Editor’s Note: This blog is another installment in our Project Firehawk series, the series is named in reference to a cohort of Australian birds who carry fire in their beaks to spark change. Its essays explore the core underpinnings of our work, and in some cases, challenge the status quo. We have asked the series’ authors to be bold as they tackle hard questions to reveal needed shifts in our relationship with fire. We have asked them to be unafraid as they point out what is (and isn’t) working in our current system. These thought pieces may challenge you, create controversy, or even cause you to stand up and cheer. Regardless of your reaction, we hope this series causes you to pause and maybe even initiate a larger conversation about what it really means to live better with fire.
Last Monday night, I lay awake in Mexico texting with Liz Weil, who had just published a beautiful California fire story in the New York Times. I was complimenting her on the piece, which was compelling in all the right ways: factual but engaging, overwhelming but hopeful, scientific but also emotional and personal. She and I met last year when she was working on a Propublica article about prescribed fire, which ended up being an edgy expose of some of the darker elements of California’s fire-industrial complex. That piece caused quite a stir, but not for any lack of truth. And that’s the beauty of her writing: as Liz told me last week, she wants writing to be super raw; “just take off the filter and be honest…that’s the whole secret. The truth is always interesting.
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When I was a kid, my family would leave the cold mountains of Trinity County each winter and head south to Mexico, where we’d spend three or four months in a little town in the state of Nayarit on the Pacific coast. The first year we went, when I was four, we piled into our friends’ van; the next year we took a train; and from then on, we would load up in our mustard yellow 1970s International Travelall each year to make the long trek south. At that time, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was pretty radical to pack up your kids and your chocolate lab and drive thousands of miles south to spend the winter in central Mexico. But my parents were adventurers, and travel was key to their parenting strategy—more so than financial stability or normalcy. They knew that travel teaches flexibility, humility and connection, and shows us that our way is not the only way—that our culture is not the only culture. What a beautiful gift.
Fast-forward 30 years, and culture is yet again a dominant theme for me. However, the context now is much less inviting—far less colorful and warm. These days, I spend my time thinking about Western fire culture and trying to understand how to tear down its high walls, which keep it from the flexibility, humility and connection it needs to thrive.
My closest colleagues say I’m too nice, too optimistic and too patient. And you know what? I’m starting to think they’re right. The most recent example is the California state-certified burn boss program, into which I have poured endless energy and passion for the last three years. The program was mandated by legislation in 2018 (SB1260, Jackson), and I volunteered on the curriculum development committee. That group included a diverse set of agency and private fire practitioners, who spent much of 2019 designing the program. In some ways, the program felt revolutionary—it would be the first time the state had ever validated and certified experienced private burners, including retired and disenchanted fire professionals, cultural practitioners, landowners and community leaders. Finally, the fire culture making room for outside experts who want to help—monumental, right?
After more than a year of state review, the program was finalized and approved in early 2021, and I proudly hosted the first course in May 2021. Meanwhile, I and others were working on other cutting-edge legislation, which we tied in various ways to the new certification program. Amazingly, we changed California’s liability standard, and we set aside $20 million for a prescribed fire claims fund to help fill the gaping hole in prescribed fire insurance. Ostensibly, 2021 was an incredible year for prescribed fire in California.
But guess what? It’s now mid-January, 2022, and not a single person who took the burn boss course eight months ago has been certified by the state. The program, which we thought had been fully vetted and approved, has instead faced further internal scrutiny from CAL FIRE, whose staff have questioned the credentials and experience of the people who participated in the May class. Additional signatures and requirements have been added, and even the federally qualified Type 2 Burn Bosses (RXB2s) who took the course have had their applications questioned and stalled, despite the fact that their federal qualification is far more rigorous than the state certification. The three people who are qualified to instruct the class have (understandably) refused to offer it again until the state sorts out its issues, and because people have to take the course in order to be qualified to teach it, the entire trajectory of the program has flat-lined.
Over the summer, I sent inquiring emails—to no end. In the fall, I requested (and had) a special meeting with high-ranking officials in CAL FIRE and State Fire Training—to no end. In November, I warded off a PR campaign by my frustrated colleagues who had taken the course and heard nothing since. In December, I deflected emails from several reporters who wanted to understand why the state of California, which has touted so much progress on prescribed fire, still hasn’t certified any private burn bosses. I was guarding my state partners—giving them the time they needed to make things right.
But after texting with Liz Weil, and in brainstorming for this blog, I decided to take off the filter and speak the truth. My colleagues were right—I was being too nice. Too optimistic that the state would come forward and honor the program’s intent. Naïve in my hope that these state officials might all load into a 1970s International Travelall, drive out to a community-led prescribed burn, and have some kind of cultural revelation about non-agency people really being part of the solution.
I wish I had space to tell you about that first group of state-certified burn bosses: people like Jim Wills and Deborah Mayer, who worked full careers in fire and have been bossing burns for longer than most firefighters have been alive; or people like Sarah Gibson and Andres Avila, who work with local fire departments and are eager to lead burns and protect their communities. (Sarah was featured in this short New York Times video about the burn boss program earlier this year.) Then there were tribal burn bosses, community fire leaders and other retired and current fire professionals—it was an impressive group.
And the truth is this: if we don’t start making space for outside perspectives and expertise, we’re not going to make it. If we keep squandering people’s passion and interest, they will find something else to focus on, likely somewhere else. Optimists like me—we might all lose hope, quit our jobs and move to Mexico. And these issues aren’t specific to California; we’re dealing with these kinds of challenges across the West. We’ve built a fire culture that doesn’t recognize—and often undermines—other forms of knowledge, to the great detriment of our landscapes and communities. So if the existing rules and standards don’t facilitate the right things, let’s change the rules. Let’s re-write the standards. Let’s honor the innovative work that people have been doing, and let’s choose leaders who think outside the box (CAL FIRE is currently selecting their next Director…). We can’t afford to waste any more time.
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Just before Christmas, I was in Lo de Marcos, a beach town in Mexico just south of the place my family traveled to when I was a kid. We noticed the guys next to us on the beach were talking about the Red Salmon Complex, a 2020 fire that my husband had worked on in California, then I realized I knew one of them! They were two Forest Service firefighters, and one of them had gone to school at Humboldt State University (HSU), in the town where we live. We’d met at HSU and again later at a TREX event. We caught up about life and work, and he excitedly inquired about the recent legislation I’d help pass. After many seasons in federal fire, he was awaiting potential back surgery and rethinking his career path. At ~30 years old, he was tired of low pay, frequent injuries, and not being able to maintain a relationship because he’s never home. He was curious about the state-certified burn boss program—was this a way for him to put his fire skills to use, but in a way that could help communities, restore fire to the landscape, and let him live a normal life?
I hesitated, and then I said yes—that’s exactly what it is. Call me an optimist, but that’s what I am going to make it.
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