensible space around homes. 

Expected Results

Immediately after the burn, the grassland will look scorched. The Conservancy will continue restoration operations in the San Francisquito Flats, including native planting and seeding, strategically placing beaver dam analogs (BDAs) to allow for greater water infiltration, conservation grazing, and targeted weed management. Over the next decade, we expect water to be held within the San Francisquito Flats for more days out of the year (known as the “hydro-period”) and native grasses and wildflowers to populate the landscape in greater abundance, providing a healthier and more productive habitat for wildlife 

Safety is Our Top Priority

To ensure that our community is safe during prescribed burns, standard safety procedures require a “burn plan” outlining the personnel required, equipment needed, a narrow window of acceptable weather conditions (known as the burn prescription), contingency planning, and required air quality and burn permits. 

The safest and most effective time to burn grasslands is during the fall after the first rain of the season, when the target plant species are under stress from a long dry season, but there is plenty of moisture present to ensure containment of the fire. In July, the Conservancy grazed portions of the San Francisquito Flats to prepare the site for a safe burn and worked with CSD to ensure the perimeter of the burn site was mowed to create a fire break.

Agency Partnerships

The Santa Lucia Conservancy will conduct these burns with the close coordination of a number of local, state, and federal agencies. With a burn permit from CAL FIRE, certified Conservancy staff members will be conducting the burns with the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA) under the direction of Burn Boss Phil Dye from Prometheus Fire Consulting LLC. Members of local fire districts will be in attendance. 

Please contact Director of Ecological Management Dr. Rodrigo Sierra Corona at rsierracorona@slconservancy.org or Restoration Manager Jackson Brooke at jbrooke@slconservancy.org with any questions.