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Learn And Burn — North State Residents Use Prescribed Fire To Protect Communities

Controlled burn in Plumas County. Photo courtesy of participants of Plumas County TREX.
Controlled burn in Plumas County. Photo courtesy of participants of Plumas County TREX.

Read the transcript


After last year’s record-setting wildfire season, the state has authorized more than 500 million dollars to speed up wildfire prevention efforts. California Governor Gavin Newsom was in the North State signing the legislation this week (Tues, April 13). In addition to other forest management projects, the money would also go to prescribed burning. NSPR’s Sarah Bohannon takes us to Plumas County to learn about a group of international coaches teaching local communities how to learn and burn in their own backyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER CONDITIONS OVER A TWO-WAY RADIO) “All units stand by for top holding weather: temps are 65 degrees fahrenheit, RH is 27 percent, POI 30 percent, zero mile per hour winds.”


The weather report going out over that two-way radio says it’s a good day for good fire in Plumas County. About twenty volunteers receive the information hourly as they put their prescribed burning skills into practice on a parcel of forested land in Greenville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIN BANWELL) “We’re trying to really just empower these local private landowners and community members to burn on their private lands.”

That’s Erin Banwell. She’s the co-director of fire management at the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork. Today she’s co-leading a mentorship program known as Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges, or TREX. The goal of the two-week long trainings is to teach communities to use fire as a tool. Banwell says the program has been around for more than a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIN BANWELL) “One entity cannot do prescribed fire, it really is a cooperative effort with multiple partners, lots of different people coming to help: volunteer fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service, nonprofits, community members coming together to get burns done.”

Forested land in California is owned by a patchwork of federal, state and private entities. Banwell says when it comes to private landowners their management options are limited.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIN BANWELL) “There’s just so much land that needs to be treated — so many homes within the Wildland Urban Interface — without these grassroots community level movements, this unit wouldn’t be burned for example. So these lands that have homes around them will not have fire in them without community member engagement.”

Jeff Greef owns the site of today’s burn. While gassing up the generator to pump water, he says he’s been working for years on his 10 acres to make them more fire safe. Greef says the forest around him hasn’t seen fire for about 100 years, so today will make a big difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF GREEF) “We need this training so that when we do this kind of thing on our own we can do it well. They’re using the standard Incident Command System that’s used during wildfires so we have that structure to fall back on for safety purposes and then also they’re just bringing a lot of wisdom about what’s involved with putting fire on the ground.”

Participants prepare for training. Photo courtesy of participants of Plumas TREX.
Participants prepare for training. Photo courtesy of participants of Plumas TREX.

Greef, who’s a member of his local fire safe council and the Plumas Underburn Cooperative, noted one recent trip that especially stuck with him during the training. He says the TREX coach took the group to a road that was surrounded by the burn scar of last year’s North Complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF GREEF) “So the side of the road that was unthinned was just completely torched — moonscape. It [the fire] blew across the road into the area that had been thinned, and burned about 100 feet of it, but then the fire stopped because it had been thinned and it wasn’t able to keep its momentum, and the forest beyond there was saved.”

California’s obsession with containing fires has led to landscapes that are fuel-laden. But native plants want and need fire, and they used to get it thanks to the indigenous people who lived and took care of the land before being forced out by white settlers. Today, many tribes are still leading that effort — although a recent report by wildfire experts for the Karuk Tribe say California’s tribes and cultural fire practitioners still face policy barriers around prescribed burning. But more Californians are joining them, wanting to change their relationship with fire. The objective is not to stop wildfire from happening, but instead to understand and use it — to create healthy forests and safer communities.


Back on Greef’s property, the team is ready to set a test fire. Lowering the end of a drip torch to the ground, Greef puts fire on his property for the first time, as a small flame ignites and slowly begins to consume the pine needles on the forest floor.


For NSPR News, I’m Sarah Bohannon.

Sarah has worked at North State Public Radio since 2015 and is currently the station’s Director of Operations. She’s responsible for the sound of the station and works to create the richest public radio experience possible for NSPR listeners.