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California burns, and always has. For millennia Indigenous people used fire to tend and protect the land. But years of the government outlawing those practices and suppressing wildfires has led California to having a serious problem — one where fire is no longer a working partner, but an uncontrollable force that too often has devastating outcomes. In recent years, Butte County has seen the consequences of the state’s fire drought through the deaths of more than 100 people, the loss of thousands of homes, detrimental effects to the environment and hazardous air quality.Fire Returned is a series about some of the people working to restore Butte County by bringing intentional fire back to it.This series has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Fire Returned: Fire is for everyone

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Chico State Geography and Planning Professor, Don Hankins, leads students in lighting a prescribed burn at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve as part of a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) event on Nov. 17, 2021.

Putting prescribed fire on the ground benefits the environment and can help make communities safer from wildfire. The practice takes training and knowledge, but it can be learned like any skill.

One of the ways is to attend a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX).

Erin Banwell and Miller Bailey are the co-directors of fire management at the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, where they lead TREX events and teach communities how to use fire as a tool. NSPR’s Sarah Bohannon recently spoke with Banwell about their work and why she hopes prescribed burning will become a cultural norm for all landowners in fire adapted regions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On why Banwell says more prescribed fire is needed in California 

To me fire is life. So all of our ecosystems are fire adapted. You know, Indigenous peoples have been managing these ecosystems since time immemorial. I mean, fire is necessary to keep our ecosystems healthy, and if our ecosystems aren't healthy, we're not healthy either. So I just think it's the most essential and basic tool to use to keep everyone safe.

I know it's counterintuitive for people to think about fire keeping you safe from fire, but that's really what it is at the end of the day. The more fire that's in ecosystems — on a frequent return interval — the less explosive wildfires we have. Fire has always been a natural part of these ecosystems. It's a hard concept to explain to people sometimes, especially with just how severe our wildfire seasons have been and how traumatized people are. It really takes people seeing it to understand that fire can be a safe and effective tool against fire.

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
A prescribed burn taking place at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve as part of a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) event on Nov. 17, 2021.
I know it's counterintuitive for people to think about fire keeping you safe from fire, but that's really what it is at the end of the day. The more fire that's in ecosystems — on a frequent return interval — the less explosive wildfires we have. Fire has always been a natural part of these ecosystems.
— Erin Banwell, co-director of fire management at the Watershed Research and Training Center

On California’s goal to treat one million acres per year

The million acres a year is a great target, but what we're really focused on is building workforce capacity. So without people knowing how to burn we'll never accomplish that. There's just so much private land in California and it all borders our public lands. But I think that the most important thing is protecting the communities, and that starts in the community not adjacent to the community. So if people can even just burn right around their houses, they're making that buffer for when the fire does come. It then minimizes the fire behavior because it hits fuel that's unavailable because it's already burned.

So I think that that's kind of the key things that we're working on, is building that local prescribed fire capacity and then helping people burn right in their communities. [May 15 and 16] … we did a burn in Genesee Woods in Plumas County. I think that there's over 10 landowners that have all come together, written a burn plan for their entire neighborhood, and we're burning right up against their houses in this community that just had the Dixie fire burn through. So they're very interested in protecting their community. And it's just an amazing example. I think that just those examples are why [burning on] private land is so important.

On why Banwell says she doesn’t focus on acres burned as a measurement of success 

We're actually really hesitant to ever report on acres because it's not our main goal. And in fact, we have an amazing, supportive grant through the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program that allows us to work on that capacity building rather than focus on acre implementation.

It is 100% strategic. That's one of the topics we work on with the Prescribed Burn Associations too, is how do we plan strategic burns? What does that mean? What does that look like? What locations would that be? So just burning one person's backyard is great, but it's awesome if we can actually connect the dots in communities surrounded by public lands in that Wildland Urban Interface.

If we have strategic burns in place in one area, that could slow the fire down enough to be a strategic place for firefighters to then hold the fire from gaining momentum further into the community.

On the difference between TREX and Prescribed Burn Associations

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Erin Banwell
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Watershed Research & Training Center.
Erin Banwell, co-director of fire management at the Watershed Research & Training Center.

TREX stands for Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. It started in 2008, when the Nature Conservancy saw a bottleneck in prescribed fire. There are three pillars of TREX: training, treatment and outreach. And what they were seeing was there just wasn't enough prescribed fire being implemented for people to be able to get training assignments, to be able to get diverse experience, and there just weren't enough acres being treated.

So they developed this program that brings people together from all over to burn and learn together. So people are working under different leadership styles, in different ecosystems, and acres are being treated during a TREX. So it's not just about burning, we're also learning about fire ecology, and cultural burning and doing leadership trainings, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and medical trainings, all sorts of stuff. A Prescribed Burn Association is a group of community members that are interested in burning to protect their communities. So, a TREX would come in and basically help amplify training in an area. So what Miller and I are doing with the Watershed Center in our regional forest and fire capacity work is traveling around and finding Prescribed Burn Associations that are established and ready. We train up a local incident management team to host TREXs and then it's just intensive training during a period of time, so still all run by the Prescribed Burn Association, but it's just more focused in on training related to prescribed fire.

On a TREX burn in Plumas County that helped save a home during the Dixie Fire 

We're still really close with Jeff Greef. He's an amazing leader for the Plumas Underburn Cooperative. He’s actually the one that's burn bossing the Genesee Woods burn I was talking about, so he's really taken it to another level, you know, he’s 100% bought into the Prescribed Burn Association work.

I would say that his house survived because of his diligence with treating his land over the last decade. We were only able to do that broadcast burn in spring right before the Dixie Fire because he had thinned his land over the last 10 years and made it a safe place for us to be able to come in and do that really beautiful spring underburn. And that’s an example where it was only three acres, but it was all surrounding his house, and there's that awesome drone footage that shows the stand replacing crown fire hitting his property and actually falling from the crown fire to the surface, and then there was no surface fuel to carry it. So it's a mixture. I definitely think the [prescribed] fire 100% helped, but we wouldn't have been able to burn without his thinning work.

I think the essence of Prescribed Burn Associations is really neighbors helping neighbors. Even if you're the one that gets your property burned with a Prescribed Burn Association coming in and helping, it just makes that person want to go help others even more. So we see that like once that land is burned, that is the landowner that’s showing up at all the other burns. And then it just continues to grow.

We think prescribed is for everyone. That's our motto. That's our goal. We're working really hard to get children out on the fire line. Especially kids that are traumatized by evacuating or the scary wildfires that are happening, it’s just so therapeutic for them to be out to see fire in a different way — that fire can be safe and it's healthy for our ecosystem.
— Erin Banwell, co-director of fire management at the Watershed Research and Training Center

On the limitations of TREX 

Some of the limitations of TREX are that it's umbrellaed and under The Nature Conservancy. So if people are interested in doing TREX, it really takes a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and working directly with what we call TREX coaches. So people who have experience hosting and leading Prescribed Burn Associations to be able to implement that. I also think another limitation is having the ability to be able to sustain the incident management team model at a community level. So we're much more interested in areas that have all the partnerships in place and are really ready to sustain that model, so it's a long-term thing rather than coming in, doing everything for the community, and then leaving because that's not really building workforce capacity.

On Banwell’s hopes for prescribed fire in the future 

This winter was an example of us being in this extreme drought — and we're all just dreading wildfire season — but it actually gave us the opportunity to have a beautiful burn window for, I would say, over 60 days.

What I would love to see in the future is every single landowner in Butte County taking advantage of the safe, mild conditions to be able to burn their properties to make them more safe against wildfires. So that's kind of the future I see: fire is for everyone, it's culturally normal to go out and burn your backyard, go help your neighbor burn their backyard in these really mellow winter windows with your kids. And somebody's cooking some sausages on the barbecue for after the burn. I mean that's the dream, is that it just becomes culturally norm[al] and expected to be managing your property with fire.

We think prescribed is for everyone. That's our motto. That's our goal. We're working really hard to get children out on the fire line. Especially kids that are traumatized by evacuating or the scary wildfires that are happening, it’s just so therapeutic for them to be out to see fire in a different way — that fire can be safe and it's healthy for our ecosystem. And so we're big fans of fire is for everyone. We can do it safely together. It does take training and knowledge, but we are here to pass that on.

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Chico State Geography and Planning Professor, Don Hankins, leads students in lighting a prescribed burn at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve as part of a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) event on Nov. 17, 2021.

This story is part of NSPR’s Fire Returned series on cultural and prescribed burning in Butte County and has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Sarah is an award-winning reporter, producer and editor. She’s worked at North State Public Radio for six years and was previously the station’s News Director before leaving to study at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.