By Fire Ambassador, Sasha Berleman
As a follow-up to Building A Community Practice of Living with Fire, we wanted to introduce you to some of the faces that make up the Good Fire Alliance!
I am a Coast Miwok person and a citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria from Marin and Southern Sonoma Counties of California, as well as a professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. My people have not been allowed to burn for nearly 200 years, but Fire Forward has given me an outlet to reignite this type of stewardship in my ancestral territory in permitted spaces, even if it is done in the framework of modern prescribed burning that may differ in goals and outcomes from the cultural burning practices of my ancestors. Fire Forward has also provided many outlets for me to reconnect with private and public properties in my ancestral lands that I did not have access to before, and it has strengthened my relationships with other stewardship-minded individuals from our local area. We need bridges, not walls, between our respective communities, because climate change and its impacts on the world do not discriminate between races, species, or genders. We also need to keep in mind how our own societal inequalities intensify these environmental impacts for people of color and other marginalized communities. I am very excited to see how our relationship building in the Good Fire Alliance community and beyond continues to grow and bring us closer together and closer to the land. I think these relationships are crucial to the survival of our planet.
I burn because once you’ve had the feeling of holding a drip torch in your hands—of working with fire—it’s pretty hard to forget it. But more than that, I feel a responsibility to the land and its people, the First Peoples who stewarded—and still steward—this place with fire. Bringing good fire back to the land in community is not only fun, but deeply rewarding. It comes with a trust in our efforts to be stronger and more sustained because we’re choosing to do so together. And on a purely practical level: I’m a millennial for whom owning land of my own to care for is essentially a pipe dream, so burning in community affords me a way to access a ton of land to steward.
I'm a growing prescribed fire practitioner and restoration ecologist, in love with the landscapes and ecologies of California. I have always had an interest in fire: its aura of danger and unpredictability, its insatiable hunger, and the flickering glow drew me in as a child. In college I began to explore fire ecology and fire adapted plants, my interest driven further by a wildfire on my favorite mountain in 2012. However, I only dreamed of applying and managing fire in the ecosystems and landscapes I love so much. It is an honor, a privilege and a dream come true to be able to apply good fire to beautiful landscapes with such wonderful people. Watching good fire work its way through groves of old trees, licking the bases and cleaning the forest floor elicits a primal joy not found in other work.
Everything that can be said about good fire can be said about the human and ecological communities that surround and participate in it: diverse, complex, powerful, resilient, humbling, dynamic, healing, etc. Like a campfire, prescribed fire tends to bring people together. Relying on those around you to help manage such a humbling force breaks down barriers and creates an infectious sense of unity. With every prescribed fire we not only return an essential ecological process, but we build stronger communities and a deeper understanding of ecology and each other.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for why I wanted to get involved in the GFA community. In many ways, it was the meeting of multiple paths that led me here. Initially, it was my interest in California’s ecology that got me thinking about fire and its role in shaping many of California’s landscapes. Before I ever had a chance to apply fire to the land, I read and studied fire ecology, and for years; I dove into the fire-related evolutionary stories of California’s native ecosystems and learned about the cultural burning practices of California’s indigenous communities.
When my family’s home was threatened by wildfires in 2017 and again in 2020, my emotional relationship with fire began to change. Like many in my community, my fear of fire began to displace my interest in it. By participating in prescribed burning, I feel like I am beginning to repair and even enhance my relationship with fire. I have now seen -- first-hand and by my own invocation -- fire move across grasslands, coastal prairies and through oak groves. Through observation and experience, I am beginning to understand fire as the powerful ecological and cultural tool that it has always been, and in ways that were simply impossible to grasp in my studies.
I am a student of fire, a student of ecology and a student of humanity. I find the relationship between the land, fire, and humankind to be complex, humbling and fascinating. By immersing myself in this relationship I have found vibrant community, endless learning opportunities and great fun. My involvement in the fire-land-community relationship gives me hope for a more balanced relationship between nature and humankind and working towards that goal is often a damn good time.
I’m super stoked to be learning about fire ecology and prescribed burning with members of the Good Fire Alliance community. My interest in prescribed fire sparked during my college days and became a hardcore passion as I transitioned into work as a wetland restoration fieldworker. As both wildfires and prescribed burning gain momentum in our community, I’ve continued to wonder how these events impact our water systems and the wildlife that depends on them. My belief is that good fire and community involvement are essential pieces to promoting functional ecosystems. I learned quickly that these components of stewardship cannot be fully understood through a textbook. They must be experienced.
The Good Fire Alliance offers just that — the experience to foster a relationship with each other and the environment. We are invited to share skillsets and gain confidence in leadership, while doing watershed-scale restoration. The learning never ends, which is something I will forever be grateful for. I look forward to seeing the community multiply to build a more resilient landscape.
I have a background in wildland fire suppression where I built a strong foundation. I developed a deep knowledge of fire behavior, operational skills and strong leadership values. Upon leaving suppression, I realized that I was missing out on the action of summer and felt the urge to get back on the line. I have since fulfilled that gap by joining the Fire Forward team. Here I'm able to share everything I've learned with an amazing community of people, hungry to do their part in learning how to safely and effectively use fire as a land management tool. Lending my knowledge, through courses and on the job training, I am able to see these folks succeed and it’s been inspiring.
Fire’s taken everything I had except life. It’s a powerful thing, trying to confront trauma with logic and understanding. Those of us who choose to get up close and personal with what inspires our fear and fascination tend to find great joy in moments we are engaged with both of those at an arm's length. As a community, we’re allowing our wild selves to come together and carry out the mission; which in this case gives a lot back to everyone.
As a shepherd, land steward and community member I find that working with prescribed fire creates a new language for biodiversity on the landscape. Through participating in our local ecology with livestock, using targeted grazing for healthy soils, fire is the missing tool in the chest. When it comes to understanding problems that have been created by mismanagement and negligence of resources in our California forests, healthy fire regimes are the language we must learn to speak if we want to again become co-conspirators in thriving ecosystems.
These forests that are drawn into the edges of our property lines become the medium through which we begin to understand our role and responsibility to the safety of our community. Working to understand fire as a tool, we begin to change the fear instilled in us from recent wildfire seasons. By burning with prescribed fire methods, we begin to work together as a community for the commons, and by doing so all species involved thrive.
I’m a wildland fire researcher in UC Berkeley's Stephens Lab. I’ve focused my research on fire ecology, behavior, and effects, and in the process have developed a passion for supporting landowners in managing their land for resiliency, increasing representation of women of color in fire practices, and exchanging innovative ideas with people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. For me, community-based burning is not just an opportunity to put good fire on the ground, but is a way for me to be part of something that is greater than myself. I’ve been constantly inspired by the enthusiastic individuals who take part in each burn and can only hope that one day we all can learn to live and work with fire.
Working wildfire and prescribed fire incidents allows me to utilize skills I acquired in the Marine Corps and working ranches, and it is certainly the most meaningful and interesting thing I’ve done since being in Corps. With every prescribed burn I gain a better insight into fire behavior while making an area more fire resilient. I only wish I discovered this earlier in my life.
Photography: Sashwa Burrous