Editors’ Note: Amanda Monthei was introduced to fire as a wildland firefighter for the Forest Service from 2016-2019 before leaving to pursue creative work (and finally use her English degree) in 2020. It only took her a few months to realize she wasn’t ready to stop talking about fire! Amanda started the Life with Fire Podcast in May, 2020. In addition to the podcast, Amanda works as a public information officer on wildfires through the summer and occasionally writes (mostly about—you guessed it—fire) for publications like The Washington Post and The Atlantic. She’s passionate about getting everyday people interested in the idea and implementation of good fire, and generally educating the public on how fire has shaped—and will continue to shape—the landscapes where we live, work and play.
When I started Life With Fire Podcast in May of 2020, I had very little idea of how to run, edit or market a podcast, let alone how to start one. But, like most of the things I find my way into, I figured the best way to start was pretty simple: find the most knowledgeable people on the topic (in this case, wildfire and prescribed fire) and send them an email. Simple enough, right?
This strategy is well-reflected in my first four guests on the podcast: Jeremy Bailey, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Stephen Pyne and John McLean. Clearly I was shooting for the stars and, to my genuine surprise, every single one of them got back to me and agreed to be interviewed for a yet-unpublished podcast. We’ve since published 23 episodes with some of the leading fire scientists and thinkers in the West, along with fire practitioners, writers, tribal leaders, community organizers and many others who identify with more than one of those titles. Through it all, we’ve prioritized a diversity of perspectives—folks who can provide the critical context of academic thought and research and a myriad of others who take that research to the land through implementation and community engagement. Both are critical to move forward into a world of living with fire, and it’s been a privilege to provide a platform for folks to talk about the topics that get them fired up every day.
For about a month now, I’ve been trying to come up with something like an After Action Review (AAR) of my first 23 episodes of the podcast. Some lessons learned, if you will—a reflection on what went well, what I could do better and what I’ve learned along the way. I’ve had a way harder time with this than I’d like to admit, but I will say—I’ve been consistently humbled by how little I know.
With every new guest I track down and interview, I’ve continued to dive into the vast expanse of things I didn’t previously know about fire science, cultural burning, land management and the myriad challenges (and successes!) of getting more good fire on the ground.
But having learned that I haven’t learned enough is a pretty lame moral here isn’t it? So what is that all-encompassing takeaway, the unspoken undercurrent of every conversation? What’s the driving theme?
Undoubtedly, it’s that people are doing the work. Life With Fire’s guests are people who are so immensely passionate about our future with fire, who commit all of themselves to it on a daily basis. Hearing them get all riled up while talking about what they do imbues a sense of hope that I know I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s exceedingly easy to get trapped in hopelessness, in thinking that the red tape, bureaucracy and challenges are insurmountable, and yet here are 23 people (and counting) who are doing great work in academia, in their communities and on the fireline. The antidote to all the doomscrolling I do on Twitter—reading about climate change impacts across the world, about increasingly volatile events that result in immense human suffering—is learning more about the people who spend their lives finding solutions and implementing those solutions on the ground in meaningful and progressive ways.
I’ve learned that even a 1/2 acre of good fire on the ground is a radical act. And I’ve learned that across the country, there are people doing what they can to get these initiatives completed, people like Annie Schmidt of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net). She summed this idea up well when she was featured in episode seven of the podcast:
“There’s examples all over the place of communities that are doing the hard but important work to connect with each other and to connect with their residents; to work from the ground up to create a world where we are capable of withstanding a natural event, fire, in a way that minimizes the losses that we experience.”
I’ve also learned on a much deeper level just how much fire can encourage a connection to land and community—providing opportunities for collaboration and meaningful forward progression. I appreciated Yurok tribal member Margo Robbins’ extensive perspective on this sentiment in episode eight, including this excerpt: “We came to realize that restoring the land is restoring the people, that there is a very tight connection between the health of the land and the health of the people.”
Then there is the act of getting a diverse range of people—those with fire experience and those without—involved in the process of stewarding the landscapes they love and live in. Episode two with Lenya Quinn-Davidson dives into this, and Lenya does a spectacular job of making a case for a more diverse prescribed fire workforce, in addition to breaking down the barriers to get more everyday people involved in good fire.
“I’m really excited about the idea of bringing more diversity, equity and inclusion into fire as a whole, not just prescribed fire, but we do use prescribed fire as kind of a venue for starting those conversations and getting more women and more people of color involved and just really trying to break down those barriers,” she said.
“[I’m excited] to kind of push back against the fire suppression culture that is so strong here, which says you have to be a fire expert in order to use prescribed fire. I want to push back on that and say, no, fire is actually kind of innate to the human spirit. And I think average people can use fire and we can give them opportunities to connect with it and to rebuild that culture.”
What I’ve learned from every guest, really, is that these many small actions in communities across the West can and do bring about the change we need—this rising tide of introducing more people to the benefits of fire helps forge a deeper connection to the land we all love. And I genuinely believe people are desperate for a deeper connection to the places where they live, recreate and work—could fire provide that connection?
Consider all the individuals and small organizations doing the work to make this the reality in their communities—applying for the grants, putting fire on the ground, running educational programs, building community engagement in the idea and implementation of fire. Imagine the many dozens of small burns already being done at any given time. Imagine the benefit of having a group of people committed to fire resilience in every single community. Imagine connecting the fire community with other communities, engaging a variety of different people across the entire spectrum of identities that call the West home. If you’re reading this, you likely understand the empowerment of holding a drip torch, of putting fire on the landscape, of knowing at least a little bit about how that fire will interact with that landscape, that aspect or certain vegetation. That connection between people, land and fire, is the strongest influence I’ve found in my life of wandering outdoors—stronger than the tug of a trout, stronger than the thrill of skiing something sketchy, stronger even than introducing a friend to a river or mountain range I love.
Fire has the potential to create those connections for everyone. And there are so many people who know that and are doing the work to get fire in their hands, to create the space for the empowerment that comes with land stewardship.
If I really had to pick one thing, one overarching lesson, it would always be that fire creates connections beyond anything I could have imagined when I started this podcast. It’s an extension of the feeling of working on a fire crew, of friendships forged in hard days on the line and the conversations had there. I’ll always love the feeling of not knowing what I don’t know, nor what’s ultimately possible through these shared experiences forged in using fire. And there’s nothing more exciting than that—than considering all the ways we can continue building those connections, getting more people on the ground with drip torches and lighters, telling more stories, sharing more perspectives. Every episode has taught me, truly, just how much potential there is for fire to be the driving force that brings us into a future of stewardship, connection, community and acknowledgement of the forces greater than ourselves.
Here’s to the next 23 episodes—thanks for following along.
To listen to Amanda’s podcast, visit: https://lifewithfirepodcast.com/ or subscribe, download and review anywhere you get your podcasts and follow along on LWF’s Twitter to be alerted to new episodes and join conversations. To support the podcast, consider becoming a Patreon.
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