1 – Reflections of a West Coast Firefighter turned Firelighter

by M Valentine

I have learned so much in the three years I have worked as a wildland firefighter. It’s hard to remember what life was like before the experience of walking through freshly scorched forests and neighborhoods, before the camaraderie and hardship of crew life and dynamics. One summer I was waitressing, and the next I was hiking into the mountains in a line of 19 other people with a chainsaw on my shoulder, 12 plastic water bottles and a bag of cheap snacks and candy. Getting into fire was the best decision I have made so far, and not because I believe in the heroism of the American wildland firefighter. Quite the contrary, for being in the belly of the beast of the fire suppression world has shown me just how backwards it all is. Firefighting took me in as a broke 20 something looking for a paycheck and adventure, and spit me out as a fire lighting, drip torch loving devoted pyro. I am so inspired by the incredible people and communities I have met, the diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences everyone brings, the learning and unlearning as we work to bring land stewardship and safe, prescribed fire back into the people’s hands. 

Writing about an element so vast, dynamic and powerful, that involves people’s livelihoods, sense of security, and culture is challenging. To orient you, the West Coast is a landscape shaped by fire. So many of the bioregions that are cherished here, and the plants and animals that exist within those environments have adapted to thrive with recurring mixed severity fires. These flames crept through the underbrush, recycling dead and downed debris, restoring nitrogen to the soil. The cones of pine trees open in reaction to the heat, releasing their seeds for germination. Low intensity fires clear out competing conifer saplings in the beautiful oak savannas, allowing for the lupine and camas to thrive below. 

I remember as a kid learning about the camas lily of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, a native plant to the area that thrives in meadows and oak savannas. The camas lily has an edible bulb (when prepared correctly) and beautiful bright purple flowers that bloom in spring, when the meadows are still marshy and full of the season’s rainfall. This was the first plant that I learned thrives with, and even depends on fire as a part of its lifecycle. This plant offered a healing perspective; that fire is more than the dangerous and demonized version we see fire ‘fighters’ going to war with on TV; that fire can do good. These reflections are just the tip of the iceberg of unpacking, criticizing and digesting the corrupted version of fire that has been created here in just the past 120 years. 

100 plus years of fire suppression and abusive resource extraction has put thousands of these fire-dependent species at risk of extinction, as well as contributed to the high-intensity mega fires that we see today. To learn about fire and the history of humans’ relationship to fire is an intrinsic part of telling the true story of how we came to be here in this moment of socio and environmental crisis. Our recent history of fire suppression is directly connected to the genocide and attempted cultural erasure performed by white American colonists against the Indigenous peoples of North “America”. Through time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have stewarded these landscapes in a relationship that fosters ecological abundance and biological diversity. The decline of native plant and animal species, watershed health, and the increase of fatal ‘mega-fires’ cannot be separated from the criminalization of native tribal groups’ burning practices. 

If you live on the West Coast, and California specifically, you will know how dry the last couple months of winter have been. January and February of 2022 were the driest ever recorded in California. Every time I have participated in a prescribed burn this year I have felt that heat. On February 17th, I arrived at a prescribed burn curated by the Good Fire Alliance, A Public Burn Association based out of Sonoma County. This burn was held on traditional Kashia Pomo Land, and is home to a mosaic of both old growth redwood and open meadows. Today the land is owned by Rip Goelet, and is now named ‘Rip’s Redwoods’. 

It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s February in Sonoma County. As a new Firefighter Type 1 Trainee, I was excited to be handed a Kestrel Weather Meter, a Brick Radio and a Fire Weather Observation Chart. These tools plus the weather charts in the IRPG (Incident Response Pocket Guide) are what you need to track and communicate weather to the crew working on the ground. To sum it up, you collect the temperature and relative humidity, and plug these numbers into a chart to find the “Probability of Ignition”. The “Probability of Ignition” is a 1-100% calculation to see how dry the fuels (plants n’ such) are and how likely it is for them to blow up and burn with the addition of just a little fire. The charts you plug these numbers into calculate how dry our dear dead and downed logs and fine fuels are, based on months; for months are associated with a relative percentage of precipitation. The sweet wet fuels of February don’t exist this year, so the weather I was reading simply didn’t match the fire behavior I was seeing, which was hot, flashy and boisterous. It wasn’t because I was doing my calculations wrong, it was simply because I was using a chart meant for February, when we were dealing with May June and July dry fuels. Realizing that the effects of climate change made the IRPG charts outdated, at least on this particularly dry day, made my stomach churn. 

While deeply concerning, the drying trend throughout the West Coast makes prescribed burns feel even more crucial. Knowing that there are more devastating wildfire seasons ahead, there is so much work to do during the burn windows throughout fall, winter and spring. While we are burning to reduce the amount of fuel that feeds severe fires, we are taking care of the land, and making people and communities more safe. Although eerily dry, burn days like those with the Good Fire Alliance at Rips Redwoods feel like a kind of solace. Seeing fire burn away the decades of built up duff and brush, clearing the way for long dormant seeds to bloom, for critters that have been waiting generations to enjoy the tender shoots and abundance that follows a low to mid severity fire is joyful. 

Working with fire means holding a lot of feelings in one basket. The existential reality that our environments are changing rapidly, shriveling under late capitalism and resource extraction. There’s so much to dismantle and *burn*, and I know that weighs heavy on our hearts and minds. We are tired and isolated, everyone deserves to thrive and be able to take care of our loved ones. That is what we are fighting for and it’s exhausting. Fire as a metaphor makes it all sound so easy, if only we could just burn it all and embrace the fresh green shoots of life after exploitative oppression; and then there’s the beauty of seeing people with a drip torch in their hand for the first time. The quick progression of someone’s fear of fire becoming curiosity becomes a conversation becoming a direct exchange between human and the drip torch and the land, seeing the lines of fire meet and embrace each other, the trust in your fellow fire lighting companions. The joy that communities are finally trusting this element that innately belongs. I heard an inspirational and respected fire practitioner say something along the lines of “People always say that it is a liability to burn, we must realize that it is more of a liability to suppress fire than it is to let it burn”, Fire will be there no matter what, it’s just a matter of if we want to intentionally invite fire or let fire come uninvited. 

While my heart and ideologies are against firefighting as we know it, I will be out in the summer heat with my fellow firefighters this coming season. This is because I have found few other avenues that provide financial security while also providing opportunities to gain experience and skill sets. I know myself and so many others that have found themselves working in the woods are looking for an alternative to firefighting as we know it. Every fire season I find myself having conversations with fellow fire ‘fighters’ that want to apply their passion, interest or experience to something they believe in. More and more people on ‘the line’ are seeing through the facade of the militarized, impersonal and resource extraction oriented framework that we are forced to work in. We are told over and over that “this is just how it is, get used to it or get out”. My fellow fire comrades and I know that something else is possible. We know that fire is a crucial aspect of the longevity and survival of plants and ecosystems of the regions we love so much; inherently intertwined with our struggle for liberation and abolition. 

So many people are reflecting, re-evaluating and changing their ideas of, and relationship to fire. I love fire because it is inherently intergenerational, there is a place for everyone to get involved, big and small. From finding a local PBA (Prescribed Burn Association) to work with, reading the Karuk Tribe Climate Change Project ‘Fire Works!’ section, learning about your local fire ecology and history — FUSEE (Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology), which you can find at fusee.org is a great resource for learning about the paradigm shift of fire, in both advocating for prescribed burning as well as the demilitarization of fire suppression. It is time to think critically, ask questions and foster community resilience by safely bringing fire back to the land where it belongs.