The threat of wildfires was weighing heavy on the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers — a volunteer, nonprofit organization in charge of restoring and maintaining the historic light station built in 1890 — and here is why.

Wildfire was becoming a more significant risk to the lighthouse, especially factoring in climate change with progressively warmer temperatures and more severe droughts. In other words, if the understory vegetation/fuels are allowed to accumulate over the years, they naturally burn much hotter and are more difficult to impossible to control, unlike managed burns. The severe heat of these out-of-control wildfires can severely damage or kill an untold number of trees.

The last time San Luis Ridge near the lighthouse had burned was back in 1978. During that wildfire, Pacific, Gas & Electric Co. retired marine biologist Sally Krenn told me that firefighting helicopters scooped seawater in 300-gallon buckets and dumped it on the fire.

The problem was, there was a massive number of baitfish, primarily anchovies, in San Luis Bay at the time. As you may have guessed, many of these silvery fish wound up on San Luis Ridge. A marauding band of local raccoons took full advantage of the rare bounty.

The San Luis Ridge prescribed burn near the lighthouse had been planned for 15 years, but fuel moisture levels, availability of firefighters and equipment, and atmospheric conditions were never satisfactory to conduct it.

On Nov. 12 all the components came together: Gentle to moderate (8 to 18 mph) Santa Lucia (northeasterly/offshore) winds that would drive the smoke plume out to sea; satisfactory vegetation fuel moisture levels that would allow the vegetation to burn, but not too low that it would be difficult to manage; and enough first responders and equipment to safely conduct the burn.  

“Patience, persistence, planning, preparation and professionalism paid off in the execution of this prescribed burn,” said Jeff Gater, manager of the Diablo Canyon Fire Department. “There was patience in waiting for the right combination of wind speed/direction, live and dead fuel moistures, and atmospheric conditions that provided for the excellent result. Persistence was exhibited by the stakeholders in not giving up when challenges to conduct the burn arose. Extensive planning was the key to getting all the players and elements lined up and in place to make it go smoothly.” 

Gater recounted that the extensive advance preparations included mowing fire breaks, masticating fuels lateral to the control lines, and placement of hose lines and portable tanks well before the firing started. “The skill, experience and professionalism of all those on the fire line brought about this safe and successful result. The burn involved over 100 personnel and there were no accidents, injuries or human performance events to speak of.”   

“The prescribed burn on Nov. 12 was a great example of multiple agencies — Cal Fire San Luis Obispo County Fire, PG&E, the National Weather Service and San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District — all working together to achieve the common goal of reintroducing fire to areas adjacent to the lighthouse. These areas haven’t seen fire in decades, resulting in large amounts of dead material that are prone to large and damaging fires. Cal Fire San Luis Obispo County Fire supports these types of fuel reduction projects. The public should expect to see many more similar types of projects in the future throughout the county,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dennis O’Neil told me. 

Steve Crawford, PG&E public safety specialist said, “This control burn exemplified teamwork and cooperation demonstrating the ability of different agencies as well as diversity across the organizations to work cooperatively to achieve the goals of all.”

Controlled burns: An ancient practice 

There is ample evidence that Native Americans significantly changed the character of the Central Coast landscape with fire. Henry Lewis, an award-winning author, educator, and historian, concluded that American Indians used fire to burn vegetation for at least 70 reasons. The primary reasons were hunting, crop management, improving growth yield and controlling pests. The use of fire by Native Americans tended to replace forested land with grassland.

The vegetation burns lasted after the Spanish missions were established. However, early settlers in California who failed to understand the benefits of vegetation burns demanded the governor stop them.

Anthropologists and botanists say that Native Americans' frequent burning sustained a parklike landscape with grass and scattered oak trees.

Over the years, PG&E's prescribed burns on the Diablo Canyon Lands have enhanced the local ecosystem and reduced wildfires' threat.

"The Diablo Canyon Lands have a long history of fuel reduction work to reduce the potential for wildfire impacts. Work may include manual removal of vegetation under powerlines or the use of prescribed fires away from the power plant. PG&E works cooperatively with Cal Fire and the Air Pollution Control District to plan and carry out prescribed fires. These fires are critical in maintaining the diversity of the Diablo Canyon Lands," Kelly Kephart, PG&E terrestrial biologist, told me.

The prescribed burn on Nov. 12 was conducted by Cal Fire, the PG&E Diablo Canyon Fire Department, a PG&E public safety specialist, the Air Pollution Control District, California Conservation Corps and the California Men's Colony.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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