Editor’s Note: Andrea Bustos and José Luis Duce Aragüés are Prescribed Fire Training Specialists for the Watershed Research and Training Center (also known as The Watershed Center) based in Hayfork, CA. Andrea, originally from Ecuador, and José, originally from Spain, bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to their work, having burned with communities in many countries around the world. FAC Net Communications and Membership Coordinator Annie Leverich spoke with them in 2022 about their unique understanding of fire and the power it brings to both individuals and communities alike. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Describe how you came to the position you’re in now. What led you here?
JOSÉ: I came here to California in 2012 for the first time, where I met an incredible group of fire practitioners who taught me and empowered me to keep moving forward and bring fire back to the landscape. Since then, I have been coming here continuously, attending many of the original TREX events and other fire opportunities – to visit, share and learn with my “fire family” here.
These experiences got me hooked on prescribed fire in California. And since then, I’ve been inspired by the ability of the community here to decide about fire. I feel like we have this momentum to do a lot of things in California, partially because of the wildfires that have occurred the last several years, but also because the community has more opportunities to say what they think should be done than before.
Both Andrea and I have also worked with Miller Bailey and Erin Banwell (Co-Directors of the Fire Management program at the Watershed Center) before. Their vision for the program at the Watershed Center was expanding and growing, and included a focus on workforce development. So they contacted us – and I guess our vision of fire from different perspectives and also our values of working directly with communities fit well with their goals for the program in California. They saw our passion for fire and working to empower people around fire. For us, it was like a dream coming true.
ANDREA: My longtime passion is geography, and how it can explain what we see in the landscape. For years, I’ve been working for different projects related to the environment and development of community capacities. In 2017 I started working in Ecuador for the “Amazonia sin Fuego” program, related to developing skills for fire practitioners in Ecuador. At the time, I only understood fire as something to be suppressed, not necessarily as a tool that could manage the landscape – even if local communities had been using it for a long time.
During the 2018 Spanish-language TREX in New Mexico, I realized that fire has a different meaning, and for me this side of fire can better explain the consequences of human intervention on the landscape. Since then, the strategy of how we implemented fire training in Ecuador changed, using the integrated fire management approach. With José, we developed the program Brigadistas Especialistas en Manejo Integral del Fuego, or BREMIF, which is heavily based on the local knowledge of communities and tribes in Ecuador. With this training approach, and understanding the role of fire in different ecosystems, I started my journey into the use of good fire.
You’ve worked in different countries with people of all sorts of backgrounds. Are there any universal things around the world you notice about people working with fire? Are there any big differences?
JOSÉ: Fire is related to people and the landscape they live with or in. Whether on a small scale or large scale, fire is always closely related to people. The story of fire is the story of people, and that’s a very common thing around the world. Even the challenges are the same. Regulations around fire, no matter where you are, tend to be made by people who are not in touch with what’s actually happening on the ground. There is an obvious relationship between rural areas and fire, and the people who make decisions, they’re usually living in urban areas.
The importance of the relationship between people and fire remains consistent around the world, but the different landscapes and social dynamics in various places will determine how the relationship actually functions. There are universal truths and realities about how humans and fire relate, and yet it is very specific to each place in terms of how you approach it, and how it’s received and planned for.
In Spain, for example, or in Europe in general, there is a high degree of control on any environmental or land management actions: only certain agency employees can devise, plan, and manage land management. In some Latin American countries, regulations sometimes are only “on the paper”; lack of resources to reach remote areas means the people living there can practice with more freedom.
What gets you most excited about working with fire? What scares you?
ANDREA: Fire, in the Andean worldview, is part of everything, and that’s how I like to see it. What makes me feel excited is how different fire can be, how diverse fire is. I am amazed at the capacity fire has to destroy and create at the same time. In every single burn, you see something different. Your knowledge and instinct are always pushing you to learn, and if that comes with humility, the potential of learning is endless.
What troubles me more than scares me about fire, is that fire is still not familiar to or understood by most of society. And that misunderstanding is enhanced by ignorance or exposure to media that presents fire as inherently bad and dangerous.
JOSÉ: One of the things that makes me feel really good and excited about fire is the idea (and hope) of leaving a positive legacy, of adding my contribution to leave a better landscape for future generations. And I think the best way to do it is by ”passing the torch”: sharing my experiences, the knowledge others gave me, the lessons I learned. That’s why I am so excited to be in this role at the Watershed Center: we are working with communities and empowering future leaders. It’s our responsibility.
In terms of what scares me…if you are working on fire, you know that at some point an escape may happen. It could be very small, or, although very unlikely, it could be a big one. We are putting fire in landscapes that need fire and have experienced it for hundreds of years – and yet, we often don’t have the support of the community. That’s worrisome to me. If we don’t have communities that are fire adapted and resilient, and aware of how fire benefits the landscapes they live in, we are going to continue to see disastrous wildfire events. Further, we need support in regulations, planning, and policy.
And then, as a person working in fire, you may have to contend with the worst, scariest thing of all – losing a friend or loved one in the work. I don’t know how to express that…when you get the news that someone that you love, someone that you know, that belongs to that fire family – is gone. We work hard to tell the story of fire and create positivity and connection around it, and we also have to acknowledge risks and the importance of safety.
What is your vision for a fire adapted community? What are some of the barriers you see for California to become fire adapted?
JOSE: We need to understand what nature wants, what the soil wants, what the plants want, what the animals want. I don’t know if we have the ability to understand everything – but humans have the capacity to be in harmony with the ecosystem. We have historically been more attached with the local places and communities, which allow for this unity.
I think we all, as a society, and as members of a community, need to understand our own responsibilities to our local places. We have lost that, I think, especially in areas or countries where we have systems that place a lot of responsibility on agencies and their capacities. Ideally, in all communities, every single community member is aware of and working a more fire adapted future. Since that isn’t always the case, it’s essential to find leaders and empowerers, within the community itself, to set an example, engage people, and start movements.
Some of the biggest barriers for taking action in landscape management are in the form of insurance and liability. The State of California has made big strides with recent legislation, but obstacles to sharing liability still remain. Training and developing local skills and capacities is another big barrier. We need a significant workforce with local knowledge and training to do the work. Further, Indigenous perspective, knowledge, history, and voice is not represented enough in our current landscape management strategies.
What do you hope to experience/accomplish in the next year of your work at WRTC?
JOSÉ: We have so much work to do – but there’s a lot of momentum and good things happening. This first year, we’ve been focusing on understanding all the dynamics, relationships, and people involved in fire here in California. We’ve seen great progress in the development of the Prescribed Burn Association movement around the state. Community-led efforts are popping up everywhere, and communities are taking charge in telling the story of how they want to relate to fire.
ANDREA: This year has been incredible. We feel so fortunate to have such a strong team supporting us to accomplish our work. A report on our work in 2022 recently came out. In 2022, we held 99 different events, including trainings, workshops, and burns. We engaged with and trained 2,616 fire practitioners from different backgrounds and agencies, treating 525 acres with good fire in 12 counties around California. These accomplishments were made possible by an enormous network of great human beings; and we really believe in this way of doing things. In 2023, we have a series of events and trainings planned around the state. While we anticipate challenges, difficulties, and barriers of all kinds, the team, the partners, and the people we work for are motivation enough to keep on enjoying every single day.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in fire, but who has a passion for it?
ANDREA: For those interested in getting involved in this work, I would say don’t give up even if things look difficult or complicated. There are so many ways to get involved at a beginner level. Here in California, we have great examples of cultural fire from the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, and prescribed fire for fire practitioners related to PBAs. It doesn’t matter if your degree is not related directly with fire – you can develop a path. Fire family likes to work together, so friends and partners of all levels of experience are essential.
JOSÉ: Everybody is welcome in fire. We put together a training in Lake County, CA last fall, with at least ten brand new fire practitioners joining us. And, we were more than happy to have them! I always say to someone brand new that this is a never-ending job, but the passion never ends either. Be ready – be careful, because once you start, you’re going to be hooked. You see very clearly that humans are supposed to be in relationship with fire when you see someone pick up a drip torch for the first time and put it to use. I think it’s something in our genes.
There’s also a never-ending process of learning about fire. Both about the fire itself, the land, and the ecology, but also the people. Responsibly working with fire requires us to have healthy relationships with each other.
We feel deeply grateful for this incredible opportunity of growing, learning and sharing, both personally and professionally, but most importantly, for the people we have met and their stories and lessons they have taught us.
Andrea and José’s work with the Watershed Center’s Fire Management Team is supported by a grant through the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity program and the California Department of Conservation. They are also involved with FAC Net’s sister Fire Networks, the Fire Learning Network and the TREX Coaches’ Network.