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Civilian recruits hone firefighting basics as prescribed fire movement swells in Sonoma County

There was no actual fire on the ground Saturday when wildland firefighting recruits took turns operating powerful fire hoses and learned to wield McLeods and Pulaskis, the tools used to dig fire lines by hand, during a field training at Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen.

Instead, they targeted imaginary hot spots, and pretended to ignite flames with their fuel torches, setting imaginary prescribed fires while walking in a staggered grid pattern that experts use when conducting the real thing.

By day’s end, all 47 trainees were one prescribed burn away from earning certification as basic wildland firefighters, providing them the foundation to pursue firefighting work — though, in most cases, their professional interests lay elsewhere.

Their enrollment at the session hosted by Fire Forward, a program of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, owners of 535-acre Bouverie Preserve, reflects the rising interest in putting controlled fire to greater use on the landscape — to reduce hazardous fuels, eradicate weeds and pests and regenerate ecosystems adapted to wildfire.

Many of Saturday’s participants work in some kind of land management capacity, for park systems, conservation groups or in environmental and fire science, mostly in the greater Bay Area. Several participants came from as far as Santa Cruz, Nevada County and Pinnacles National Park.

But there also were people like web developer Saill White, 56, who owns a small rural parcel near Two Rock and wants to better understand the effects of fire and how it can be used as a tool where “you get to decide when and where it burns.”

Like everyone else, she had to complete about 40 hours of online education, as well as fulfill the ubiquitous pack test for wildland firefighters that requires hiking 3 miles with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. She confirmed it was arduous.

Then the group rotated through multiple skills stations at field training day. “I learned a ton,” White said. “I didn’t know anything at all.”

Fire Forward Executive Director Sasha Berleman said demand for the training has spiked precipitously in recent weeks and amid historic fire season in California, with more than 4.1 million acres burned to date.

Every spot for the Saturday training was filled, forcing some people onto a waiting list. And last week, when she posted field training days on March 6 and March 7, “both filled up in less than 48 hours,” Berleman said.

Altogether, that’s another 90 people taking part in a growing movement to revive fire use practiced for centuries by indigenous people, in hopes of reducing fuel loads and curbing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Berleman, a UC Berkeley-trained fire scientist and wildland firefighter, describes the program as “building capacity” for prescribed burning — providing people with the basic skills needed to handle fire safely and understand the dynamics that govern its direction and intensity, and the tools that are needed to control and suppress it.

The idea is to create a large pool of people from which volunteers work cooperatively on different properties. But Berleman stresses that participants shouldn’t think of the training as encouragement to stand and defend their homes against wildfire. Rather, she wants them to use their fire management skills and other tools in advance of wildfire to reduce dense fuel loads and catastrophic impacts.

Those who complete the training are capable of wildfire suppression, however. They demonstrated as much during the recent Walbridge fire in northwest Sonoma County, where about three dozen members of the Good Fire Alliance, a separate but related effort, rotated through three-day shifts of mop-up in the third and fourth week of the lightning-sparked blaze on assignment with the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District.

The Good Fire Alliance is a consortium of North Bay landowners and land managers who work together to manage vegetation and fuel on public, nonprofit and private lands in Sonoma and Marin counties, using prescribed fire and other tools.

The alliance has about 170 volunteer members with basic wildland firefighting training, about 120 of them trained by Fire Forward. The latest group of trainees and those signed up for March will swell those ranks significantly if everyone follows through on certification.

Among Saturday’s trainees was longtime Fort Bragg dive shop owner Blake Tallman, who found a new career as a forest technician with The Conservation Fund after the closure of the abalone fishery shut down his business. He and a co-worker, one of Saturday’s skills trainers, were hoping to use more fire on the fund’s large properties in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

“I started from the basics of the incident command system,” said Tallman, 34. “This has been a rad program.”

Cazadero-area resident Alina Haigler, a nurse practitioner, attended as a volunteer timekeeper but only because she decided to let her husband, Harry, have the last available spot in the field training after learning about it too late to get them both signed up.

But they have been following Berleman — “dogging her,” Haigler said — since hearing her speak at a forestry conference about four years ago.

With 120 acres next to Austin Creek State Recreation Area to tend — land that was very close to the edges of the Walbridge fire — the couple is eager to explore proactive, collaborative fire management, said Haigler, 58.

“We need to find a regional solution to this, and we would hope Sasha’s work would be part of that,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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