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Crew members from the Good Fire Alliance walk along a trail during a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

’We’re taking ownership’: Corps of civilians tests new firefighting model on Walbridge fire

Kai Dalgleish, 33, took a break last month from desk work as a software engineer in southern Oregon to dig for smoking roots in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and put out hot spots on steep, remote slopes near Cazadero.

Peter Nelson, 37, an American Indian Studies professor at San Diego State, also put in time on the Walbridge fire, taking three-day shifts on the fire line between teaching remote classes from his new home in Santa Rosa.

Environmental educator Katja Svendsen, 47, had grown increasingly intrigued by the fallout from flames on the landscape through three years of leading hikes in wildfire-scarred Sonoma County parks. She landed on the same hand crew as Dalgleish and Nelson ― all relative rookies involved in a new bid to spread fire knowledge and experience among everyday civilians.

Sonoma Ecology Center environmental restoration crew lead and fire specialist prepares to take a Fire Forward crew out on a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma Ecology Center environmental restoration crew lead and fire specialist prepares to take a Fire Forward crew out on a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

They were among more than three dozen people who recently rotated through two weeks of duty on the 55,209-acre Walbridge fire, part of a growing volunteer force being trained in basic wildland firefighting. The main purpose: to expand the know-how needed to conduct more of the prescribed burns that experts say will be needed to stem catastrophic fire risk in California and across the rapidly warming western United States.

Their deployment in the forested hills west of Healdsburg came as part of a monthlong battle to tame an active wildfire. They were plugged into the incident as temporary employees of the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District, testing a model organizers hope will be replicated in the future for expanding backup ranks amid increasingly frequent wildfire emergencies.

It may be the first such deployment of its kind in the nation.

“It’s not unachievable that there could be 300, 400 people that could be trained and available for this kind of work,” said hand crew member Joe Plaugher, 29, a Santa Rosa-based field representative for Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “You could easily see a few hundred people in the community that were basically just in reserve for an incident and that could be utilized ― and not just in the way.”

Crew members from the Good Fire Alliance walk along a trail during a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Crew members from the Good Fire Alliance walk along a trail during a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Though not employed for the initial firefight, where professional crews faced down flaming fronts on high-elevation ridgetops at the peak of the wildfire’s growth, the group performed critical mop-up from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14, digging lines in rough terrain, chasing down skulking flames and rooting out underground patches of heat. They worked 12-hour days, sometimes in triple-digit temperatures, and were generally covered in dirt and ash.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said crew member Devyn Friedfel, 29, a natural resource specialist with Pepperwood Preserve, which started using fire on its 3,200-acre property in the Mayacamas Mountains in 2014. “We were working on steep, steep, steep slopes and carrying a 45-pound pack, and carrying a tool.”

But the reward is profound, all said, especially given the heavy toll of destructive wildfires in the area.

Friedfel, who was evacuated from his Forestville home for much of the Walbridge, noted that the alternative “was sitting on a friend’s couch, constantly getting updates from Twitter,” thinking, “Why do I have all this training?” and wishing he could be deployed.

Fire Forward program director Sasha Berleman views part of the Walbridge fire burn zone through her monocular before taking her crews on a tactical patrol at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Fire Forward program director Sasha Berleman views part of the Walbridge fire burn zone through her monocular before taking her crews on a tactical patrol at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

The crew was led by fire ecologist Sasha Berleman, director of the 3-year-old Fire Forward program for Audubon Canyon Ranch, an environmental conservation and education nonprofit. The group helped found the Good Fire Alliance, a cooperative of North Bay landowners and land managers seeking to expand the use of prescribed burning and other techniques to control fuel build-up, eliminate invasive plants and pests, encourage biodiversity and restore wildlife habitat.

It’s “neighbors helping neighbors,” but on an a fairly large scale, given growing interest and passion for the subject, said Berleman, who has a doctorate in fire ecology from UC Berkeley and is a seasonal U.S. Forest Service firefighter.

The effort allows land managers to help each other safely burn large plots of land while providing field training for volunteers trying to earn Type 2, or basic wildland, firefighting certification, which also requires 30 to 40 hours of classwork.

About 170 members have basic training so far, roughly 120 trained through Fire Forward, Berleman said. Another 45 are signed up for field training Oct. 10, during a burn at ACR’s Bouverie Preserve in the Sonoma Valley, she said.

Certification requirements include an “arduous pack test,” in which candidates must hike 3 miles with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes or less, so it’s not for everyone.

Good Fire Alliance

The Good Fire Alliance was formed in the aftermath of the October 2017 North Bay firestorm from a collaborative of public, private and nonprofit landowners. Together, they decided to better to cooperate on improved vegetation and fuels management going forward.

Their collaboration is part of a growing movement embracing prescribed, or broadcast, burning as a land management tool, one used for centuries by indigenous people that has only recently come back into favor, experts say.

About 170 members of the Good Fire Alliance have basic wildland training that allows them to participate in prescribed burns, as well as wildlfire suppression. At least 120 were trained on burns run by Fire Forward, a program of nonprofit Audubon Canyon Ranch.

But participants said joining up provides a path for positive action at a time when wildfires are becoming progressively more common and catastrophic, as well as an opportunity to steward the landscape, especially in Sonoma County, where there is so much trauma from recent fires.

“Let’s get back to the land, and let’s try to heal ourselves as a community,” said Svendsen, the regional parks educator. “Why not get our younger generation, who’s being affected ― why not get them on board?”

The opportunity to do something more arose only recently, starting with a conversation in late July between Berleman and Northern Sonoma County Fire District Chief Marshall Turbeville, a partner and supporter of the Good Fire Alliance.

The two were discussing the possibility that alliance members might serve in a suppression capacity at some point in the future, and that’s where it was left ― with little idea how soon the need would arise.

Crew members from Audubon Canyon Ranch's Fire Forward program drive their trucks through rugged terrain toward the Cedars where they will conduct a tactical patrol in the Walbridge Fire burn zone, near Cazadero, California, on Saturday, September 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Crew members from Audubon Canyon Ranch's Fire Forward program drive their trucks through rugged terrain toward the Cedars where they will conduct a tactical patrol in the Walbridge Fire burn zone, near Cazadero, California, on Saturday, September 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Once the Walbridge fire was discovered Aug. 17, amid dozens of fires touched off by dry lightning around the state, the need for firefighting crews was quickly understood, and the pair pulled together a plan to join trained Alliance members with three people from Turbeville’s local fuels management crew, who are technically not firefighters, though they had become certified in at least some cases through Fire Forward.

Thirty-eight people readily responded to Berleman’s recruitment email, and she was able to schedule mostly three-day shifts, using a Windsor location owned by the Center for Social and Environmental Stewardship as base camp. Most people did at least two, three-days stints, the days lasting about 15 hours, with transport out to the field and back.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. We were working on steep, steep, steep slopes and carrying a 45-pound pack, and carrying a tool.”― Crew member Devyn Friedfel

The fire district paid their wages and overtime pay, and assumed liability, while Fire Forward provided gear, fire safety garb, packs and emergency fire shelters for daily crews of 17 people assigned for roughly the first week to Armstrong Redwoods and, later, to the Red Slide area near Cazadero and The Cedars.

“I think it’s a good concept, and, you know, some of what’s driving this is we’re having more and more fires, and Cal Fire relies on state inmates to provide the fire crews, and there’s fewer and fewer,” Turbeville said.

It also allows willing, qualified civilians an avenue for offering their services in a structured, managed, accountable way, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said.

Audubon Canyon Ranch resource ecologist and land steward Jared Jacobs, left, is handed his helmet by Adam Sawicky, a recent Cal graduate who studied forestry and natural resources, as their crew from Fire Forward prepares to conduct a tactical patrol in the Walbridge Fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Audubon Canyon Ranch resource ecologist and land steward Jared Jacobs, left, is handed his helmet by Adam Sawicky, a recent Cal graduate who studied forestry and natural resources, as their crew from Fire Forward prepares to conduct a tactical patrol in the Walbridge Fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Berleman, 31, said it’s been her dream to be part of a culture shift back to more environmentally beneficial land stewardship, reintegrating use of fire on landscapes that evolved with periodic burns over generations. That mission evidently resonates widely, given the number of people who joined from the larger Bay Area.

“It has that natural, positive contagiousness, where people are excited to get involved and be a part of it, and it’s inspiring some hope and connectivity between people in what can be some pretty difficult times,” she said. “We’re taking ownership of things that we can do to make a difference.”

Some participants are obvious recruits ― several are local land managers and fire ecologists, for instance. Others are less so.

Fire Forward program director Sasha Berleman, second from left, briefs her crew members before they depart on a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Fire Forward program director Sasha Berleman, second from left, briefs her crew members before they depart on a tactical patrol in the Walbridge fire burn zone at the Cedars near Cazadero on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Dagliesh, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is slowly relocating from Oakland to a new place on the outskirts of Medford and wants to be able to protect their rural home and build local resiliency, particularly given the scarcity of firefighting resources.

“That was not something that I had expected to do in an official capacity,” Dalgliesh said. “I wanted those skills just in my own home defense, but I did not think there was space” to be part of a structured incident.

Nelson is a tribal member of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, and indigenous landscape management is among his academic specialties. He has taken part in paleo ethnobotany research and studied the environmental history of Tolay Lake Regional Park and the native plant uses of the Coast Miwok, his people.

A key motivator for learning basic firefighting, however, is his desire to be a tribal adviser, keeping watch during future firefights to ensure bulldozers and other efforts don’t negatively impact cultural resources and ecology, he said.

He also remembers the 2017 wildfires, when so much of Sonoma County and neighboring communities burned.

“I felt helpless,” Nelson said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. This program allowed us some outlet, even if it was prescribed burning. It gave me the sense that I could go out and do something for my community.”

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

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