Building Community Around Good Fire

Clint McKay (Pepperwood’s Indigenous Education Coordinator, the Chair of Pepperwood’s Native Advisory Council, and cultural burn coordinator for this burn), Devyn Friedfel (Burn Boss in training and Pepperwood’s Assistant Preserve Manager), Sasha Berleman (Program Director for ACR’s Fire Forward Program and the official Burn Boss for this burn), Michael Gillogly (Pepperwood’s Preserve Manager). Photo courtesy of Ian A. Nelson.

By Devyn Friedfel (Assistant Preserve Manager)

Stewardship is an inherently communal practice. It’s our way of fulfilling our relationship with the Earth that sustains us. In California, fire is a critical part of this stewardship. This is not the kind of fire that destroys homes and disrupts our communities. This is good fire. The type of fire that we intentionally put on the ground to heal our land, water and wildlife. The type of fire that builds community and resilience. This is the type of fire that Indigenous people used on this landscape since time immemorial.

On June 13, 2022, we intentionally set good fire to 27 acres of Pepperwood’s grasslands. Over 60 people helped make this burn a success including members of the local Indigenous community, fire professionals from four local fire agencies that don’t usually work together, representatives from local land-owning agencies and organizations like Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Laguna FoundationAudubon Canyon Ranch (ACR), Sonoma Land Trust, volunteers from the Good Fire Alliance, and numerous members of Pepperwood’s team.

This burn was well-organized and thoughtfully executed. What sets it apart from our previous controlled burns, like the prescribed burns that CAL FIRE has carried out at Pepperwood in years past (2016, 2017, and 2019), is twofold. Firstly, this grassland burn was a cultural burn, meaning it was designed with participation from the Indigenous community native to Pepperwood to help reach their goals and objectives.

Secondly, while we actively work with CAL FIRE through their Vegetation Management Program to conduct prescribed burns, this particular burn was not planned by CAL FIRE but instead was coordinated by me as part of my certification to become a California State-certified Burn Boss. For me this was a big step in developing my relationship with fire. After four years of volunteering on prescribed fires in various capacities and doing a year-long fellowship with ACR’s Fire Forward program, I can comfortably say that it was one of the greatest achievements of my life to date.

Post-burn recap and assessment. Photo courtesy of Ian A. Nelson.

The people you see next to me in the heading photo of this blog, are the people who made this burn happen. On my left is Clint McKay, Pepperwood’s Indigenous Education Coordinator, the Chair of our Native Advisory Council, and a mentor to me in designing a burn that aligned with Indigenous traditional ways of working with fire. On my right is Sasha Berleman, Program Director for ACR’s Fire Forward Program and the official Burn Boss for this burn, who continues to be a great teacher to me. She allowed me to take the lead on the ground and provided unwavering support. Finally, you likely recognize Michael Gillogly, Pepperwood’s esteemed Preserve Manager, who has encouraged and supported me at every turn to persist in our vision of building community around stewardship.

Community is what made this burn possible and I hope this burn helped make our community stronger. We need to continue to rebuild the narrative around fire and how we understand it. What stood out to me at this fire was the culmination of people from all different walks of life. Fire agencies from all over our County, Indigenous partners who have previously been barred by state policies from partaking in their cultural fire activities, scientists, educators – all manner of people lended their support to make this burn a success. It was a triumph.

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