“Burn, baby! Burn!” Michael Sardella, owner of the Sardella Ranch and California Rangeland Trust ranching partner, exclaimed as he watched the first bit of smoke rise off his property. Ordinarily, a scene like this would send a rancher running to call upon emergency services for help. After all, that was the case when a wildfire ravaged through Sardella’s Tuolumne County ranch back in 2013. This time, however, the smoke signaled the opposite— it was a sign of progress to help mitigate future wildfires.
After CAL FIRE crews extinguished the wildfire on Sardella’s ranch in 2013, Sardella submitted a letter to the editor in the local paper thanking the fire crews for protecting his property. His published commentary spurred a visit from the local fire chief himself to thank him for his kind words.
As the story goes, the fire chief asked Sardella if there was anything else CAL FIRE could do for them, and he replied, “Burn it again!” In that moment, a partnership was born.
Sardella worked with CAL FIRE to develop a Vegetation Management Plan (VMP), which includes prescribed burns, masticating shrubs and trees, and livestock grazing. The plan aims to remove noxious weeds and flammable vegetation such as chamise, poison oak, medusa head, and tarweed, as well as overgrowth that cattle have been unable to access or graze.
Because the ranch reflects the types of spaces that CAL FIRE crews often come into contact with, the ranch is also utilized for the C-234: Intermediate Firing Methods class when they conduct prescribed burns. These trainings are often the first contact these firefighters have with wildland fires, so it gives them the opportunity to “fight fire” in a controlled environment.
There are many factors that CAL FIRE considers before approving a property to be burned. Aside from the consideration of available resources based on the current year’s fire season, the land must be ready. Last year, CAL FIRE Division Fire Chief Loren Monsen and other fire officials came out to the property to scope out the area, but upon inspection, they decided to postpone the burn due to lack of ground cover resulting from lack of rain.
CAL FIRE Public Information Officer, Emily Kilgore explained that if there is not enough ground cover or dried biomass, the brush they are targeting will have nothing to ignite it to burn. “The dried grass serves as a ladder fuel to these shrubby plants,” she said. “The grass is able to get under them and target the base of the problem areas, as well as help carry the fire though the vegetation.”
After a two-year hiatus, the annual burn and training was reignited on the Sardella Ranch on June 16, 2022. A 100-acre plot was prepped for the burn ahead of time with fire breaks and hoses lining the perimeter of the property. In total, 60 acres of land was prescribed burned
The first patch of grass was lit at the top corner of the plotted area. From there, the fire crew on the scene guided it down a hill to an open valley and towards the back of the property where the training class would take place later in the day.
Without disrupting the health of the land, the fire moved at a steady pace. Battalion Chief, Paul Karpus, explained that prescribed fire does not burn fast and hot like a wildfire would. Rather, it moves slowly and burns at a lower temperature to attack the problem areas without sterilizing the land.
“When a wildfire comes through the property, you run the risk of losing the productivity of the land through sterilization,” explained Karpus. “The goal of this prescribed burn is to take out the noxious weeds so that native grasses have room to grow.”
Since prescribed fire was introduced as part of the Sardella’s VMP, the land has seen an immense regrowth of oats, clover, and wild rye, boosting the productivity and biodiversity of the land.
“This area in the back of the property was wasted space prior to the VMP,” Sardella explained. “Just by burning the property, we have expanded our acreage and made it useful once again.”
Shrubby and overgrown areas on open land are the most dangerous when a wildfire breaks out because of the uncertainty of the fuel load. That’s why well-managed, grazed landscapes are some of the best places for fire crews to be during a wildfire. Karpus explained that fire crews seek out properties grazed by cattle and other livestock for camping and staging when fighting wildfires because these types of open spaces have limited fine fuels that can lead to out-of-control spreading flames.
“The ranches where you can see that the ground has been worked and managed are ones that you show up to as a firefighter and say, ‘this is where we can effectively and safely fight a wildfire,’” explained Karpus.
Moving forward, CAL FIRE and the Sardellas plan to continue burning for at least the next ten years on the Ranch. Their goals are to eradicate the noxious weeds and create a vivacious environment where native plants, wildlife, and cattle can thrive.
While the Sardella Ranch serves as a resource for CAL FIRE to utilize for trainings, at the end of the day, it is a working cattle ranch. Keeping it as viable rangeland so that it will continue to be benefit future generations is the top priority for the Sardellas, CAL FIRE, and the Rangeland Trust.