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

As California’s wildfires continue to rise, there is a growing push to change decades of traditional fire prevention thinking, which has led to denser vegetation.

Coupled with climate change and drought, these methods have contributed to the state’s increased fire risk.

In a field traditionally dominated by older white men, three California women are part of an effort to change the perception that fire is the enemy. They are now leading and nurturing a long-standing relationship with Prescribed Burning.

But even getting to this point was a surprise to Dr. Sasha Berlman, director of the fire prevention program at Audubon Canyon Ranch in the Bay Area.

Although she grew up in Southern California and has been around wildfires her whole life, she said she didn’t learn about fires until she was in a community college class.

“I didn’t even know people lived with fire in this positive way for thousands of years until I got to community college,” Berlemen said on CapRadio’s Insight. “And when I realized that, I felt like this world is full of problems that we can’t solve…where we can come to a solution.”

Berlman is the state’s first graduate of the new “Burn Boss” program, which now teaches people the benefits of “good fire,” how to apply it themselves through prescribed burns.

“We’re basically training and educating people about building this relationship with fire so that they can basically bring good fire into people’s hands,” Berlman said. “Part of that is applying good fire on the ground and allowing people to participate in proper training.”

Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension Forestry Advisor in South Lake Tahoe, teaches private landowners in her region how to manage wildfires.

Over the past four years, they have provided training in the Sierra Nevada and about 33 workshop days with a total of 1,000 people participating, she said. Kocher said that before her group started the workshops, there was nowhere for people to learn these skills.

“If you’re an individual, you can’t really go to an agency burnout room,” Kocher said. “So really these events need to be structured around the needs of landowners and where they’re participating.”

Fire is a very important process in the state’s natural habitat, according to Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire consultant at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

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

Plants such as the giant sequoia and other native trees have fire as an integral part of their life cycle, so they need fire to regenerate.

“There’s a strong connection between trees and the plants we all love and the California fires,” she said. “This is a very important process.

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