In the summer of 2013, a fire came through the Sardella Ranch. Where most would see devastation, Michael Sardella, owner of the Sardella Ranch in Tuolumne County, saw an opportunity.
Sardella has been a resident of the Sonora area his whole life. Since his family settled onto the ranch in 1957, he has witnessed firsthand the effects that population growth and development have on small towns in America.
“It started with a Burger King, and it just grew from there,” Sardella recalled. The area around the Sardella Ranch was previously bordered by ranches similar in size to his, but now, most of the surrounding area has been subdivided into lots ranging in size from five to 40 acres.
These areas, once open and teeming with oak trees and wildlife, have been converted to residential neighborhoods and commercial properties. Sardella on the other hand stands proud with a fully intact ranch that is protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement with the California Rangeland Trust.
To maintain the beauty and health of the land, cattle are used to graze the property, but like any other ranch, each year brings a small but continuous build-up of noxious weeds, tough shrubs, and overgrown areas, even despite grazing.
These heavy-brush areas have led to less space for the cattle to graze and wildlife to roam. In turn, the presence of these types of flammable fuels coupled with dry conditions and limited rainfall increase the risk of wildfires that can ravage through ranches and destroy nearby communities.
When the fire came through the Sardella Ranch in 2013, the fuels burned hot and fast. Not only did the fire threaten the ranch but also the surrounding subdivisions. But thanks to the handy work performed by Cal Fire, they were able to keep the flames at bay, save the nearby community, and save Sardella’s ranch and with it the basis for his livelihood.
The fire wiped out most of the heavy-brushed area toward the back of the ranch, but it did not completely clear out the overgrown areas. “[Cal Fire] almost did too good of a job,” Sardella joked.
After the fire, Sardella sang Cal Fire’s praises in a letter to the editor in the Union Democrat. This letter made it to Jeff Sanders, who at the time was the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras division fire chief. A year later, in the summer of 2014, Sanders stopped by to thank Sardella for his kind words. Sanders asked Sardella if there was anything else that Cal Fire could do for them, and Sardella shouted, “Burn it again!”
From there, a partnership was born. Sanders went back to his superiors and came up with a plan that would be mutually beneficial for the Sardellas, Cal Fire, the environment, and the local community.
With Sardella’s persistence and knowledge about his land, Cal Fire has been able to utilize the Sardella Ranch for the C-234: Intermediate Firing Methods class. Adam Frese, the current pre-fire division chief for Cal Fire, explained that the class aims to teach fire professionals different burning techniques to protect and get the most out of prescribed burning.
The Sardella Ranch has been the primary location for this class for the last six years. The training focuses on a 100-acre area of land in the back of the property that is easily accessible to the fire crews. The goal of the project is to clear out the overgrown areas and minimize noxious weeds, like Medusa Head and Tarweed.
Lately, California has seen a dramatic increase in the number of wildfires that occur. According to Cal Fire’s incident archive, last year, nearly 10,000 fires burned over 4.2 million acres – more than 4% of the state’s roughly 100 million acres of land – making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. Each year, the fire season starts earlier and becomes more and more detrimental. Many Californians have come to fear the word “fire,” but when it is done the right way, it provides ecological benefits.
For Cal Fire, working on ranches, like the Sardella Ranch, has been a valuable tool for educating and preparing the area for wildfire season. “Fire, when utilized properly, is a natural part of the environment. By reintroducing low-intensity fire to this area, we are able to increase the productivity of that land,” Frese explained.
Since welcoming Cal Fire classes on the ranch, Sardella has seen a positive and dramatic difference on the landscape. “You can walk through that area again,” Sardella explained. “It is so nice to see the variety of wildlife that have made their way back through the ranch.”
With the combination of prescribed burning and a proper grazing management plan, Sardella’s ranch is truly a sight to see. His neighbors get the benefit of marveling at the variety of trees and lush green grasses covering the hillsides in the spring and when blessed with a little rain, the vibrant colors of wildflowers carpeting the pastures. A local realtor once told Sardella that his ranch adds value to the properties around him because each place comes with an expensive view.
Sardella wants his ranch to be viable and productive forever. By maintaining the health and resiliency of his land through grazing and prescribed burning, along with protecting the ranch through a conservation agreement with the Rangeland Trust, he is working hard to ensure his ranching legacy will carry on for generations to come.
As Sardella puts it, “Everybody wants to strive for a legacy; they want to be rich and famous, but this land is my legacy.”