Fire Hazard Reduction in Chaparral Using Prescribed Fire and Mastication


Principal Investigators
James Dawson, Bureau of Land Management
Scott Stephens, University of California Berkeley

 California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
University of California DANR Hopland Research and Extension Center

Project Description:

The Challenge

California chaparral is considered one of the most fire-dependent and flammable fuel types in the world.  The 2003 Southern California wildfires demonstrated just how volatile this vegetation type can be, burning over 700,000 chaparral acres and tragically consuming 4,759 homes and structures.  For decades, land managers have used prescribed fire and mechanical brush removal to reduce wildfire risk and severity near housing communities.  However, as homes expand into undeveloped natural areas, the challenge of chaparral fire management becomes increasingly complex.  Land managers are forced to accommodate social, political, economic and logistical interests in their fuel reduction planning.  As a result, prescribed burns are often conducted outside of the historical fire season or replaced entirely by mechanical fuel removal.  The ecological consequences of these   management practices are largely unknown, but some experts fear that chaparral plant and wildlife composition may be permanently altered.  The challenge for future chaparral management will be to balance human safety and ecological integrity in this unique ecosystem.

How Can This Project Help?

Currently in its third year, university researchers are examining the effects of fall, winter and spring prescribed fire and mastication (brush-shredding) in Northern California Coast Range chaparral.  Specifically, this study focuses on post-fire and post-mastication recovery of shrubs, herbaceous plants, and migratory and resident bird communities.  This research project is the only replicated prescribed fire and mastication study of its kind in the world, representing five fuel treatment type/season combinations with four replications each.  To date, all twelve prescribed burns and eight mastication treatments have been successfully completed, accounting for over 100 acres of experimental area.  Post-treatment monitoring has been ongoing since 2002 and is planned to continue through 2005.  

Preliminary results suggest that both plant and bird species composition vary after these fuel reduction treatments.  In particular, plants reproduction strategies such as sprouting and seeding are favored differently by the season and type of fuel reduction.  In addition, bird habitat preferences appear to be linked to the habitat quality (such as availability of perch sites and higher amounts of vegetative cover) found on prescribed burned sites as opposed to masticated sites.  While these preliminary trends are fascinating, particularly in a region where chaparral research has been scarce, long term monitoring is critical in order to understand the complete plant and wildlife recovery cycles.

Who Will Benefit? 

This interagency research project has joined the University of California with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Joint Fire Science Program, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), California Fish and Game Commission, local FIRESAFE councils and environmental advocacy groups.  On May 15, 2003, over 60 representatives from these agencies convened at the DANR Hopland Research and Extension Center site to observe preliminary results and provide valuable feedback.  Future workshops will continue to expand the audience and disseminate updated project information.  Self-guided tours are currently available to the public, with permanent interpretive displays (including maps, photos and project descriptions) that guide visitors through a representative suite of research plots.  

This project has enormous potential to change chaparral fuel management practices.  When completed, it will synthesize five years of replicated plant and bird recovery data at a level of detail that has never before been studied.  This information will help us to better define chaparral management goals, improve the efficacy of fuel reduction programs and balance ecological objectives with social, political, and economic demands.

Contact Information:

Jennifer Potts

James Dawson

Scott Stephens

UC Berkeley graduate student Bureau of Land Management 
Natural Resource Specialist (Fuels)
UC Berkeley Assistant Professor
510-642-4934 707-468-4079 510-642-7304


Photo Gallery

Joint Fire Science Program

UC DANR Hopland Research and Extension Center