Firefighters set 'controlled burn' in Presidio

Smoke billowed from the Presidio on Wednesday as firefighters conducted rare controlled burns in the national park as part of a plan to bring back native plants and flowers crowded out by aggressive, non-native weeds.

The burns — 27 in total — were the first managed fires in the Presidio since the Ohlone tribe inhabited the park centuries ago. The burns are part of the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust’s master plan to restore and maintain the native plants and vegetative landscape zones in the 1,480-acre park.

“The biological diversity here is off the charts,” said Damien Raffa, education and volunteer program manager for the Presidio Trust. Raffa said the Presidio is a “living museum” of the various habitats that used to span The City before roads and buildings.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen firefighters from two California and Bay Area wildland fire crews conducted the controlled burns on the hillside of Inspiration Point, a vantage point off Arguello Boulevard.

Using a common fire tool called a drip torch, firefighters ignited patches of grass contained within metal frames. The flames reached about 2 feet high and fizzled out after 10 to 15 minutes.

“We were a little concerned about people’s perceptions [of controlled burns] with all the fires going on right now, but today is a moderate fire day in the Bay Area,” said Jordan Reeser, a fire specialist with the National Park Service.

Non-native grasses have taken over Inspiration Point, experts say. They hope the burns will kill the grasses and make room specifically for the Presidio Clarkia, a small purplish flower that only grows in the Presidio and the Oakland Hills.

“If you leave [the non-native grasses] unchecked, they basically smother all the native flowers we want,” said Stuart Weiss, a scientist working on the restoration project.

In the late 1990s, the number of Presidio Clarkia had dwindled to about 4,000 individual flowers, said Lew Stringer, a natural-resource management specialist with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. After more controlled burns conducted in the fall, biologists will plant Presidio Clarkia seeds and hope the treatment works, he said.

Push to restore land to pristine state

Before the roads and before the buildings, the area where the Baker Beach residential neighborhood now sits in the Presidio was a thriving sand-dune landscape filled with native flora and fauna, including seaside daisies, coyote brush and dark-eyed juncos.

While the Presidio Trust, which manages the Presidio along with the National Park Service, has been restoring the native sand-dune habitats in the park since the mid-1990s, work has just begun on surrounding the area’s residents with native plants and flowers.

It’s “an opportunity to interact with an ancient landscape,” said Damien Raffa, education and volunteer program manager for the Presidio Trust. Presidio Trust restoration specialist Andy Kleinhesselink said plots between the buildings that were barren are now bursting with color after being restored using seed collected from the park.

As a result of the project, the native flowers have been attracting native sand-dune butterflies, insects and birds to the area.

arocha@examiner.com


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