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

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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