By: Sasha Berleman
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for 70 years,” Marty exclaimed from a folding chair at the morning briefing, his voice mildly shaking yet strong and certain, his hands resting on a cane that looked more like a wizard’s staff than an elder’s aid. A mixture of light laughter and awe-filled respect spread throughout the newly acquainted firefighters gathered in the dawn’s early light.
Dr. L. Martin Griffin, known as Marty by friends and colleagues—99 years young and mind still sharp as a tack —is the man who made this gathering possible when he brought together a different community of friends so many years ago to protect a 1,000-acre California coastal ranch from development. In doing so, they founded the nature conservation organization, Audubon Canyon Ranch. No longer a dairy ranch, this West Marin wetland, and watershed is now his namesake, Martin Griffin Preserve.
And while the Martin Griffin Preserve has been protected from many threats including imminent development, the removal of grazing cattle and frequent cultural burning before that—what ecologists call a disturbance regime—has converted the preserve’s historic rolling ridges of beautiful coastal prairie into dense monocultures of impenetrable coyote brush and Douglas fir forest. For decades, Marty watched this change come to pass from his home across the Bolinas Lagoon but due to stewardship challenges and regulatory and political hurdles, taking action to fight this conversion always felt out of reach.But on that chilly October morning, a new regional commitment for using prescribed fire to manage public and private lands was taking shape. Local, county, and federal firefighters joined a team of volunteer prescribed fire lighters from our diverse community of trained citizens and private land managers to set Marty’s vision in motion.
The controlled burn that morning would clear out 70 years of dense dead and down Douglas fir needles and branches atop remnant coastal prairie grasses on about 10 acres. Situated on a key spur ridge along a fireroad that was just recently retired due to impassable vegetation as the invading Douglas fir and coyote brush took over the landscape, this burn unit was strategically chosen for its multiple benefits: initiate the process of reopening the fire road, create and anchor point for future units, and begin the restoration of coastal prairie.
Marty showed up that morning ready to join the crew: leather boots, denim, and a heavy wool flannel shirt. When I asked him whether he’d be willing to do us the immense honor of igniting the test burn, his face lit up, he hurriedly grabbed at his pockets and exclaimed with a playful twinkle in his eye, “but I forgot to bring my matches!”
As we arrived at the top corner of the unit he wasted no time in eagerly replacing his cane with a handtool and grasped the full drip torch in the other hand. As burn boss Ben Jacobs and I stood proudly by, Marty showed no hesitation in handling the tools of a prescribed burner and confidently tipped the first flames onto the vegetation below.
A long line of firefighters stood reverently behind him, just watching. Marty wasn’t done, he continued on for several minutes, managing the heavy torch like a champ and adding depth to the flames wherever doing so was within reach, smiling all the while. It was only with great reluctance that he passed the handtool back to a firefighter and accepted his staff in return.
As he left the ridge that morning, he hoisted himself onto the high seat of the truck to survey the scene. To the left and right, firefighters took up the work he had begun, dragging their own torches, extending the flames he had laid across the forest floor, restoring good fire to the land and creating space for the coastal prairie to thrive again.