In summary

It is now accepted that prescribed fire is needed to conserve and restore biodiversity, prevent catastrophic fires, stabilize carbon and promote public health and safety. To address the pace and scale of prescribed fire that is needed, we must invest in careers in prescribed fire.

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By Tom Gardali, Special to CalMatters

Tom Gardali is the CEO of Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nonprofit conservation organization that trains land managers and others to use prescribed fire.

California is awash in well-prepared planning documents that strive to achieve ambitious environmental, public health and safety, and equity goals. A key thread connecting them is prescribed fire—setting controlled fires to maintain the health of the land and its people and reduce the danger of wildfire. 

By now, it is accepted that prescribed fire is needed to conserve and restore biodiversity, prevent catastrophic fires, stabilize carbon and promote public health and safety. The science corroborates the longstanding practices of Indigenous peoples—for them, fire is culturally and environmentally important, and its use was widespread before the devastating effects of colonization and fire-exclusion policies.

In March, California released a strategic plan for expanding the use of beneficial fire.  The plan acknowledges the importance of the tribes and the private sector to achieve its goals, and calls for workforce development through the Prescribed Fire Training Center concept.

The plan falls short, however, on committing to creating prescribed-fire careers.

While the state has poured resources into careers in fire suppression, no such financial investment exists for careers in prescribed fire. This is because, in part, there still exists an antiquated mindset that only those with decades of fire suppression experience have the expertise to conduct safe prescribed burns.

California must move beyond this mindset by recognizing, empowering and funding independent prescribed-fire experts. Here’s how:

  • Prescribed-fire careers should not only be at existing government agencies but must include institutions with expertise and missions to steward California’s landscapes for multiple benefits.
  • Legislators should recognize there are already institutions to do the prescribed-burning work. Nongovernmental institutions with the expertise to help include Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program, The Nature Conservancy, Cultural Fire Management Council, The Watershed Research and Training Center, Mid Klamath Watershed Council and the Prescribed Burn Associations, to name a few.
  • California’s policymakers should attend a prescribed burn to see firsthand the expertise these institutions bring not only to wildfire resilience and public safety but also to ecosystem stewardship.
  • The Legislature should implement and expand the new Prescribed Fire Liability Pilot Program. A major obstacle to increasing the use of prescribed fire is the inability to obtain liability insurance. This program establishes a source of funding to pay for damages if a fire escapes and causes damage. The $20 million allocated last year is fine for a pilot program but not nearly enough to increase the pace, scale and ongoing use of prescribed fire.
  • The state should consider establishing a new agency focused on land stewardship that includes prescribed fire. 

One hundred years of fire suppression, together with climate change, has caused the problem of catastrophic megafires we now need to fix. Prescribed fire also could help connect the state’s many plans to advance justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, strengthen tribal partnerships, and sustain the state’s economic prosperity, clean energy resources and food supply. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom has set California on a track to conserve the state’s biodiversity, to use nature-based solutions to fight climate change and to create resilience in our forests and communities. Because there is no option for no fire in California, let’s invest in good fire and the people who are skilled to bring it.

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