block print of Pacific lamprey, by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

No More Prescribed Fire Barriers: Lessons from Lamprey

By: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Monitoring / Assessment

Type: Essay

On a typical summer weekend in the late 1990s, you might have found me amid other teenagers, all lounging in the sun a few miles up the road from my house at one of our favorite swimming holes. At this place, the cool waters of Hayfork Creek tumble through a series of man-made pockets in the rock—perfect for fish to make their way up the steep stretch, and equally lovely for the kids of rural Trinity County to squander a hot afternoon. For me, that place feels frozen in time: even when I go there now, it feels like I’m stepping over the same old poison oak branches, slipping on the same loose dirt, seeking shade under the same gray pines.

But the fish ladder, as we in Hayfork call it, became a lot more interesting about 6 months ago, when I attended a presentation by my good friend, Damon Goodman. A fisheries biologist here on California’s North Coast, Damon is one of the lead researchers on Pacific lamprey—a mysterious, misunderstood, and often maligned fish. In that presentation, Damon showed a set of photos from 1963, taken—to my surprise!—at my very own Hayfork Creek swimming hole, only there were no teenagers, and there was no fish ladder; the photos appeared to show a mere waterfall with fast-flowing water, but when you zoomed in, you could see dozens—or maybe hundreds—of Pacific lamprey, all using their suction-based mouths to dyno-climb up the steep falls.

Lamprey on Hayfork Creek, 1963

Waterfall on Hayfork Creek, 1963. Photo was taken by the California Department of Fish and Game (now CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife) on an exploratory trip to assess options for dynamiting the falls and opening up passage for steelhead trout. Inset box shows lamprey moving up the falls. Photo provided by Damon Goodman, United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Close-up of Pacific lamprey moving up steep rocks, 1963

Hayfork Creek, 1963. Close-up of Pacific lamprey moving up steep rocks at natural waterfall, pre-fish ladder. Photo provided by Damon Goodman, United States Fish and Wildlife Service

In 1963, and probably for millennia before that, lamprey were the only anadromous fish making their way above those falls. In Hayfork Creek and across California in rivers that lack man-made obstacles, Pacific Lamprey can make it farther upstream than even the most athletic anadromous salmonid. As a result, they are often the only marine-derived source of nutrients in the entire upper watersheds of those places. On Hayfork Creek, the falls were later dynamited and the fish ladder was installed, providing a route for steelhead to leap their way into the upper watershed but at the same time severely restricting passage for lamprey, who lack the ability to jump. There, as in many places across the Pacific West, the passage needs of lamprey—wetted climbing routes unobstructed by sharp angles—were overlooked in the effort to save the more glamorous, jumping salmonids. With each dam and fish ladder that went up, the lamprey lost another point of connection, another watershed. As a result, Pacific lamprey are currently missing across more than half of their historical distribution in California.

Turns out the structures that were engineered for one set of fish did not do justice to the other.

*             *             *

If you know me, you know I have an intense interest in barriers to prescribed fire. Eleven years ago, I focused my graduate research on that topic, publishing the first paper that ever quantified and described prescribed fire impediments across federal, state, and private burners in California.

But if you really know me, you know that I am frustrated with the incessant focus on prescribed fire barriers. What seemed fresh and interesting and provocative a decade ago seems stale and tired now—and almost self-fulfilling in some way. After a decade of collectively defining and explaining the barriers, they’ve become our bedfellows. Liability, air quality, funding, burn windows, public opinion—they slip off our tongues with such ease, such comfort. We’re not accomplishing much more burning now than we were ten years ago, but we’ve gotten much better at talking about why we’re not doing it.

Prescribed fire in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Prescribed fire in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area during the first Nor Cal TREX, October 2013. This area burned again in the 2018 Carr Fire, and suffered noticeably less mortality than surrounding forests. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

A deeper dive into some of those impediments may show that it’s our perception of them, rather than the reality of them, that is holding us back. For example, in a new paper by Miller et al. on prescribed fire barriers in California, they explain that “all interview groups stated that liability laws place financial and legal responsibility for any escapes on the burner, creating a risk-averse culture” in the state. A closer look at California’s liability laws reveals that this is not true; California is a simple negligence state, where private burners must be proven negligent to be held liable, and federal and state burners enjoy even more robust immunity than their private counterparts. However, these misperceptions are pervasive, even at the highest levels; just last year, a national report by the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils erroneously identified California as a strict liability state, based on a survey response from a misinformed CAL FIRE official. The same kinds of misperceptions are common around public opinion (ask Sarah McCaffrey!), air quality (look at Courtney Shultz’s work), and burn windows (check out my blog from 2018).

And this is the central crux of my frustration, especially in the West: could it be that we’re asking the wrong questions, and maybe even asking the wrong people?

One of my regrets from my graduate work is that I didn’t find a good way to capture the personal bias—or passion—of my respondents. I haven’t seen this meaningfully covered in any of the more recent studies, either. However, from my work on prescribed fire in the last decade, I can tell you that personality, perspective and culture easily top the list of prescribed fire barriers—from the practitioner on the ground all the way up to our state and federal leaders. It may be that we need psychologists in addition to social scientists to truly grasp the complexity of this field.

*             *             *

On the lamprey front, things have greatly improved in recent years. Ten years ago, the lamprey was underappreciated and underserved, with decimated populations and severely restricted habitat. But times are changing. Damon and his colleagues have discovered that lampreys will eagerly use alternative structures if they’re made available, and something as simple as a properly angled PVC pipe can open up entire riverine networks that have for decades been inaccessible by lamprey. Thanks to their innovative efforts, Pacific lamprey are coming back to places where they haven’t been seen in ages, even as far south as San Luis Obispo and San Diego in southern California. And the reestablishment of the lamprey provides a cascade of benefits for the entire system, including for the rivers and streams that flourish with their added nutrients, and for the Native and other local communities who depend on them for food.

If you ask Damon, it was not further study of the fish ladder or the dam that opened these doors; rather, it was a fresh focus on lampreys themselves—understanding how they move and what they need, and paying close attention to where and how they are still functioning.

*             *             *

It’s time to freshen up the prescribed fire conversation. Let’s stop dwelling on the barriers—we know them. We’ve all hit those walls and felt that pain. Instead, let’s shift our focus to the people and places where prescribed fire is working—where the collective language and culture centers on the art and passion around fire rather than on the fear of fire. I want to learn more from those places—and not just about their cooperative agreements and their programmatic compliance work. I want to learn about their personal philosophies and attitudes, which I guarantee are at the core of their success. Can you name a heavy-hitting prescribed fire program that doesn’t have a visionary, energetic or uniquely effective person at its helm? Neither can I.

We’ve seen in the last decade that when it comes to prescribed fire, we can’t quite make the jump we need—but it could be that we’re just focused on the wrong structures. Maybe a shift in focus—a change in attitude and conviction—is the PVC pipeline we need for a better prescribed fire future.



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6 thoughts on “No More Prescribed Fire Barriers: Lessons from Lamprey”

  1. Lenya says:

    I got this note from a friend after I shared a draft of this blog with him. He is a district ranger with the USFS in another state, and he has a very impressive Rx fire program. He’s also a powerful writer:

    “Lenya, I woke up with a thought that your lamprey blog made me remember. I hold the belief that excuses are one of the most powerful social devices we have available. The very most powerful excuse is one that’s given to you by someone else.

    When I was a young man in the army, I was a light infantry scout. Despite the cool-sounding label, infantry just means you walk everywhere and with everything you need, so there’s nothing light at all about the job. It’s just hard work and lots of it. It requires hard men. To keep us hard we were given very little by way of comfort: no cold weather gear, little rest and little food. And we were tested routinely.
    One of our requirements was a 12-mile march once per quarter. It had to be completed within three hours carrying around 50 pounds of gear. It was grueling to say the least. It was fairly normal for our feet to go way beyond blistering all the way to raw, bleeding meat.

    Along the march, we would stop periodically and remove our boots so the medics could check and patch up our feet. One day on a march, the medics were checking our feet and spent a little extra time on the guy next to me. I’d known him for years and he was a rock-hard soldier whose feet I’d seen in lots worse shape many times. But as the medics finished up, they told him if it got any worse he could drop out of the march and ride the ambulance back to the barracks. At this point, it’s important to point out that dropping out of a march is the last thing any soldier would want to do. I mean none of us wanted to do them in the first place, but none of us would ever want the shame of dropping out. I thought there was no way my buddy would do it.

    Within another half mile, he was in the ambulance, boots off, feet up, riding back to the barracks, and as I watched him ride away I thought to myself, “well there’s no shame in it, the medics told him to.” I was only 18 at the time and of course I had the memory of this when I left the army, but wisdom usually only comes with time.

    Years later in a meeting where we were discussing some impossibility of some project, the soldier in the ambulance came back to me and I realized the power of excuses. An excuse is a thing most of us recognize for what it is when it’s given to us, and most of us really can’t stand them. But an excuse someone, or anyone, or everyone else gives you is one of the most powerful social devices available, because it absolutely relieves the excused party (or parties) of any responsibility for accomplishing, performing, behaving, understanding or achieving whatever it was that we all agreed to in the beginning.

    I need to think on this a bit more, but I think it’s possible there’s a yet more powerful species of excuses: the kind we pass back and forth to one another, and which grow in perceived validity until they eventually have the power of truth. You can’t call someone out for using an excuse you’ve used yourself. And lord have mercy on anyone who calls out an excuse that has been around long enough to have been used by our forebearers; traditions do matter after all.

    I wonder if we’re walking on the bloody feet of barriers to burning.”

  2. Amanda Rau says:

    This is great. We need to talk about the psychology of causality and risk. When Courtney Shultz interviewed me for her research, this was one of the points I made, that risk aversion, being the causal agent of good fire (rather than “nature” as in lightning or arsonists setting “bad” fires), and the associated perceptions of liability, were more substantial barriers than actual legal consequences, and that those who enjoy the greatest protections (federal employees covered under discretionary function and the Tort Claims Act) were often the most cautious and concerned about making a mistake. These are psychological and cultural problems. The federal agencies work hard to get fire right and face intense scrutiny when mistakes are made, but at the end of the day it is highly unlikely for a federal employee to be personally sued or fired for making a mistake when burning that leads to unintended consequences. So where do we see movement beyond these barriers? Where risk and liability are shared (prescribed burn associations, cross-boundary burning, cooperative fire management), fire is culturally normalized (Southeast, Flint Hills, etc.), and tolerance for things not going as planned is developed and exercised. We need to put energy toward development of tolerance, and a more nuanced view of cause. Is it really the burn boss’s fault if something goes wrong when burning a landscape that has had fire excluded for over 100 years? Should we go back to everyone involved in fire’s exclusion during that time? Or should we perhaps consider accepting that those who excluded fire had an impact that they did not intend, and sometimes unfortunate things happen when trying to fix a complex problem? Thanks for the great blog, Lenya!

  3. Sarah J Ray says:

    it’s time for you to write a book.

  4. Larry Ray says:

    We can all excuse our way to tragedy. Then we have no one else to blame even though we try our level best to find something (one)!!! Falsehoods only exist by agreement in many respects, and I’m just unagreeable no matter how unpopular it makes me!

  5. David Godwin says:

    So interesting that you mentioned collaborating with psychologists and social scientists as a means for getting fire back into ecosystems when these were some of the very same experts that helped to eradicate and suppress the American culture of fire in the early 20th century. John P. Shea, a psychologist with the US Forest Service authored the famous and reviled publications “Our Pappies Burned the Woods” ( and the longer report ('s%20burned%20the%20woods&lr&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false) on the “problem” of the fire culture in the Southern US. Prior to his work, W.C. McCormick led the development of the “Dixie Crusaders” a public education campaign in the Southern US that took songs, movies and other forms of fire suppression “edutainment” to over 3 million people from 1928 to 1930 ('%20bill&pg=PA171#v=onepage&q=dixie%20crusaders%20burnin'%20bill&f=false).

    Isn’t it fascinating that we’re now, nearly 100 years later, looking to those same techniques, specialists and tools to bring fire back into our American landscapes and the cultures? Great blog post Lenya.

  6. Sarah McCaffrey says:

    As always I love what you have written Lenya! And I think your DR is right on target with their point:

    “But an excuse someone, or anyone, or everyone else gives you is one of the most powerful social devices available, because it absolutely relieves the excused party (or parties) of any responsibility for accomplishing, performing, behaving, understanding or achieving whatever it was that we all agreed to in the beginning.”

    So many of the ‘barriers’ are things it is hard to argue against – either because it is so accepted/tradition or because there is no central body to provide a counter argument or because it threatens a vested interest (believe it or not I was recently told that it wasn’t PC (!) amongst some ecologists to raise the point that evidence was good that lots more than 10 million acres used to burn annually in the US prior to suppression as it threatened their efforts to highlight the fire is worse due to climate change narrative……). We don’t have the social license is very easy excuse as few will argue with that statement (unless I’m in the room 🙂 ). It’s a good way to absolve oneself of having to do something. I’d say our blaming people who move into the WUI is a similar thing – blaming a disembodied group that has no central voice is a simple way to shift responsibility. So I totally agree that we need to pay attention to all the cool stuff that is happening, but I also think your point about whether we are asking the right questions is good. Maybe we also need to be asking whose purpose does a particular story of the problem or solution serve?

    (And by the way psychologists ARE social scientists 🙂 )

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