Observations and Lessons Learned by Guner Tautrim
Last year Gaviota experienced yet another wildfire (the Alisal Fire) which burned just under 17,000 acres in total. Winter has come and gone and although we did experience a few good storms our “rain year” totals are fairly dismal with numbers in the 10-13 inches range depending on exact location. Rain came just days after the Alisal fire was contained and luckily that first rain was exactly what we like to see- effective! Effective rainfall is rain that is light on the land, reducing chances of erosion and increasing the infiltration (effectiveness) into our soils. This was a very nice first rain since much of our upper and lower watersheds were just days from recovering from the fire.
The difference between recovery in a “natural environment” and recovery in an “agricultural/grazing environment” is significant. Since my land stewardship acres are mainly the latter, I have a few observations worth noting. The fire that most recently burned was somewhat of a “cool” burn in our area. This is preferred to a “hot” burn which can have damaging effects on the soil and future recovery. However, fire ecology in today’s day and age is much different then fire ecology in times when the indigenous population inhabited these lands. Much of our grasslands are what we call “invasive European annuals”- species brought over intentionally (or not!) from faraway lands. One thing we noticed in our grasslands is that after that first rain we had a 100% germination of Black Mustard (Brassica nigra). Although many people think this yellow flowering annual is pretty, it is the bane of those of us trying to diversify our rangelands. Mustard often times grows as a mono crop, allowing nothing else to grow around it or under it. It can grow 8-10’ tall in a season and come early summer it begins its dying phase leaving behind a dry, brittle thicket of standing debris that is prone to high fire danger. Once we realized we had 100% mustard coming up we decided to graze sheep in this area. The sheep will very much enjoy eating young mustard and doing so (early) resulted in a much different outcome than “over the fence” to the east (right side of the photo below). On the right (photo below taken in late April 2022) you’ll see 8’ tall, already dried out, stalks of mustard.
To the left of the fence you’ll see a much different species palate. The challenge with fire and the grassland environment is that you can spend countless time and countless money to introduce diversity (and natives) only to be destroyed in the blink of an eye due to fire only to revert back to the invasive European annuals. This is frustrating for the land steward who is committed to managing for the long-term health of the ecosystem. Through observation, trial and error, we continue to evolve our management goals. Monitoring and adaptive management are the name of the game. We do not suggest we have the answers, rather we are committed to trying our best. In this situation, we have found that timely and appropriate animal impact has been a useful tool in our toolbox.
In the natural environment however, the tools in the toolbox are much, much different. Much of our Chaparral (the majority of our upper watersheds) species rely on fire due to their timeless dependence on it. During the turn of the century and into the 1930’s and beyond, ALL fire had a bad rap and there began decades of total fire suppression. In doing this we created the perfect storm for what we have now- an ecosystem that has been devoid of fire for so long that chaparral has grown to 30’ tall and then dies leaving huge swaths of massive fire fuels that explode upon ignition. The Alisal fire gave us a chance to see this behavior as well as the polar opposite- a fire return interval of just a couple years. Many acres that burned in the Alisal Fire had just burned in the Sherpa fire. This will be interesting to observe how the landscapes of these adjacent environments react over the coming years.
You can learn more about Guner’s Ranch and operations at https://www.gaviotagivings.com/