SCE Uses Fire to Fight Wildfires

The utility’s forestry staff conducts prescribed burns to help thin the forest and remove overgrowth to prevent even more severe wildfires.
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Stories : Safety

SCE Uses Fire to Fight Wildfires

The utility’s forestry staff conducts prescribed burns to help thin the forest and remove overgrowth to prevent even more severe wildfires.
Photo Credit: Ryan Stewart

Robert York has spent his career in forest ecology and management and has long known about the advantage of carefully using prescribed burns to keep a forest healthy and less susceptible to severe wildfire.

But last fall, the University of California, Berkeley forestry professor saw up close the advantages of having a consistent program for prescribed burns during a visit with 55 other forest experts to Southern California Edison’s 20,000-acre forest in the Sierra east of Fresno.

SCE’s forestry staff has conducted prescribed burns in the forest around Shaver Lake for more than 40 years. The highly controlled, low-intensity fires — only done when the wind, heat and humidity make it safe — burn away overgrown brush, small trees and dead material that could serve as fuel for a more dangerous blaze.

Backfires like this are used to control the heat while protecting larger trees.
Backfires like this are used to control the heat while protecting larger trees.

Prescribed burns help eliminate plants that compete with the native plants and trees for nutrients and sunlight and also stimulate native vegetation like deer brush, Carpenteria and giant sequoia, which need fire to reproduce.

The burn-offs, combined with selective tree thinning, result in a healthy forest where ponderosa pine, sugar pine, sequoias and other native vegetation have room to grow and thrive.

“What I saw was really incredible,” said York, who manages UC Berkeley’s research forests. “Edison is setting an example for how it can be done.”

SCE’s prescribed burn efforts got a boost two years ago when the utility partnered with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to conduct prescribed burns on larger areas of SCE’s forest.

Piles of logs and debris are burned by SCE Forestry during the winter when conditions are safe.
Piles of logs and debris are burned by SCE Forestry during the winter when conditions are safe.

Ryan Stewart, SCE’s forestry supervisor, said both sides have benefitted from the partnership. With only seven employees on staff, SCE’s forestry team has been limited in how much area it could safely burn.

The Cal Fire crews, whose experience is primarily in fighting fires, learn from SCE’s forestry team techniques for conducting prescribed burns to prevent wildfires.

Last fall, Cal Fire crews burned about 400 acres on SCE’s forest land that now provide a good firebreak for Shaver Lake from a fire originating in the west.

The Cal Fire work freed up SCE’s forestry staff to burn about 200 acres to protect the Camp Chawanakee Boy Scout camp.

SCE Forester Ryan Stewart (left) and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jim Fitzgerald work together to burn an area above Ely Meadow.
SCE Forester Ryan Stewart (left) and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jim Fitzgerald work together to burn an area above Ely Meadow.

Stewart hopes that, going forward, the partnership will be able to burn about 1,000 acres annually. That would put SCE on a 20-year fire rotation schedule, which would better replicate the natural fire recurrence in the area.

“We’re trying to steer the forest in the direction to be green, healthy and resilient,” he said.

York, the forestry professor, said SCE’s work at Shaver Lake provides a model for others to emulate in their forest management and wildfire prevention practices.

“Edison has demonstrated that you can do this without a huge army of people,” he said. “The thing Edison has going for it is that it gets easier over time.”