Fighting Fire With Fire

An Interview With Fire Ecologist and Wildland Firefighter Sasha Berleman

By Shannon Lavelle

Sasha Berleman is a total badass. If you ran into this svelte, genial young woman on the streets of Berkeley, you surely wouldn’t picture her battling fires in the mountains of California, her face and clothes covered in soot, pickaxe in hand. But that’s exactly how Berleman spent the last two summers. The slender 29-year-old is 5’6”, her hazel eyes and gentle features framed by chin-length, straight brown hair. She is soft-spoken, her choice of words deliberate and thoughtful.

I first met Berleman nine years ago, when we worked together at a downtown Berkeley tap house. She had recently transferred to UC Berkeley from Mount San Jacinto College, a community college in Menifee, Calif. Back then, I was unaware of her passion for fire ecology. What struck me, primarily, was her humble nature – a welcome respite from the manic personalities I was otherwise surrounded by.

When I returned to the Bay Area for a visit in July of last year, I hadn’t seen Berleman in over four years. I met up with her and her husband for a hike in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. In case you haven’t hiked up the Skyline Ridge Trail to Grizzly Peak, let me describe it for you: it’s steep. Very steep. I stopped occasionally to take photos of the incredible panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay beneath – but actually, to catch my breath. Berleman, having not even broken a sweat or taken a sip of water, explained to me along the way the she had been routinely hiking the trail wearing a 65-pound pack to prepare for the strenuous physical exam that the U.S. Forest Service requires every individual to pass in order to become a member of a hotshot crew.

She was preparing for a two-month stint on the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew. It seemed like an unusual choice for someone who holds a doctorate in Fire Ecology to make. However, it is a choice that evinces her dedication and passion for the subject. Interagency Hotshot Crews are “the most highly trained, skilled, and experienced type of handcrews [wildland firefighters],” according to the U.S. Forest Service website. Established in the 1940s, they were called “hotshot” crews because they worked on the hottest part of wildfires. This year, Berleman worked the entire season on the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew, from mid-April through the end of September.

I asked Berleman for an interview on Wednesday, November 7, 2018. The following morning, on November 8, the Camp Fire started in Butte County, approximately 150 miles northeast of Berkeley. Smoke poured into the Bay Area for days afterward, choking the region with hazardous particulate matter. The Air Quality Index topped 300 in some places, prompting federal officials to declare a public health emergency in the state. People all over the world saw haunting images of the charred remains of the town of Paradise, Calif., which burned to the ground in a matter of hours that Thursday. It was stark reminder of the perils of wildfire.

Incendiary remarks made by President Trump stoked the fire, so to speak, in many Californians’ hearts. The internet exploded with heated debate about land management, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the deadly fires that were raging in the hills of California. The day I interviewed Berleman, the entire state was under a Red Flag Warning. This seemed like a more important time than ever to pick her brain for answers.

 

What inspired you to get involved in fire management?

I grew up in Southern California, in Temecula, which was a tiny town when I grew up there. There was fire seemingly every year burning in all the hills around our town. We were surrounded by chaparral, so really flammable brush, and fire was just a part of my life growing up. This weather that we’re experiencing today and this week is what I grew up with every December.

We had fires all the time, and I was terrified of fire as a kid. Then when I got to community college in my hometown, as part of the honors program, I became a docent at the local plateau nature preserve and I learned about how fire is this incredibly valuable ecosystem process. Native Americans lived in a positive way with fire and used fire as a critical tool for thousands of years. And yet here we are – we’re still people, and we’re still people living in California – yet we have this really negative relationship with fire across the state, while the landscape that we live in depends on it to survive and to thrive. I thought that that was really captivating and maybe something that was a targeted enough issue in this state that I could try to have some impact on it.

How did that lead you to where you are now?

So, I knew I wanted to keep working in fire. I got a job at a nonprofit in the North Bay called Audubon Canyon Ranch while I was finishing my dissertation and then became their Fire Ecologist as soon as I graduated. I was planning prescribed burns on their property, which was their main goal for me working there.

In May of last year, we had this awesome cooperative burn.  We burned about 21 acres. We had 75 firefighters there from 12 different agencies cooperating to help put together a prescribed burn of grasslands on our nature preserve there.

I spent a couple months on the Redding Hotshot Crew over the summer, and almost immediately after I came back, the North Bay fire started. So, there was this kind of chaos, but we were trying to do all the good we possibly could to minimize the impact and save what we could. Then the North Bay fires burned on the property where I worked, so it came very close to home. I decided that if I’m going to have all the impact I want to have on California’s fire problems, I should have not just the education, but also the on-the-ground fire experience. So, I went back for a full season on the Redding Hotshot Crew this year, so that I could keep building my credentials for the on-the-ground firefighting in addition to everything else.

I’ve learned so much just in the last couple years participating in wildland firefighting, especially on a hotshot crew where we’re boots-on-the-ground every single day, constantly out on fire somewhere. I think before I ever worked on a wildfire, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what it takes to manage fire. I’ve learned so much in the last year, and I now realize there’s so much I don’t know.

Tell me about your two seasons working as a hotshot.

Last year, I went on three what’s called “rolls” with the Redding Hotshot Crew. One “roll” is two weeks long, and it’s constantly being out on fires with the crew, and then you get two days off, and then you go back out for two weeks.

Then this year I did the full season. It began in mid-April and started with six weeks of training. The training is amazing. The Redding Hotshot Crew is a training crew, so their entire crew is a different set of 16 people every year that come from various different Forest Service divisions across the U.S. So, they have to create this crew cohesion and bring people together at the start of the season.

During the first six weeks, we do very thorough medical training so that we are able to handle an emergency situation, as well as orienteering, map reading and GPS use. Then we do a “staff ride,” which is a visit to a fatality fire. We visited the site of the South Canyon Fire, which is a fire that burned in Colorado that killed 14 wildland firefighters in the 90s.  The Redding Hotshot Crew actually helps facilitate and lead that event, where you go and visit the fire site and talk about what happened, how it happened and why, and what could have been done differently.

Can you describe a typical day on the crew?

I’d say there are a couple different types of days. The work day is 16 hours long, but that includes time to get chow for breakfast and dinner, at the beginning and end of the day. But then some days you’re just constantly digging and you’re doing the grunt work – just swinging a tool, sweating like crazy, getting super dirty, with no time to even look up and see what’s going on.

Other days you’re sitting in the buggy waiting for your captains to tell you what the plan is because the people above you don’t have a plan in order yet. “Hurry up and wait” is the phrase that defines firefighting in general. But then as soon as you plug in, you’re at full throttle, one hundred percent. So, it’s this very strange polarization of sitting around with your cronies talking shit and goofing off and just having fun with each other – to working your asses off. The hard work – that’s the rewarding part – and it brings you closer. The shared suffering makes those people that you spend the time with your family.

Can you give me examples of what kind of work your crew was doing?

“Digging line” is a huge part of it. When you are digging line, there are usually three-ish saw teams that are cutting all the brush or trees out of that line in front. Then there is a line of tools swingers, who are digging to the bare ground behind them. Because the Hotshot Crew has an extra set of credentials and qualifications, they’re also able to do things like firing operations, where you can ignite along that line to bring fire back to the wildfire that’s burning toward you.

Donald Trump tweeted that “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!

Do you have a response to that?

The issue of fire in California is complex and there are so many factors involved. Trump’s tweet is trying to take this incredibly complex issue and simplify it down until it’s so drastically, terribly over-simplified that it makes no sense.

For me, trying to address the tweet directly runs the risk of capturing the responder in his oversimplified perspective, which I think he does with pretty much anything he talks about or posts about – right? He seems to lack the comprehension for the full picture of these things.

Forest management is certainly a piece of the puzzle in California’s fire management. A huge portion of the forest, though, is on federal lands. So, it seems like he doesn’t have an understanding of how policy is made or what the challenges are to that policy, what the holdups are. Policy has made it difficult to do the management that is necessary, including a huge lack of funding for federal land management. In addition to that, these wildfires that we’re seeing recently are not primarily driven by a lack of management. It’s a piece, but it’s not the main one.

The main cause is these massive weather events related to climate change. We’re seeing longer fire seasons – for example, the Thomas Fire, which burned last year in December, and then the fires right now, in mid-November. We’re getting these weather events that should have happened in the middle of summer, not now. Then, in addition to that, we’re getting stronger weather events related to the northeast and north winds that hang over California. They’re blowing at higher wind speeds than usual, which is what pushed the Camp Fire that’s happening right now, as well as the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire is burning. So, that’s the bigger story behind these fires that triggered his tweet – and yet, of course, it’s not what he’s including.

What do you think is causing these weather events?

To some extent, these weather events are just a part of California. They’ve been happening for at least the last hundred years and probably much longer than that, just based on geography and how weather systems move across this part of the country. We live in a Mediterranean climate, so we have dry summers and wet winters. Those wet winters create growth that provides fuel for the dry summers. So, we’re a fire-prone state in the first place. And we’ve always had these wind events, where winds come from the north or northeast at 30 to 40 miles per hour, and even higher wind speeds in certain parts of the state. We have the Diablo winds here, Santa Anas in Southern California. But those are all being made more dramatic and more drastic and lasting longer in the season because of climate change. We’ve had four or more of our most destructive fires – deadliest, largest acreages, most destructive – in the last year. So, they’re becoming more frequent and problematic.

What role do you think forest management actually plays?

Forest management can reduce fire behavior within the fire perimeter. So, if you were doing understory thinning and prescribed burning within the areas that are burning beforehand – before they burn in these wildfires – you’re going to see different impacts from the fire after it’s gone through. Fewer torched large trees, higher survival of those large trees – just more ideal fire effects.

If you’ve done management around a house that’s out in that forest, then maybe that house also fares better in the fire, especially if the structure itself has been hardened and built with fire management in consideration.

But, having said all of that, in these big weather events that are getting worse due to climate change, and more frequent, forest management probably isn’t going to be enough to change the ultimate perimeter of the fire.

Even just based on exposed power lines being in hills, rather than underground: whenever these wind events happen, we’re very likely going to have ignitions because power lines are getting whipped around. Or, there’s always the possibility of someone being careless out in the middle of a forest. But once the ignition happens, the winds are such that you’re not going to be able to stop the fire just because you have forest management – but you could change the effects of the fire within its perimeter. And, you can give some opportunities for firefighters to actually anchor in and try to make a difference if the area’s been managed well.

I’ve been reading about PG&E and their potential role in the fire. Do you think there are ways we can prevent events like downed power lines from happening again?

Power lines are a huge issue with these wind events and during Red Flag Warnings, and PG&E is aware of that. One of the ways they’re trying to mitigate that is just by shutting off the power supply to entire cities to prevent power lines from creating a possible ignition source. I don’t know very much about power lines and geology, but in my mind, it makes more sense and should be more cost effective in the long run to just put power lines underground so that they’re not effected by wind – not given the opportunity to catch vegetation on fire – especially as these weather events get more common and problematic moving forward.

Should we be concerned about fires occurring here in the Bay Area?

Definitely. So, in 1991, there was the Tunnel Fire – it was called the Oakland Firestorm – that killed 25 people and burned down basically all the Oakland Hills. Back in 1923, the Berkeley Fire ripped down through all of North Berkeley, also during a wind event like the ones that we’re seeing now.

So, the East Bay hills are absolutely at risk of wildfire. And there’s plenty of vegetation and plenty of continuous vegetation coming down through the hills, and tightly packed houses – many of them very old, not at all fire hardened or fire protected – and very narrow winding roads. It’s something that we should all be thinking about – that and earthquakes.

What should we do to prepare for wildfires?

I mean, for homeowners, there’s so much they can do to make their structure better prepared for fire. But I know that much of the East Bay is occupied by renters. Your opportunities as a renter aren’t as significant, other than being prepared to get out and bring with you whatever you hope to have at the end.

For homeowners, it’s things like making sure your rain gutters are cleared, making sure that the vents or systems that ventilate your attic or your basement have one-quarter inch mesh or finer. Because those are the main ways that houses burn, is embers get in through the ventilation systems for the attic or the basement. Fire starts usually in people’s attics and then burns the whole house down. And it’s very common that even if your mesh is one-quarter inch, a rodent will break your mesh, or a bird will make a nest right up against the mesh – all these things that increase fire risk.

Then after that, it’s things like having curtains right behind your window, because the curtains will spontaneously combust just through the heat transfer through the window from fire burning nearby. Or, having a wooden fence that goes right up to the house, rather than just around the house; because the wooden fence will burn, carry fire up to the house and then catch the house on fire.

What do you think individuals can do to support land management?

One huge thing is just supporting prescribed burns. Whenever people in fire and forest management try to do prescribed burns, they always are met with a huge amount of public consternation or concern or complaint about the effort to use prescribed burning to improve the situation. So, as much as possible, if the public can support prescribed burning and get behind it, it would make a huge difference for the ability to get good work done on the ground to prepare. In addition, for anyone who owns land or owns a home – keeping vegetation clear and doing understory thinning if you own land with acreage, with open space. Managing the fuel load on your own property is huge.

Do you think prescribed burns are the best way to prevent fires?

The situation is getting more and more complicated all the time, because climate change is having more of an impact. I think especially with these recent conflagrations, we’re seeing fire burning from house to house to house, as well. We love for our houses to be dry, because otherwise they get moldy and no one wants to live in a moldy house, but that also makes them really great at burning.

And so for the public: I think it’s important to make your property and your house and the land around your house as minimally flammable as possible. Be prepared to get out quickly so that you’re not risking firefighters’ lives trying to help you get out. Know what you need to bring with you and having a plan ready. And then, support forest managers to do the work that needs to be done – both understory thinning, and the prescribed burning and the pile burning – all of that.

With those three things, the public could have a huge impact on California’s preparedness and resilience in this – making your house not flammable, making your land not flammable, being ready to get the heck out in an emergency and supporting the managers to do the work that they need to do.

Just be responsible for your own piece as well.

 

Sasha Berleman is currently working as the owner of FirePoppy Consulting. One of her clients is The East Bay Regional Park District. She is working with them on their prescribed burn program. She plans to detail with the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew next year as a “fill” – filling in when they’re down a person – to keep the crew numbers up and stay involved. She hopes to detail with some other forest service “organized crews” – pull-together crews built to supplement workforce capacity. In addition, she plans to participate in more prescribed burns and prescribed fire training exchanges, known as TREX events.

You can contact her via e-mail at firepoppyconsulting@gmail.com. Check out her amazing photos of nature, fire and the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew at work on her Instragram @thefirepoppy.

 

Photo Credit: Jeff Lemelin

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