There’s a shift walking up the sloping front yard to Rick Batha’s house in Quincy, CA. The ground starts crunching under your feet, each step now cushioned by a mix of leaves, pine needles, and other brush. This, he explains, is where he drew the fire line.
This was my second time to Batha’s sprawling, wooded property. About six months ago, I joined the Plumas Underburn Cooperative and smattering of firefighters, students, and local residents as they conducted a prescribed burn on his land, which I detailed in this newsletter
. (Want more context about what a prescribed burn entails and why they’re conducted? Check out this edition
of Demystifying Disasters.)
That was my first time attending a burn, and Batha’s, too. His experience was heightened by the mixture of emotions that came with seeing the land he’s poured 20 years into maintaining up catching fire. While he was sold on the idea of taking steps to further protect his land, having watched the ridges around him light up with flames over the past two summers, he also admitted having some concerns, especially as he surveyed the aftermath of the burn that February afternoon.
So, when I was sent back up to Plumas County for work this past week, I was curious to see how Batha and his land were doing, and luckily, he was up for a visit.
“I’ve been on a journey in my head,” Batha tells me of his time since the burn. Together, we retraced the area where the lines of fire were laid in between the tall trees. The impact on the ground is clear—there is significantly less vegetation debris on the ground in the burned sections, which is why there is less cushioning and crunch to walk on. Some of the smaller shrubbery remains charred, while some of the weeds and native grass have already made an impressive, though unwelcome, return.
Batha is pleased by these results, if a bit conflicted. Deer and bears frequent the area, he explains, and he feels bad about the burn destroying some of their food. He also feels like some of his cedar trees got “pretty beat up,” and he’s still getting used to seeing the blackened bases.
At the same time, he recognizes that this damage would be significantly worse if a wildfire was to come through, and he knows that eliminating all that ground fuel helps reduce his property’s risk. It also can make his remaining trees healthier, he says he’s learned, as they are no longer in as much competition for nutrients and water.
As we walk, Batha tells me he understands how risky it might seem to outsiders to allow a controlled burn on your own property. It’s funny to him, because he says he actually considers himself pretty risk-averse. In his opinion, this was the sensible approach—he did his homework ahead of the burn, trusted the community members that performed it, and feels encouraged by the results. He would not only do it all again, he’s already planning the next one—this time, a burn that will go closer to his house, to be conducted during a favorable window this fall or winter.
He says the reaction he’s received from his surrounding neighbors is mixed—some are supportive, while others have raised an eyebrow at his property’s appearance. That, he believes, is part of the mental journey we’re all having to make as climate change, a century of fire suppression, and urban sprawl collide.
“I’ve gotten used to the view,” he says, looking at the acres surrounding him. “People are going to have to get used to black[ened] trees.”