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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: Putting fire on the ground with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Lisa Speegle, volunteer with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association uses a “McLeod” rake/hoe tool to move fire across the ground during a prescribed burn in Forest Ranch on April 2, 2022.

On a quiet morning in April, a group of strangers stand in a circle and introduce themselves beneath a canopy of pine, cedar and oak trees in Forest Ranch. It’s a little past 7:30 a.m., when the property owner begins to give the day’s rundown. At the end he asks everyone to keep safety in mind, watch their footing and thanks them for coming out.

The group he’s speaking to is part of the Butte Prescribed Burn Association (PBA), volunteers who help landowners conduct burns on their properties. The goal is to help reduce vegetation that can stoke large and intense wildfires, and to bring about ecological benefits to land in Butte County.

The PBA was developed by the county’s Resource Conservation District (RCD) and formed in 2019, but it didn’t start burning throughout the county until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one of 20 PBAs that have been formed in California and describes itself as "neighbors helping neighbors put good fire on the ground.” Over the past 14 months, the Butte PBA has completed 11 burns totaling 58 acres.

Anyone can join the group and it consists of people with varying experience in prescribed burning — some people have conducted countless burns, while others have only participated in a few.

The beginner

Lisa Speegle belongs to the latter group. This burn is her second after learning about the PBA on Twitter.

“I sought them out and started following their emails … and finally felt like I had time to spare from protecting my own property to helping protect others,” she said.

Before ever attending a prescribed burn, Speegle said her first action was to go to a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) event that the PBA helped coordinate. There she learned things like how to tell when fuels are ready to light and how to monitor weather during a prescribed burn.

“As I learn more and more it's helping my anxiety about fire too so that I don't get scared as quickly and kind of know what to expect and what to hope for instead of just immediately being freaked out.”
— Lisa Speegle, volunteer with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association

Gauging the current temperature, wind speed and relative humidity on an instrument called a Kestrel, Speegle explained that the burn will essentially benefit her own property, which is located between Forest Ranch and Chico. It’s comforting news as Speegle said she’s had huge concerns about fire lately.

“I've lived where I live since 1988. And fires have changed tremendously since then, as we all know,” she said. “Didn’t used to worry about it a whole lot. I have good clearance and whatnot, but I know that my house is at risk. And I think that this group is doing some tremendous work.”

The PBA’s work has included helping Speegle and her neighbors apply for a grant to bring prescribed fire onto their own road — something Speegle said they wouldn’t have done on their own.

“Everything that we've done on our property we've done just a little bit at a time with making small piles and burning them a little bit at a time,” she said. “Over 30 years we made a difference, but this kind of burn makes so much more difference. And everybody that's doing it in their little ways, everywhere, overall, makes such a big difference.”

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Volunteers with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association scrape the ground to remove vegetation and form a firebreak before a prescribed burn in Forest Ranch on April 2, 2022.

During her short time with the PBA Speegle said she’s met people from all over the North State who’ve come to teach or to share information.

“As I learn more and more it's helping my anxiety about fire too so that I don't get scared as quickly and kind of know what to expect and what to hope for instead of just immediately being freaked out,” she said.

The teacher 

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Andrew Logan, the burn educator for the day. While the group lights test fires and waits for more optimal burning conditions to arrive later, he uses the time to go over things with the group like dead versus live fuels, how to mop up after a fire and how to recognize poison oak.

Logan has been spending time helping with prescribed burns like this one because he said low-intensity fire can help keep homes and communities safer from severe fires and can be good for the environment.

“We've been ingrained with the Smokey the Bear theme: ‘Put all fires out.’ And we're scared of it right now. I mean, even my generation — I'm 50 — and I watched the movie 'Bambi.’ Man’s in the forest and then there's a big fire. And that's what my generation got taught about wildland fires.”
— Andrew Logan, volunteer with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association

“The burning that I've been doing on my property I've actually gotten seven to 14 species that I've never seen before on the property of native grasses and native flowers,” he said.

The benefits also extend to firefighting efforts. Having spaces where prescribed fires have been conducted can help create strategic defensible space for firefighters, he said, which ultimately helps them slow down or suppress wildfires.

“When we come in a big fire and have to do structure defense or we're working the Wildland Urban Interface we have a better chance of being able to save the houses when we are able to take and tie these different projects together,” he said. “Then we have an ability to basically have a fireline pre-established on these different controlled burns.”

He believes there’s one main challenge in getting more prescribed burns on the ground — people are afraid of them.

“We've been ingrained with the Smokey the Bear theme: ‘Put all fires out.’ And we're scared of it right now,” he said. “I mean, even my generation — I'm 50 — and I watched the movie 'Bambi.’ Man’s in the forest and then there's a big fire. And that's what my generation got taught about wildland fires.”

But there’s a lot more to learn about fire than that, and that’s where Logan sees the PBA helping. Many landowners who are interested in prescribed burning are nervous to put fire on the ground themselves and want an agency to come in and oversee the process, he said.

“Something that's kind of a go between buffer between Cal Fire, the local wildlife agency and themselves as a private landowner,” Logan said. “The PBA with Wolfie [Rougle] can really work on bridging that gap, and getting the volunteers available, and providing the hand tools and the radios and get people to do this. It's being done all over.”

The landowner 

Greg Shandel is the property owner of the burn. He got involved with the PBA while helping create a fuel break in Forest Ranch with the Butte Fire Safe Council. He said he did originally feel some apprehension, but has since conducted five burns on his property with the PBA’s help, which have made a big difference in making him feel more protected against wildfire.

During the 2018 Camp Fire, Shandel and his wife stayed on their property with the fire coming within a quarter of a mile of their house. He said “it was a scary 12 days,” but added that last summer’s fire season was different. He felt more comfortable because a prescribed burn had been done on his property.

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
A volunteer with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association lights a test fire to check conditions before a prescribed burn in Forest Ranch on April 2, 2022.

“Even with the threat of the Dixie fire reversing and coming down the ridge from Butte Meadows and coming up out of Butte Creek Canyon, we had approximately 30 acres around the house completely black,” he said. “That being said, [if] you get into a wind driven fire or weather event fire it's hard to say what could happen, but we felt pretty safe here.”

Shandel also feels like the prescribed burns have made the trees on his property safer from wildfire — and pests.

“Right now we're having a lot of bug kill because of the drought, and I know for a fact that fire helps kill off the bugs and beetles and pests that affect the timberland,” he said.

Other benefits of prescribed fire that he’s seen are that it has brought more wildfire to his property and has been helpful in removing invasive plants.

One of the reasons he said he’s been able to do so much burning is because he has the resources — like water trucks and bulldozers — to facilitate prescribed burns, but many property owners don’t. For Shandel, being part of the PBA means sharing those resources.

“I would be happy to take water trucks or tractors anywhere we need to go if we can schedule it,” he said. “Typically, for me, it needs to be a weekend that we can do this. But I think it's a great thing. And I hope it builds steam.”

The other main challenge Shandel sees for property owners is the risk you take on when putting fire on your property. A recent law in California that lessened the risk for property owners who are conducting prescribed burns has been helpful, he said, but those risks are still a huge consideration. In fact, Shandel and his wife increased the liability insurance on their property before working with the PBA, and he said he’s a proponent of having Cal Fire present during a burn.

“Just having Cal Fire sitting here, if we do have a problem they have an engine here,” he said. “Whereas if we had a problem on our own out here … because we have an escape[d] burn, I mean, they're 30 minutes away. And if you ever have a problem, 30 minutes is a long time. So it would be a big issue.”

In addition, he said he’s noticed that volunteers seem to be dwindling. When the PBA started, he said, he had as many as 40 people burning on his property, whereas there are about 15 at this burn.

“It does take human power to make these things happen, and so being part of the PBA then we can go help other people as well on their properties,” he said. “I hope that it can keep up, keep going.”

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Andrew Logan (far right), day of burn educator with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association, discusses fire behavior and best practices while burning before a prescribed burn in Forest Ranch on April 2, 2022.

The returning volunteer 

Lilly Trejo is a biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and a graduate student in Chico State’s Interdisciplinary Master's Degree in Wildland Management. She’s been working on prescribed burns for years and said she tries to keep her skills by volunteering with the PBA at least monthly.

“I grew up in Santa Barbara along the coast,” she said. “If someone told me 10 years ago I would be mapping fires [and] putting fire on the ground, I would have laughed and said no way. But here I am.”

Like most people who volunteer with the PBA, she said she does it to see the direct impact it has on the ecosystem and communities.

Trejo agreed with Shandel that one of the challenges she’s noticed is fewer and fewer volunteers coming out to burn overtime. She said one of the reasons is likely that volunteering can be costly.

“There's not enough funding for people who are volunteers for the Prescribed Burn Association. So people come out [and] they don't have the proper footing. They don't have the Nomex gear. They don't have the gloves, the hard hats, and that's all important,” she said.

Most of that personal protective equipment (PPE) is not required to join the PBA, but Trejo feels it’s needed for people to feel safe. The problem is PPE is not cheap, and requiring more of it would pose a barrier for most people to get into prescribed burning, which is why the PBA has intentionally kept PPE requirements to the bare minimum needed to stay safe.

“With no experience, you can just come out and watch. You don't even have to have a tool as long as you just stand, you observe and that is okay … You don't have to be a firefighter to be involved with fire.”
— Lilly Trejo, volunteer with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association

“It's expensive. Shoes are $300. Nomex [can] go from anywhere between like $200-$600. Then there's a fire pack that David has over there, and that's like close to $500,” she said. “So when you add it all up, the gear just to protect yourself in order to do something good for the community is not exactly feasible. And there should be more funding for volunteers like us out here.”

Another similar challenge Trejo sees with the PBA is there’s no requirement to get a Red Card, which certifies a person has the training, experience and physical ability to be working a wildland fire. While it’s great that the PBA is involving the wider community to “get their hands dirty and set some fire on the ground,” Trejo worries that those without training don’t always know what hazards to watch out for during a burn. Trejo would like to see more people getting formal training, but she said programs like Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX)— which provide that type of training — can be hard to find and aren’t always open to the public.

“It's also not free,” she said. “So, again, it's all down to funding.”

In the end she said the biggest challenge is just bringing more awareness about prescribed fire to the general population as she thinks most people don’t understand the benefits of fire and many question the manageability of intentional burns.

“Especially when there are situations that prescribed fires do get out of control, and they escape. It's hard for even the state or federal level to approve these types of things on their own, which is why the PBA is here,” she said.

She thinks that, over time, fear and interest in joining the PBA will change as people learn more about fire.

“I think that the more awareness that happens the more people who know about Prescribed Burn Associations in their community the larger it will get and the more impact that will have on people who have private lands and just don't know how to do it,” she said. “The Prescribed Burn Association will be there to help implement the burn plan [and] get the other agencies like Cal Fire here in case of an escape. Just the extra support in order to keep it a safe burn.”

Her advice for those who are interested in the PBA, but haven’t joined is to come out to a burn.

“With no experience, you can just come out and watch. You don't even have to have a tool as long as you just stand, you observe and that is okay,” she said. “I think anyone else who wants to get involved, look into any type of fire ecology, pyrogeography, get into GIS mapping. There's a lot of ins and outs of how the fire world works. You don't have to be a firefighter to be involved with fire.”

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Sarah Bohannon
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NSPR
Andrew Logan (far right), day of burn educator with the Butte Prescribed Burn Association, discusses fire behavior and best practices while burning before a prescribed burn in Forest Ranch on April 2, 2022.

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.