Photo Credit: “As much as I love a successful controlled burn, the trust built with landowners can feel like the biggest victory of all. ” Photo by Matt Cocking
We stood shoulder to shoulder, watching the fire creep down the hill. The flame was continuous but low, no more than 8-inches tall. It was now burning, restoring, a strip of land about a 100-yards long. With each inch that it spread, the fire, we, were meeting our objectives. We were mesmerized by the beauty of the moment. Silently, we reflected on the journey we took to get here.
Meet Rick and Fannie
Rick rushed through the front door, full of enthusiasm. He just got home from a workshop about prescribed fire.
He turned to his wife, Fannie, and proclaimed, “Hey, we should use prescribed fire on our land! I really think it’s what we need to control the growth of invasive plants on our property and to restore the natural vegetation you love so much.”
Not knowing much about prescribed fire, Fannie was … horrified. Their community had a history of large, devastating wildfires.
“Light a fire on purpose? You’re out of your mind!” she replied.
Over the months to come, Rick persisted. He made it about “education,” knowing that as a former educator, Fannie would get on board with anything in the name of education. They began to learn more and more about prescribed fire. The science behind it. The liability. The benefits. When thinking about what they were learning in the context of their own rural property, they both began to see conducting a controlled burn as a real possibility.
“You’ll burn the whole town down!” their neighbors exclaimed when Fannie and Rick were finally emboldened enough to tell some of them what they were considering.
“You’ll never get a burn permit!”
“There will be too much smoke!”
“Isn’t lighting fires illegal?” and so it went.
The local fire department told them that it would never happen. They began to worry. Fannie realized they needed help. They hired a burn boss. That’s where I came in.
Enter: The Burn Boss
When I got the phone call from Fannie, I thought, “This will be simple. I’ve navigated these types of situations before. How hard can this particular project be?”
I expected the usual: hostile neighbors, uncooperative agencies, fear and gaps in knowledge. When I received the vaguely worded, slightly (?) threatening letter from a neighbor, things felt a little less routine. After my site visit, I realized that this burn would only work under very specific parameters — a very narrow range of temperatures, no offshore wind for at least three days and nights (a real rarity in the area), a highly experienced firing boss, and so on. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the idea was to burn with 2 feet of their home and access was also limited? This burn would require perfection in terms of both weather and application. Still, I did my homework, and we set a date.
A week before the date we agreed to, a large wildfire (about 100 miles south of their property) created cause for concern. If I’m honest, I secretly wished that Rick and Fannie would lose their nerve and call the whole thing off. When they did call, however, it was just to set a new date. There was no backing out, and now, that burn is one of my fondest memories.
While watching all of our planning come to life among the flames, she turned to me and mouthed a silent, “Thank you.” I smiled at her, as if to say, “No, thank you.” Then, the radio crackled to life. It was time to move down the line.
I’ve lived through numerous versions of this story for the past 12 years. The story itself highlights a few of the most prominent lessons learned with it comes to burning on private property. I’ll recap a few of them and elaborate a bit.
1. Make sure the entire family is on board.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with landowners who wanted to use prescribed fire, but who had a spouse or business partner who was initially opposed. Make sure to bring everyone who has a say in the property’s care and maintenance to the table, and early. Get consensus on objectives and have a frank discussion about the benefits and limitations of prescribed fire.
Ask questions about concerns, and listen with patience and curiosity. Don’t stereotype people’s views or act like you’ve “heard it all before.” Every job is a new learning opportunity, and no two projects are the same.
3. Recognize social conditions around burning.
Remember how my prescription was delayed (for a year!)? Weather isn’t the only parameter for controlled burning. If communities nearby (or even sometimes far away) are hurting because of wildfire, follow their lead. Stay in touch, but don’t be pushy.
4. Listen to neighbors and other concerned parties.
You probably won’t get a slightly threatening (or even actually threatening) letter. However, listen for certain words and phrases like “I would advise against,” “worst fire season ever,” and/or “what kind of expert are you?” and so on. These are telltale signs that additional outreach efforts are needed.
As much as I love a successful controlled burn, the trust built with landowners can feel like the biggest victory of all. The pathway to building increased use and acceptance of prescribed fire can be long and tortuous, but it’s a pathway that must be walked. There are no short cuts.
Phil Dye is a 22-year veteran of the California fire service and the owner of Prometheus Fire Consulting LLC, a company which specializes in planning and implementing prescribed fires. Phil is a qualified Type 2 burn boss and has led dozens of projects in California, and in seven other states. Using prescribed fire, he has helped restore over 10,000 acres of land. Several of his burns have been near homes, in challenging terrain, and adjacent to communities. You can reach Phil at phil[at]prometheusfireconsulting[dot]com.
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