Building A Community Practice of Living with Fire

Published 2021-03-15

By: Fire Ambassador, Sasha Berleman, Director of ACR’s Fire Forward Program

Fire Ambassador, Sasha Berleman
Photographer: Sashwa Burrous

When it comes to living in California, there is no “no fire” option. Fire is a fundamental part of existence here. And though we cannot avoid fire as a force on the landscape, learning to live with fire is so much to be gained. Here, our ecosystems have been shaped as much by peoples’ use of fire as they have by our Mediterranean climate’s environmental pressures.

Pre-European colonization, the many and diverse Indigenous peoples of California used fire at epic pace and scale to steward the land, managing ecosystems as gardens for resilience, resource value, and diversity. The frequency at which people burned to steward and protect nature’s valuable resources created vegetation types and assemblages dependent upon, and unique to, this model of stewardship. As a result, many of our most precious ecosystems, including, but not limited to, oak woodlands and coastal prairie, require frequent fire to thrive.

Underlying all of this active management and fire-wielding stewardship is the benefit and burden of California’s famously Mediterranean climate. Our cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers support extraordinary biodiversity, but this climate also perfectly lines up our hot and dry times of the year for reliably noteworthy annual fire seasons. The summer fire risk is further dramatized by climate change impacts, resulting in longer fire seasons and more extreme weather events. When compounded by the tragic accumulations of available fuel that have resulted from a century of fire suppression, it is a recipe for disaster.

In regions of California dominated by privately owned land, and perhaps especially in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, recent decades have seen a dearth of applied expertise and knowledgeable, available workforce for on-the-ground fire management and stewardship. A widespread shift from trades to technology combined with a “wilderness” mindset that nature is to be seen but not touched has left our wildlands — our beloved historically tended gardens — fallow. In the Bay Area, our widespread and precious wildlands are not only privately held but are, in areas, divided into relatively small, parcellated ownerships. While a deep-seated love of the outdoors has been cultivated for years, it is only recently that folks are beginning to re-awaken awareness of our critical responsibility to these cherished ecosystems and how we must learn to actively steward and tend them again. And because these lands are held by so many, it will take everyone coming together around this shared need and understanding if we are going to find our way to a better future with fire.

Photographer Sashwa Burrous

In a time when people have arguably never been so separated – by politics, pandemic, technology, industrialization – from each other and from the natural world alike, learning to live with fire is creating a connection. Communities everywhere are coming together around a common cause, a spark of hope, a will to make a difference, and a desire to be close, both to each other and to the ecosystems around us. These communities are sparking up all over California. I have had the profound honor and privilege of witnessing and being a part of the community growing here in California’s North Bay Area.

This growing local community is actualizing a much-needed change in the way we approach our relationship with fire. The Good Fire Alliance is a grassroots community of partners from around the region working together, through a neighbors-helping-neighbors approach, to reduce fuel loads and return ecosystem stewardship as a cultural practice to these landscapes we hold dear. Community members from all different backgrounds have joined together in this effort as the Good Fire Alliance. Many are working professionals in ecosystem stewardship, land managers, and local tribal members, some of whom have prior fire experience, but not all. Many others still are artists, tech professionals, or restaurant workers, inspired to better understand how they can live with fire after years of catastrophic wildfires in the state have ignited a curiosity about how things might be better. As Director of Fire Forward, working daily with the mission to support this community’s fireline skills, capacity, safety, and cohesion has been inspiring. During a time when so much seems wrong in the world, this work and this community have become my “raison d’être.”

This past fall, our team at Fire Forward (a program of the nature conservation organization Audubon Canyon Ranch) led Good Fire Alliance members through a remarkable season of learning and burning, all in close coordination with local fire and air quality agencies partners, collaborating organizations, and diverse land-holding partners across the region. Together we accomplished a successful, non-stop season of prescribed burning and professional fireline training at all levels of experience.

Photographer Sashwa Burrous

At the tail end of California’s largest fire season and in the face of a brutal pandemic keeping people indoors and apart, over 75 community members came together in concert with local landowners and agencies alike. They dedicated their time, day after day, weekend after weekend, to developing expertise in getting good fire on the ground and doing so safely. Prior fire experience was limited at the beginning of the season; however, each individual grew and became skillful in handling wildland fire and professional fireline conduct. Community members rose from fire-curious to fire-wielding warriors with a common goal: to do their part in reducing surface fuels on the landscape.

Between October and December 2020, participants in this Prescribed Fire Training Exchange conducted or participated in eleven prescribed burns across two counties totaling over 325 acres. They completed curricula and training covering fireline medical emergencies, spot-fire size-up and suppression, fireline safety, leadership, situational awareness, water use, ignitions, ecology, and prescribed burn planning.

In a landscape riddled with privatized, parcellated land ownership, people band together and work across boundaries to make a difference and be the change. At the core of that is a community with a shared vision: a world in which we live with fire, not against it. This grassroots community is quickly becoming the region’s team of skillful experts in prescribed fire management, ready to actualize the change we need for a better future where people are once again close partners with and integrated members of the natural world around them.

Photographer Sashwa Burrous

Part Two: Meet Some Faces of the Good Fire Alliance