Prescribed Burn Associations Are One Answer to California’s Megafires

Community groups seek to fill in the gap left by overtaxed agencies

By Colleen Hagerty

October 19, 2020


A prescribed burn of 112 acres on Cooley Ranch in northern Sonoma, organized last May by the Good Fire Alliance and the Mendocino County Prescribed Burn Association. | Photos by Jared Childress

For years, Wolfy Rougle was known as “the kale lady” at her local farmers' market. She grew the leafy green, along with other cool-season vegetables, on her farm in the blue oak woodland foothills of Tehama County, California. The garden and greenhouse took up a small fraction of her property—she left the rest undisturbed, save for cutting firewood and harvesting wild foods. 

Over time, she noticed changes to the land. The grass grew paler, and dead brush piled up. To Rougle, it looked like it was starving. 

This was the result, she now believes, of years without fire. 

She remembered learning in college that fire is a healthy part of the ecosystem in California, that it can reduce wildfire fuel and encourage healthy growth. But she didn’t know how to apply those lessons to her own land. 

“I thought agencies have this handled,” she says. Instead, she discovered that in some years only tens of thousands of acres were managed with “good fire.” 

Her interest piqued, Rougle sought to learn more, eventually moving to Butte County to study prescribed fire policy on private land. She was living there, working at the local Resource Conservation District, when the Camp Fire blazed through the area in 2018. In the aftermath, Rougle helped craft a survey for local landowners. She and her colleagues wanted to know what resources would be most useful for their recovery and preparation for the inevitable next round of wildfires. Options included planting trees and, at Rougle’s urging, learning more about good fire. 

“A lot of agency folks had said, ‘Well, you really shouldn't even bring up prescribed fire right now. People are just going to be so fire shy. They're traumatized. They're not going to want to think about it,’” she remembers. 

The responses suggested otherwise. “To my surprise, landowners were really, really positive about prescribed fire,” Rougle says. 

She channeled that interest into forming the Butte County Prescribed Burn Association, a mix of landowners, residents, and individuals with technical know-how, all interested in changing the local culture around fire. Rougle says that about 90 people have signed up for the mailing list so far. 

Her goal for the group is simple: “I wanted to create what I had been missing as a landowner.” 

The Butte County PBA is one of more than a dozen such grassroots groups that have sprung up in California, mostly over the past two years. As the state experiences worsening wildfires, PBAs offer residents an opportunity to take back some control by utilizing a tool that has long served the land. For “time immemorial,” as historian Jared Dahl Aldern puts it, Indigenous peoples have been performing cultural burns. This regular application of fire made large outbreaks, like the megafires we have today, much less likely. 

Aldern studies prescribed fire for the West on Fire initiative at Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He sees evidence of the positive impact the practice can have on a landscape in the recent Creek Fire. One of the largest in modern California history, that wildfire has burned more than 300,000 acres across two counties. But one of the impacted communities, Shaver Lake, saw less damage in areas on and around Southern California Edison property, which has been part of a prescribed fire program the utility has carried out since the 1960s. 

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say SCE land played a huge role in saving houses at Shaver Lake,” he tweeted after surveying the post-fire landscape. 

However, examples like this are rare. As Aldern points out, the fire regime of earlier centuries was largely lost because of the political oppression, displacement, and genocide of Indigenous peoples. In its place, officials adopted strict fire-suppression policies.

Over the past decade, experts and politicians alike began acknowledging problems with this approach. They pledged to shift priorities and embrace more mitigation measures, including increasing prescribed burns. But this recognition has yet to translate into real change on the ground. One 2019 study found that the amount of annual prescribed burning taking place in the West was relatively similar or had even decreased between 1998 and 2018. Approximately 125,000 acres of California wildlands are burned each year; some experts say it should be nearly 10 times that. 

And so, while politicians from Sacramento to Washington, DC, continue debating legislation to scale up prescribed burns (for example, Senator Ron Wyden’s proposed National Prescribed Fire Act), PBAs are stepping in to help meet this need. They’re “acting on history,” Aldern believes, to address a very current problem. He refers to a recent interview with Ron Goode, tribal chairman for the North Fork Mono Tribe. 

“Just burn 10 [acres], burn 50, burn 100,” Goode said on Native America Calling. “It don’t matter what you burn, just constantly burn.” 


It’s this ethos that drove Lenya Quinn-Davidson from advocating for more prescribed burns to organizing them herself. 

Ten years ago, the Humboldt County resident helped found the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, bringing landowners, nonprofits, companies, tribes, academics, and officials together to talk about the hurdles for implementing more prescribed fire. At first, she admits, people thought it was “bizarre”—prescribed fire hadn’t really made it into the public consciousness yet. 

The council compiled basic information online, writing up Q&As to help introduce the concept. They began consulting with legislators on prescribed-fire-related policies. And, for those interested in learning more, they started hosting intensive prescribed-fire trainings, where participants got to be part of a burn team on federal, tribal, and private lands. 

Then, about five years ago, Quinn-Davidson became an area fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE). This work connected her with even more landowners, and they all tended to ask her the same question: How could they get one of these burns on their land? 

“If we can do a 200-acre burn during a dry period in January with five landowners, a couple drip torches, and a UTV, that costs us, you know, 30 bucks for lunch and 20 bucks for beer—that's how we get to scale.”

She didn’t really have an answer for them, or at least, as she saw it, not a good one. She would direct them to Cal Fire’s Vegetation Management Program but says it was a “dead end”—the agency could not keep up with demand. 

“[In] that program, Cal Fire does all the planning; they implement the burn, and they pay for everything, pretty much,” she says. In her experience, that typically means dozens of people, fire engines, a helicopter—a “big production,” costing tens of thousands of dollars. 

“And so, in any given Cal Fire unit, they might get one [burn] a year, if they're lucky,” Quinn-Davidson continues. The agency struggles, she says, to devote resources to preventative measures when it is overwhelmed with responding to wildfires. “So, there were landowners here in Humboldt County who had been on the list for six years [and] never got a call back.” 

Through the councils’ trainings and her own research, Quinn-Davidson had witnessed prescribed burns that were smaller group operations, ones that didn’t involve all that machinery and required a lot less money. 

“If we can do a 200-acre burn during a dry period in January with five landowners, a couple drip torches, and a UTV [Utility Terrain Vehicle], that costs us, you know, 30 bucks for lunch and 20 bucks for beer—that's how we get to scale,” she thought. 

In 2017, Quinn-Davidson organized three burns in Humboldt County. Executing a prescribed burn can involve significant logistics, including securing air-quality permits and, depending on the time of year, permits from Cal Fire. There’s also a burn plan, which maps out the process, and a smoke management plan. When it came time to actually apply the fire, she hired a “burn boss,” someone certified to participate in prescribed fires, to lead the endeavor. And she invited all those interested landowners to join. 

“Anyone who want[ed] to come, we could find a safe place for them to be involved,” she says, “Whether it's taking pictures or whether it's carrying a drip torch.” 

Buoyed by the enthusiasm of her neighbors, Quinn-Davidson formed the Humboldt County PBA. Over the course of three years, the group has burned about 1,300 acres following this model and has inspired others, including Rougle, to start their own associations. 

Having launched in late 2019, just months before the pandemic shutdown, the Butte County PBA has yet to hold any burns. Instead, Rougle says she’s using this time to educate members. When interested landowners reach out, she’ll host small walk-and-talks around their property, discussing any challenges and what a burn plan could look like. 

It’s all part of developing the members’ “fire eyes,” she says, with the ultimate goal of getting fire on the ground safely. And if she has questions along the way, she turns to the growing network of other PBA leaders for help. 

One significant resource for this growing network, as well as other fire-curious individuals, is, created by Jared Childress, a Prescribed Burn Association coordinator with UCCE and founder of the Good Fire Alliance.  

“This is new to California, and so, it is important for us to … help each other and bounce ideas off of each other,” Childress explains. 

The website includes basics like a list of local PBAs and an introductory video explaining what they are. There are also sample burn plans, permit options, and liability documents. 

Information like this is essential to facilitate the process. In a study on barriers to prescribed burns in the state, Stanford doctoral candidate Rebecca Miller found that bureaucratic hurdles contribute to a lack of burning, as do public perceptions about fire. She points to a neighborhood in Carmel Valley where residents repeatedly objected to Cal Fire conducting a prescribed burn. In August, the Carmel Fire swept through the area, destroying homes and businesses. 

Other barriers are more entrenched. There are a host of environmental regulations to consider, and a narrow window of ideal weather conditions that has shortened in recent years because of climate change. 

The year 2020 has, of course, presented its own unique challenges—due to COVID-19 concerns, for example, the US Forest Service halted all its prescribed burns for six weeks this spring. Childress’s Good Fire Alliance, in contrast, was still able to move forward with two burns, one on a ranch and one on a wildflower preserve. Now, with wildfires scorching millions of acres across the state, Childress says he regularly hears from participants from these burns, asking if they can help. Participating in a prescribed burn association is an “access point,” he believes, into the world of good fire. 

In the short term, PBAs are unlikely to dramatically increase the amount of land burned in California, nor can they offer an easy answer to the state’s complex, multifaceted wildfire problem. What they can do, though, is pave the way for a regular practice that weaves fire management back into the social fabric of communities, one that starts with neighbors, tribes, organizations, and officials working together. And maybe $50 for lunch and beer.