Local volunteer fire department member gaining experience on a prescribed burn in Humboldt County, CA. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Finding the Sweet Spot: Rigor Versus Impact in Certified Burner Programs

By: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Topic: Collaboration Equity/Inclusion Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Best Practices

I am a notorious softie. It became clear when we got our first dog 11 years ago: I am the one who defaults to empathy, and my husband, in contrast, defaults to discipline. Of course this discrepancy became even clearer in parenthood, and we struggle with the same patterns with our now five-year old: me, the bleeding heart mom who has a tendency to be too nice, and my partner, for whom “picking his battles” is a battle in itself. We tend to find that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where rigidity finds complement in compassion, and the boundaries we set are sufficient to hold water but not so high as to stem the flow of learning and growing.

I’m finding that these parental struggles have parallels in my prescribed fire work, where I’m charged with motivating and empowering people to take action, yet I also need to ensure that issues like safety, liability, and social license are of equal regard and import. There’s a constant tension between these aspects of my work—a tension that is both moderated and maintained by things like qualifications, insurance, agreements, regulations, and policy. As in parenthood, where the challenge is not to raise good children but to raise good adults, the challenge in our work is to nurture the next generation of great prescribed fire practitioners, using a fine balance of inspiration, training and regulation to get where we need to go.

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Nurturing the next generation of prescribed fire greats: Lenya’s son Rowan helping on a small prescribed burn in Humboldt County, CA last October. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Developing a State-led Certification Program

A couple months ago, I was chosen to serve on a curriculum development committee for a California state-certified prescribed fire burn boss program. This effort is a huge milestone for California—something that we in the prescribed fire community have talked about for years, but never saw as an imminent reality. We’ve coveted other states’ certified burner programs, drooled over their gross negligence liability laws, envied their millions of acres of private lands burning, and still we’ve subscribed the notion that those things could never happen here—it’s California; “it’s just too different.”

Then came the 2017 fire season—the Wine Country fires and the Thomas Fire—and with it, a surge of political interest in fire that propelled things in unprecedented ways. California Senate Bill 1260, authored by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, was signed into law in fall 2018 and focused explicitly on prescribed fire, including development of a state-led training and certification program for private prescribed fire burn bosses. I never thought I’d see that day, or that I’d have the opportunity to help shape the program.

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Local volunteer fire department member gaining experience on a prescribed burn in Humboldt County, CA. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

The committee met for the first time in late July to begin designing the curriculum. A diverse group of fire practitioners—including federal burn bosses, private contractors, non-governmental organizations, and state, county and municipal fire representatives—the committee worked at a level of philosophical alignment by which I was pleasantly surprised. We pored over SB1260, and we drafted curriculum that we felt met the legislation’s intent with integrity and vision. However, the process—still on-going and not expected to be finalized until mid-2020—is not without familiar debates around qualifications, prerequisites and perceived expertise.

California is not the first state to grapple with these hard topics. State-led certified burner programs vary significantly across the country, with some taking a more minimal approach, and others taking an approach that more closely mimics federal standards.

In many states, certification offers the burner reduced liability; for example, in Florida and Colorado, certified burners enjoy gross negligence standards, whereas regular (non-certified) burners can still use prescribed fire, but they are subject to a higher standard of liability. In California, SB1260 did not change our liability law—California is still a simple negligence state—but it does provide new opportunities for liability and resource sharing between certified burn bosses and CAL FIRE. It’s a solid step in the right direction.

Finding Balance Between Rigor and Impact

So the question is: who should have access to these opportunities? Should we take a strict approach and only allow the most experienced prescribed fire practitioners to enter the burn boss program, or should it be more inclusive? Should we require significant prerequisites just to get into the burn boss course, or should we trust that the people entering the program are there to learn and grow, regardless of their previous qualifications and expertise? How do we navigate that fine dance between rigor and impact as we try to increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire?

In many southeastern states, including Florida and Georgia, there are no prerequisites for certified burner courses. Participation is open to anyone who is interested, and certification is where the requirements come in: there is typically a combination of classroom time and direct experience developing burn plans and leading burns. Colorado, in contrast, has a program that more closely ties to National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) standards, and gross negligence is only attainable for Colorado certified burners meeting the requirements for an NWCG Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 2, or RXB2. For most people, this represents at least a decade of work in wildland fire, including significant experience in wildfire suppression. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that the numbers of certified burners in places like FL and GA are in the thousands—for example, Florida has certified 5,000 burners since the program’s inception in 1987, and has 1,700 current certified burners—while Colorado has struggled to get their program off the ground. Those states’ private prescribed fire acres reflect those same trends. Rigor versus impact.

As a softie, I’m inclined toward the more inclusive approach. When I plan burns, I have an open-door policy: I can find meaningful, safe work for anyone who wants to participate, regardless of experience, fitness, age, background. I believe this inclusivity is the only way we can bring people closer to fire—physically, socially, and culturally. Yet I also recognize that in the development of a burn boss certification, we need to set a high enough bar to ensure safety, efficacy, and credibility of the program. So it’s this central tension with which our committee in California has to contend: how do we set a high bar, but one that people are still willing and able to get over? As I find in most parts of life, just being soft or strict won’t get us there—we have to find the sweet spot.

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Like mother, like son. Photos by Thomas Stratton and Irene Engber



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10 thoughts on “Finding the Sweet Spot: Rigor Versus Impact in Certified Burner Programs”

  1. Emily Troisi says:

    Wonderful, post Lenya! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this effort with us!

  2. Marjie Brown says:

    Another fantastic post, Lenya! Your voice and experience combine to make your messages so very engaging and accessible. Some great points here that I had never thought about. Thank you. Oh and Rowan is adorable ❤️

  3. Fantastic photos, encouraging words, inspired effort, thank you Lenya!

    I think it’s very reasonable to compare various regions of the country and world. Despite what we see during high fire danger, I don’t believe that the prescribed fire situation in California (or Colorado) requires a vastly different approach from New Mexico, Georgia or even Portugal and Spain. Burners choose safe times to implement planned burns, and a safe day in California is no more dangerous or requires no more rigor than planning and implementing a burn on a safe day elsewhere. If you’re a rancher in the Flint Hills or in the Sierra Foothills, if you practice using fire for indigenous cultural values in the Klamath Mountains or in the Red Pine forests of the Northern Woods, or even if you’re just burning adjacent to neighborhoods to reduce flammable vegetation; if you’re burning I trust you’ve done your homework and this trust has been earned through observation and direct experience.

    A qualification that takes over a decade to achieve through a lot of effort and specific experiences is not helpful. Over-regulation is eliminating good fire from our landscapes and continues to force us to kick the can down the road. We need our communities to be actively engaged and standing side by side with the community based, volunteer and professional fire organizations. You are absolutely right to follow your gut instinct and be inclusive and find ways to help everyone be part of the solution. Kudos!

  4. Eytan Krasilovsky says:

    Thanks Lenya! Another insightful post about an important topic. I’m sharing it with folks here in NM!

  5. Tom Fieden says:

    Great post Lenya! Certainly a challenge to overcome. I appreciate how you compared and contrasted the CO and FL. Going to the SE it is easy to see that everyone burns and they have been doing it for generations, they know how to burn in their fuel type, I believe that is why the SE certified burner program works, not only in FL but all over the SE.

    While NWCG works for large burning organizations it does not do we in small geographic areas. While it is nice when a private burner has wildfire experience I don’t feel it should be a requirement.

    Keep up the great work, you represent the individual private landowners who have been burning for years and would like more training to enhance their knowledge and skills and some protection when the unexpected happens.

  6. Will Harling says:

    Looking forward to testing out this CA certified burn boss course with you next week Lenya! Sometimes I have to pinch myself this is really happening in California! Thank you!

  7. Dave Passovoy says:

    I’m so glad you are able to participate in the creation of this certificate. Thank you for sharing part of the process.

  8. Gord Chipman says:

    Very interesting article. We are going through the same conversations in British Columbia. Some juridictions like First Nations are getting impatient and implementing their own training programs instead of waiting for the Government to lead the way. I am willing to bet the situation you described is happening in 10 other places too. Thanks for your article.

  9. Dale Swedberg says:

    Great article Lenya! Kudos to you for all you have done to increase the acceptance and use of Rx fire on private lands.
    And good points Jeremy!
    I have been having the same thoughts and struggles here in Washington State. The Washington Prescribed Fire Council, for which you, Lenya, helped develop the 1st annual Conference, has held a number of TREX events to help folks advance their experience and qualifications. But following the rigorous NWCG standards and there have been few if any private landowners involved. Obviously a Prescribed Fire Manager Certification requirement is a must.
    To begin implementation of Rx burns on private lands I have been trying to encourage development of a Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) in Washington and have had a number of landowners’ state that they would like to have prescribed burning on their lands. But when ask how many are available or willing to attend the basic 40 hour FFT2 training – the silence was deafening. And there had been no mentioned of an arduous pack test. It is not rocket science to determine that NWCG standards, in terms of personnel training, are not going to work in getting more Rx fire on private lands. However I do believe there should be no compromise of NWCG standards in terms of Burn Plans and equipment, i.e., PPE, although a recent blog on Southeast Prescribed Fire Update entitled PPE for Landowners: Realistic Clothing Options, provides a different perspective. If we are going to see more Rx burning on private land in Washington, as you say – we “need to find the sweet spot.”
    Another challenge to elevating the awareness and need for Rx burning, in my opinion, is the establishment of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) and a more recent article from Oregon Public Broadcasting – Washington Ranchers Push to Create Fire Fighting Teams in ‘No Man’s Land’. The purpose and objectives of these associations are very important, including – collaboration, cooperation, efficiency, equipment availability, training, etc. However it seems that these organizations have a single focus – fire suppression. This is a step back to the same seminal philosophy that set the stage for where we are today on many fire deprived landscapes. The outcome – rangeland fires are suppressed with everybody’s help and cooperation – mission accomplished, until the next rangeland fire and repeat scenario. This has been tried for the last 100+ years.
    There appears to be minimal interest in prescribed burning on the part of RPFA members per a FireScience: Report Fire-Adapted Communities on the Range: Alternative Models of Wildfire Response. Of 69 participants “Several RFPA member interviewees in both states indicated an interest in participating in pre-fire mitigation measures such as fuels breaks and prescribed burns. … and several others in Oregon have participated in prescribed burns on private and state lands.”
    While suppression is an equal element in wildland fire management, prescribed fire needs equal emphasis and billing, but how do we get there? Perhaps by integrating and disseminating the ideas of Prescribed Burn Associations and Rangeland Fire Protection Associations and forming Wildland Fire Management Associations. After all both RFPAs and PBAs use the same equipment, to some extent the same training, the same cooperation and collaboration to meet their objectives, why should they not be integrated rather than separate.

    Keep up the good work Lenya!

  10. Mary Huffman says:

    Thanks, Lenya. What I like about the sweet spot is that it has enough room for fire to be the teacher, even for beginner practitioners like Rowan. We learn so much from fire itself.

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