Restoring Ecological Balance Through Controlled Burns

By Eve Lynch, Communications Intern

In the wake of the recent wildfires that have severely impacted our communities, the need for proactive and effective fire management practices are clear. At Pepperwood, nestled in the headwaters of the Russian River, a dedicated Burn Boss is leading the charge in implementing good fire as a vital tool for ecosystem restoration and wildfire risk reduction. Driven by a deep passion for conservation and inspired by his own experiences with wildfires, Devyn Friedfel, Pepperwood’s Assistant Preserve Manager and a California certified Burn Boss, has embarked on a mission to bridge the gap between fire management and land stewardship. 

As a Communications Intern at Pepperwood, I have the opportunity and the pleasure to learn all about what our environmental leaders and scientists are up to so I can write about it in blogs and post about it on social media. I caught up with Devyn Friedfel as he was getting ready for a meeting regarding his upcoming prescribed burn as a Burn Boss. He’s got a lot to say on the subject of “good fire” and he’s a local authority on it.

Interview with a California Burn Boss


As a Burn Boss, Devyn, you have a unique role in managing controlled burns. Can you explain what inspired you to pursue this line of work and how it aligns with your passion for conservation?


As a student of ecology and being a land steward growing up in California, I was always aware of the role that fire played in ecology. However, the implementation logistics seemed very difficult, and I was often told “near impossible” unless you worked with the USDA Forest Service, CAL FIRE, or a fire agency. So as a land steward, there weren’t any good avenues to learn about prescribed fire and how to implement this kind of land management, or at least I wasn’t aware of it and it wasn’t readily available in California. Other states are further along with educating land managers in this way – we are only just getting started.

In 2017, after experiencing the Tubbs Fire both at work and in the community I grew up in, with friends and family losing homes, it made it feel like something had to be done. Land stewardship at that time wasn’t working fast enough to meet the needs of the land.

In 2018 I was invited with a group of other Sonoma County land stewards to do a three-day prescribed burn workshop led by Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward team. We did a hands-on prescribed burn with Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association to show their model and what worked for them. Lenya Quinn-Davidson is a leader in sharing this prescribed burn knowledge.

It was really exciting. There was something inherently right about it. It was just awesome to see an implementation of fire in California. In college, we learned that fire ecology is important to California’s land management. We also knew that Indigenous land management involves skillfully applied fire science, it just wasn’t something that was commonly practiced around here that I saw. It wasn’t as scary as you would imagine. It was very controlled. The resources were there. It was well thought out.

After the workshop, the group from Sonoma County decided to start their own fire group, or prescribed burn association (PBA) called the Good Fire Alliance. When it first got started, there was some small-scale prescribed burning that was happening throughout the County. But then, in 2019, we had the Kincade Fire. For Pepperwood and many of our neighbors, this was the second major wildfire within two years. It became clear that we needed to implement this management style more because the other tools were not working fast enough. 

At that point in time, Lenya was working with the State and working with the CAL FIRE Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) to create the State-Certified Prescribed-Fire Burn Boss program. This allows private landowners to have special liability protections and support from CAL FIRE, which had previously been an almost insurmountable hurdle for conducting the amount of prescribed burning risk reduction at the scale necessary to meet the times. Then there was 2020, which was a hugely devastating year for California in terms of  wildfires and that was a tipping point. It felt like we had to act fast and use every tool at our disposal to protect our communities and steward our forests so wildfires don’t cause more damage.

In 2021 I was invited to join the Fire Forward Fellowship: a year-long prescribed fire fellowship offered through Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward Program. The point of this Fellowship was to create leaders in the prescribed burn community. I learned from the Fire Forward Program Director, Dr. Sasha Berleman and her team how to implement prescribed fires and complete the necessary coursework to become a burn boss. The lessons we learned from her that year were about creating a burn plan and all the aspects that go into that process: how to get all the necessary air permits from CAL FIRE, how to be a good neighbor while implementing burns, how to organize the resources for prescribed fire, how to take the weather into account and make sure you maintain compliance with this burn plan, and after all those steps then how to implement the prescribed burn. 

In 2022, I finished my coursework and implemented two prescribed fires at Pepperwood with Sasha as the burn boss trainer. After a rigorous certification program, these two burns were the final tasks I needed to earn my new title. Now, in 2023, I will conduct the prescribed burns as a California-certified Burn Boss.

Using prescribed fire to reduce the negative impacts of wildfire is supported by the science of the Indigenous community. Fire has been used as a stewardship tool by people in California for thousands of years. Intentional fire has shaped the ecology of California as we know it today. A lot of that information was given by Clint McKay (Wappo, Pomo, Wintun).

CAL FIRE maintains that it is essential to reduce fuels in forests. Fire ecologists have shown that fire supports the health of an ecosystem. Think about it, Indigenous communities, government agencies, and ecologists are all on the same page on this issue. These are groups that don’t usually agree on things. For me, this is an indication that we need to pick up and run with this. As a land steward of Pepperwood, I’m in a unique position to demonstrate that intentional fires really can be implemented in a smart, thoughtful, and safe way.



Prescribed fires require collaboration and coordination with various stakeholders. How do you involve local communities, scientists, and other experts to ensure the success and effectiveness of your burns?


Involving all the stakeholders is an important aspect of being a Burn Boss. Feelings around fire have long centered on fear in our communities, so bringing intentional fire back to the land is a sort of culture shift and not an easy one. It’s not only about implementing good fire, but also about bringing our community along with us. Sonoma County is fortunate to have some fire advocates like Dr. Sasha Berleman, Fire Forward Program Director, and Marshall Turbeville, Fire Chief of the Northern Sonoma County Fire District as well as a CAL FIRE Battalion Chief. Both broke the ground and let the stewardship community know how to bring stakeholders to the table. I also have to give enormous credit to Michael Gillogly, Pepperwood’s Preserve Manager, and Clint McKay, Pepperwood’s Indigenous Education Coordinator and Chairman of the Native Advisory Council at Pepperwood. They laid the groundwork for fire advocacy by doing outreach to educate our community about it.



What are some of the key considerations and factors that go into planning and executing a controlled burn? How do you ensure the safety of both the ecosystem and the people involved?


Safety is the number one priority in any controlled burn. A detailed plan, an understanding of the fuel type you are working in, the weather conditions, and having enough experience to be able to somewhat predict the fire behavior are all factors that go into this. No one ever knows exactly how the fire will behave, but we can get to know fire very well and make knowledgeable assumptions. We want to make sure we reach specific goals and objectives with a monitoring protocol. From a community safety standpoint, we ensure our control lines are in place and we have more than enough resources on site to mitigate any issues that may come up.

We work closely with CAL FIRE and other emergency response agencies to make sure that we are aligned in objective and information. CAL FIRE and other emergency services are aware of exactly when and where the burn is happening, and what the burn plan is. Nate Glaeser, CAL FIRE Battalion Chief, and Ben Nichols, CAL FIRE Division Chief, have been very supportive in our work by bringing in extra fire trucks. 

We fully understand that after all these traumatic wildfires, even smoke from a prescribed burn can trigger alarm, and rightfully so. We do our best to mitigate smoke, but we also need people to be on board with us and understand that some smoke up in the air is inevitable during a prescribed burn, but we are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our community. 



Prescribed fire is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Can you explain how you customize burn prescriptions based on specific ecosystem types, plant communities, and management goals?


The burn plan writing process and the setting of clear intentions and measurable goals helps to guide the prescription. Through that burn plan, we will base our parameters around fire techniques, weather conditions, and resource needs. 



Weather conditions play a crucial role in determining the success and safety of a controlled burn. How do you assess and monitor weather patterns to ensure optimal burn conditions, and how do you adapt your plans when faced with unexpected changes?


Weather is monitored days prior to the burn through data collection on our site. We are also able to submit a spot satellite weather forecast request which gives us as detailed a forecast from the burn as possible. Weather is monitored every hour of the burn and if it falls outside of the prescription limitations, ignitions cease and the fire will be put out. Same goes for the fire conditions, if they fall outside of what is predicted, we put out the fire. We actively monitor both weather and fire conditions throughout the entire burn.



Burn Bosses work closely with fire crews and other professionals during controlled burns. How do you establish effective teamwork and maintain clear communication to ensure everyone is on the same page and the burn progresses smoothly?


Detailed planning. We establish a chain of command: one person is never in charge of more than five others. When we come to these burns the majority of us have already worked together under these circumstances in previous burns. This is highly coordinated from beginning to end, and we learn from each burn. We have meetings where we mock out the fire and discuss the details beforehand. On the day of the burn, we have a morning briefing with all the members, where we detail goals and objectives and how the day will go. After the burn, members of the burn also hold an “after action review,” which is basically a debrief where we go over how the day went and how we can improve. It’s important that all fire practitioners have a space where they can comfortably continue to learn no matter what skill level or background they come from. We are always students of fire; we are continually trying to learn how to better ourselves and be better fire practitioners.

Some Final Thoughts

The presence of a dedicated Burn Boss is an essential part of managing controlled burns, restoring ecological balance, and mitigating wildfire risks for modern land management in California. Devyn Friedfel’s commitment to conservation and firsthand encounters with wildfires has fueled his passion for bridging the gap between fire management and land stewardship. By engaging local communities, collaborating with scientists and experts, prioritizing safety, and tailoring burn prescriptions, California’s burn bosses strive to achieve effective and sustainable outcomes for a more resilient future in this fire-adapted landscape.


  1. Susan Bryer-Shelton says:

    What a well-written, information and inspiring interview! Thank you, Devyn, for these detailed insights about prescribed fire. Sending much appreciation to all of the people and organizations involved in these important efforts!

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