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How three California women are working to change the way the state responds to wildfires

Firefighters watch over a burn operation as it winds down west of Grizzly Flats Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
Firefighters watch over a burn operation as it winds down west of Grizzly Flats Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

As wildfire season ramps up in California, there's a growing push to change the decades-long mindset of traditional fire suppression, which has led to dense areas of vegetation.

Coupled with climate change and drought, those methods have contributed to extreme fire risk across the state.

In a field typically dominated by older white men, three California women are part of an effort to change the mindset that fire is the enemy. Now they're leading and fostering a long-overdue relationship with prescribed burns.

However, to even get to this point was a surprise for Dr. Sasha Berleman, the director of the Fire Forward Program at the Audubon Canyon Ranch in the Bay Area.

She said despite growing up in Southern California and being around wildfires her entire life, it wasn't until she attended a community college class that she learned about prescribed burns.

" I didn't even know about the fact that people had been living in this really positive way with fire for a millennia until I reached community college," Berlemen said on CapRadio's Insight. "And so when I finally learned that, it felt like this world full of so many problems that we just can't seem to solve … that we should be able to come to a solution for."

Berleman is the state’s first graduate of a new “burn boss” program where she now teaches people the benefits of “good fire,” how to implement it themselves with prescribed burns.

“We’re primarily training and teaching people about building this relationship with fire so that they can basically bring good fire to the hands of the people,” Berleman said. “And part of that is the implementation of good fire on the ground and allowing people to participate in that with proper training.”

Susie Kocher, a forestry advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in South Lake Tahoe, instructs private landowners in her region on how to do controlled burns.

She said that over the past four years they offered training in the Sierra Nevada and had about 33 workshop days with a total of 1,000 people that have attended. Kocher said that previously there’s really been no place for people to learn these skills before her group started workshops.

“If you’re an individual, you can’t really go to an agency burning class,” Kocher said. “So really, these events need to be structured around landowners' needs and locations where they can take part.”

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, explained that fire is a really important process in the natural habitat of the state.

“Most California exosystems are either fire adapted … or they’re fire dependent, meaning that they actually require fire in some way to persist on the landscape,” Quinn-Davidson said. “So when we look around anywhere you are in California, that landscape is going to have a fire story to tell, and it’s up to us to figure out what that is.”

Plants like giant sequoias and other native trees have fire as a key part of their lifecycles and need fire to regenerate.

“There’s such a strong connection between the trees and the plants we all love, and fire in California," she said. "It’s a really important process here.”

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