The Residents Setting California on Fire in Order to Save It
To live with fire, locals are learning to wield it for good
Sasha Berleman, PhD, grew up in Southern California, and for most of her early life, fire meant ash falling from the sky like snow, or “smoke days” home from school and stuck inside. She was off to college before anyone mentioned the beneficial role of fire in the state’s ecosystems.
“I learned for the first time ever as an adult that fire is necessary in these landscapes, that it has been used by Native peoples for thousands and thousands of years, and that there’s an option for living with fire that doesn’t have to be tragedy,” she tells Future Human. “That really captivated me, after all of those more negative experiences growing up.”
Now, as a fire ecologist, she directs Fire Forward, a program of the conservation nonprofit Audubon Canyon Ranch that’s working to teach Californians about the ecological benefits of fire. People enrolled in the program gain the skills, experience, and equipment they need to bring those benefits back to the landscape with controlled burns, transforming their relationship to fire in the process.
Californians have always lived with fire. Just not like this. Five of the six largest fires in the state’s history occurred this year, and fire season isn’t over yet. It’s no mystery why: Climate change is the match that lit the flames, and decades of forest mismanagement provided the fuel.
There’s no easy or quick solution for either of those problems. In the coming years, experts expect California’s climate to become even more extreme, oscillating between more intense winter storms and punishing droughts, setting the stage for longer, more destructive fire seasons. Now, more than ever before, Californians need to adapt to live alongside fire. And for a small but growing number of people, that means learning the skills to work with fire, instead of against it.
“There’s an option for living with fire that doesn’t have to be tragedy.”
For thousands of years, Indigenous people in the state used low-intensity, controlled — or prescribed — fires to manage the landscape. The frequent fires nourished the soil, cleared out dead or dying organic materials, and provided countless other benefits to California’s fire-adapted plants and animals. But a series of deadly wildfires in the western United States around the turn of the 20th century led federal officials to implement an enduring policy of fire suppression. As California’s population boomed, and more homes and towns popped up in wildland areas, the state’s approach to wildfire focused on doing whatever it took to put them out. Scientists and policymakers alike now recognize that strategy has only made forests less healthy and fires more ferocious.
Reintroducing prescribed burns is a strategy that many, including Berleman, say should be obvious in the wake of the latest infernos.
But that hasn’t led to a meaningful shift in policy yet. Californians are understandably wary of more fire, and managing fuels with fire or other tools is logistically challenging on the patchwork of federal, state, and privately owned forested land in the state. It’s also expensive, and right now, most of Cal Fire’s resources must go to putting out fires that threaten Californian’s property and lives.
“We have this massive workforce dedicated to suppressing wildfires, and we don’t have anywhere near that for the prevention side, for doing the management and the treatment to steward these landscapes that we’re supposed to be taking care of,” Berleman says. “A lot of us are trying to build that community.”
Berleman is part of the Good Fire Alliance, a prescribed burn association in the North Bay working to bring controlled burning back to the landscape. Members have likened the association’s burns to barn raisings: When private landowners want to burn excess fuels on their property, for example, or resource managers want to control invasive species in public parks or preserves, the association brings together experts and local volunteers to provide the expertise and workforce necessary to carry out controlled burns safely.
Locals don’t necessarily need any experience with fire management to participate, but many of the Good Fire Alliance’s volunteers have earned their basic wildland firefighting certification through Fire Forward’s training program, which involves online coursework and one day of on-the-ground training. At least 85 people, including land managers, students, political representatives, even artists, have been through the two training sessions Fire Forward has offered so far, and another 45 are enrolled for the next one later this month. The program plans to host two sessions a year going forward, building a skilled workforce of local residents that can start fires, without taking away resources from the state agencies currently tasked with putting them out.
In 2017 a firestorm hit Sonoma County, burning through tens of thousands of acres, thousands of structures, and taking two dozen lives. “I remember feeling pretty helpless,” says Peter Nelson, PhD, who watched the devastation unfold in his home county from a few hundred miles south in San Diego. He felt compelled to do something about it, so this year he went through Fire Forward’s program.
Nelson’s interest in prescribed burns is both academic and personal: A professor of American Indian studies at San Diego State University and a Coast Miwok, he’s long understood the ways native peoples, including his own tribe, have used prescribed burns to manage California’s natural resources. While some tribes still use controlled burns, the Coast Miwok haven’t since the 1800s, thanks to the dual forces of colonization and fire suppression.
“I don’t want it to be just some historical thing that I study,” he says. “It’s part of my culture and my history. It’s also something that I want to bring back to this landscape, because prescribed burns have been absent for a very long time.” In May, when the Good Fire Alliance carried out a prescribed burn at the Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve — a site within his tribal territory — it was Nelson who put the torch to the ground to start the fire.
For Russell Tamura, who grew up in the Bay Area and now works at a cooperative bakery and restaurant in Berkeley, neither wildfire nor controlled burns were a big part of his life until recent years, when nearby fires burned through the area and filled the city with smoke. This year, even before smoke from fires burning more than 200 miles away blocked out the sun and turned the skies in the bay area a dystopian shade of orange, Tamura decided he wanted to do something to help.
“It turned the ground into a barbecue and fried everything above it.”
“I’m not a career firefighter, so just as a community member, I’m really thankful that I was able to train and learn and participate,” he says.
“On an individual level I do feel a little more secure,” he says, “just knowing more about fire science and fire behavior makes these big fires a little less like this huge scary abstract monster.”
For Californians living in rural parts of the state, wildfires are a real threat, and there’s resistance to adopting prescribed burns. Policymakers are in a tough spot: It’s hard to take money away from putting out fires when they’ve burned so many homes and killed so many people. But change is coming: Since the 2017 fires, Sonoma County’s Regional Parks has been trying to use more prescribed fire as a land management tool, according to Aleta Parseghian, a park aide. “For me, who is a county employee and also just really passionate about this stuff, it’s really exciting to see the government agencies moving toward a more fire-positive approach.”
With a background in natural resource management, Parseghian was already familiar with the concept of prescribed burns. But she still went through the Fire Forward training this summer to get the skills and on-the-ground experience necessary to help bring more good fire to Sonoma County. It’s one thing to know that fire benefits the state’s ecosystems, and it’s another entirely to know how to use it safely. If a controlled burn becomes uncontrolled, the stakes are high, which is one of the reasons the state has been so slow to catch on.
Fred Euphrat, a forester and landowner in Sonoma County, tried to carry out a controlled burn on his land in 2019 and 2018, but his insurer wouldn’t cover it. He planned to try again later this year, but in July the Walbridge fire roared through, killing seemingly every tree on his property. “It turned the ground into a barbecue and fried everything above it,” he says. He’s careful to point out, however, that a prescribed burn wouldn’t have saved his trees.
“It was about 100 in the air and about 20% humidity,” he says, “so there was nothing that was going to stop that fire.”
Euphrat’s experience highlights a somber fact about prescribed burns: They can’t necessarily stop fires — especially those fueled by overgrown forests and strong winds, which can toss embers 20 to 2,000 feet out in front of a wildfire, lighting anything in its path. They can make fires less destructive, but only if they’re done on a large enough scale, underscoring the need for a state-wide policy change. “We need to burn 100% of our flammable acreage every 10 to 15 years,” he says, “so relative to that we have not even started.”
This year, California and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to thin out one million acres per year by 2025, and the agreement specifically called for “expanding and accelerating the use of prescribed fire.”
In the meantime, Berleman says that with a skilled workforce, there are lots of opportunities to get there, by better targeting when and where we burn.
“It’s taken us over a century to get into this pickle and it’s going to take us over a century to get out of it.”
Controlled burns are carefully timed to “burn windows” when the air is not too hot, the humidity is not too low, and the fuel on the ground is not too dry or too wet. These windows usually occur on the shoulders of California’s fire season, which lasts from late May through October. But according to Berleman, there are dry spells in the rainy winter months and breaks in fire weather during the summer that provide opportunities for prescribed burns. “We’re all starting to realize that we have more burn windows than we thought we did,” she says.
When those windows arise, Berleman says we should start by burning where people live, burning land that’s adjacent to the wilderness first, and allowing wildfire to do the heavy lifting of fuels management in the wild lands.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve the number of acres of prescribed burning we know historically occurred,” she says. “But we can change the way that we live with fire and interact with fire where it comes into close contact with people by doing the prescribed burning and tending there, and letting wildfire take care of the rest.”
It’s as much about a cultural shift as it is about a policy one, according to Zeke Lunder, a wildfire mitigation consultant. “It’s taken us over a century to get into this pickle and it’s going to take us over a century to get out of it,” he says.
“When we talk about the way forward it’s not that tomorrow we’re going to start burning a million acres here in California on purpose, it’s that we have to over the next couple generations figure out how we can build a culture of tending land.”