Point Blue Expands Work in Fire Ecology
March 23, 2022
An interview with Taj Hittenberger, Fire Stewardship Ecologist, by Lishka Arata, Senior Communications Coordinator
We’re pleased to announce Point Blue’s first ever Fire Stewardship Ecologist position which has been filled (and co-created to a large extent) by former Sonoma-Marin Partner Biologist Taj Hittenberger. This is an exciting step for both Taj and Point Blue in the direction of further incorporating fire into our conservation efforts. In this position, Taj will be working in close collaboration with local partner organizations, like the Good Fire Alliance and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program, to expand regional capacity around prescribed and cultural burning for a wide variety of social and ecological benefits in many of California’s fire-adapted ecosystems. He will assist landowners and managers in planning and conducting ecologically informed prescribed burns on private lands. He will also work with Point Blue staff to develop applied research and monitoring projects that analyze ecological responses to fire and provide regionally-specific guidance to fire practitioners in the safe, effective use of prescribed and cultural fire. This new position serves as an extension of the many years of Point Blue’s wildfire research, primarily led by Sierra Nevada Group staff Ryan Burnett, Jay Roberts, Alissa Fogg, Brent Campos, and others, largely in partnership with the US Forest Service, since the early 2000’s, but also reaching as far back as Point Blue’s work to monitor bird and habitat response to the Mount Vision Fire in the Point Reyes National Seashore in the mid-1990s and provide guidance on the benefits of prescribed burns based on those data.
I had the pleasure to sit down via video chat with Taj and ask him more about how this position evolved and its importance for conservation and community.
How did you start doing fire work?
I started getting involved with prescribed burning and post-wildfire land management prior to working at Point Blue. Since 2017 I’ve worked for many non-profits doing conservation and restoration projects focused on salmon in the Russian River. There was a huge shift in this work after the October 2017 Tubbs and Nuns Fires in Sonoma County. The water quality work ramped up as a reactive response to wildfire. Then came the Kincade Fire in 2019, and Walbridge and Glass Fires in 2021. My work remained reactive and I started to feel like I was not in the most helpful role. Many others felt the same. I understood prescribed fire was an important tool to reduce fire severity and increase biodiversity, but at that time it was regarded as nearly impossible due to liability and regulations.
In early 2020 I became involved in our local prescribed burn association (PBA) called the Good Fire Alliance. It, along with many other PBAs, have sprung up across California in the last 5 years. The overall goal of these groups is essentially neighbors helping neighbors restore the use of good fire, and they are led by experienced individuals. That same year I got my wildland firefighter certification and have been working actively on local prescribed burns ever since. Over the last year, in my role as a Partner Biologist at Point Blue, I was assisting landowners who had experienced fire with things like post-wildfire forest management, invasive species control, rebuilding livestock water systems, etc. I then applied and was accepted into Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward Fellowship in the summer of 2021. We were experiencing a local bottleneck in that we had lots of landowners willing to burn and hundreds of certified firefighters, but not many people with leadership skills to make prescribed burns happen safely and effectively. Fire Forward worked to widen the bottleneck by training leaders and improve the pace and scale of local prescribed burning. I was ecstatic to take part in this effort.
Since then I have been taking higher level classes on how to plan and conduct prescribed burns as part of the Fellowship, which includes building knowledge and skills in site assessments, coordinating permits, drafting burn plans, prepping units for burning, and the operational logistics of conducting a prescribed burn. Six months into the fellowship Point Blue pursued funding to create a fire ecologist position.
What is the overall goal of fire stewardship ecology and how does it connect to addressing climate change?
The overall goal of the work I’m involved in is collaborating with regional partners to restore the use of fire as a land management tool in the North Bay and greater California. Not every burn is the same and you can think of controlled burns in roughly three categories: fuel reduction, cultural, and ecological. Inevitably, burns encompass elements of each of these, as they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In fuel reduction burns, the primary goal is to burn off or consume as much plant material as possible, essentially removing fuel to reduce the intensity and severity of a future wildfire. In an ecological burn, the goal would be to restore ecosystems by increasing biodiversity. An example would be along the California coast where frequent intentional burning by native people created and maintained coast prairie plant communities, but without fire many of the coast prairie areas have shifted to shrub and forest and bird diversity has largely decreased. Fire could be used in these areas to restore coast prairie plant species composition and potentially increase bird diversity. Cultural burning, as defined in recent SB-332, is the intentional application of fire to land by Native American tribes, tribal organizations, or cultural fire practitioners to achieve cultural goals or objectives, including subsistence, ceremonial activities, biodiversity, or other benefits. An example of this is the Karuk tribe in the Mid Klamath region burning under black oaks to facilitate the harvesting of high quality acorns, a culturally important food source.
At Point Blue, we will likely be largely focused on the ecological burns, but our work will encompass all three prescribed burn types.
We are seeing an increase in the number of wildfires and acres burned in California despite the large amount of money put into fire suppression. We are currently within a positive feedback loop in which our history of fire suppression leads to more intense wildfires that beckon more suppression efforts. Climate-driven extremes like prolonged droughts and record high temperatures, and then potential post-fire flooding and landslides result in long-lasting harm to land and people, and further exacerbate the desire to stop all fires. When paired with legacy land management and fire suppression, climate change essentially speeds up the time frame in which we have to act to maintain and strengthen resilience of our ecosystems and communities.
A fundamental aspect of the work is resisting the wholesale attempt to eliminate fire’s existence in California, and instead recognize fire’s inevitability and change our relationship with it. We need to increase our understanding and familiarity with fire as a potentially beneficial tool that can help increase biodiversity, mitigate damage from future wildfire, and support the health and adaptability of local communities and cultures.
How would you describe Point Blue’s role in fire ecology?
Our Point Blue-NRCS Partner Biologist program is well positioned to help with scaling up prescribed burning on private lands in California. We have established relationships with landowners and access to public and private resources to help implement prescribed burning as a management tool. Partner Biologists and our Rangeland Monitoring Network staff are uniquely equipped to respond to the needs of local producers and land managers because of these existing relationships. We have developed strategic partnerships with other organizations as well that further expands our potential for widespread action around prescribed fire and other fuel management practices.
Sonoma County is a million acres and the vast majority is privately owned. In the last year, I have worked on about 14 prescribed burns, totaling roughly 170 acres, which is a relatively small area. But when you consider the dozens of people who have worked on those 14 burns, and the knowledge that we’re building collectively in restoring the use of fire on our landscape, that scales the potential impact up quite a bit.
Simply assessing our impacts in terms of acreage does a disservice to understanding the complete impact of prescribed burning. The real impact is with engaging people at a community level and supporting a cultural shift. Acres of prescribed burn doesn’t capture the nuance of the overall socio-ecological and economic benefits. A lot of people who get involved with community-based burns through groups like the Good Fire Alliance have never worked in land management, but maybe they or a close loved one have lost a home to wildfire. They have trauma and fear around fire, but when they volunteer with the Good Fire Alliance they come face to face with this force of fire along with their own fears, and importantly, they are doing it in community. The experience provides a healing process of building a relationship with fire and a means of supporting each other in the wake of wildfires. Engaging in and helping the community in this way is powerful. I don’t care if we burned half an acre that day, the most important thing is doing the work together in community.
Cultural shift is never likely to come from public agencies. It will come from the communities, from the people whose lives, homes, and communities ultimately bear the cost of legacy fire suppression efforts. These are the people who recognize that the “easier” and “safer” management option in many cases requires putting fire back on the ground, on their terms. We can help support these communities in restoring the use of fire so that eventually the laws and policies can follow the culture shift.
What is your understanding of the role of indigenous people in the work?
Prior to Spanish and European colonization, fire was widely used by native peoples throughout much of California for a wide variety of interrelated social, ecological, cultural, and spiritual reasons. On average, prior to fire suppression, 4.5 million acres per year burned in California and a large amount was by indigenous people. Use of fire was made illegal for indigenous people in the 1880s as one of many tools in the attempted genocide and erasure of cultural identity. Native people have put their lives on the line to maintain fire and maintain their identity. Quite a few cultural fire practitioners and tribes in CA continue to burn regularly, and there are a lot of nuanced reasons to maintain fire on the landscape. For example, managing low severity fire can support resources for food, basket making, building material, along with maintaining plant species composition that support livelihood of indigenous people. Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band–whose ancestors are collectively referred to by many as “Ohlone” are the indigenous peoples of south-San Francisco and north-Monterey Bay area–described the Amah Mutsun’s belief that fire is not to be feared, but rather is a gift given by Creator to care for Mother Earth.
I think it’s really important that the restoration of fire in stewarding these lands is indigenous led, and we must work actively to ensure that prescribed burning is not merely a co-opting of traditional ecological knowledge at the cost of indigenous sovereignty and power. There are currently new laws (SB-332 and AB-642) that provide more protection for cultural burners and are very important for indigenous people.
What do you like the least about fire ecology work?
The hardest part of this work is the scale required of us and the very real understanding that the faster we work, the more people are likely to avoid the heartbreaking effects of wildfire. While prescribed fire is not a universal solution to mitigating fire risk, it is an incredibly valuable tool in our toolbox. If community members, organizations, and land managers don’t actively work to scale up the use of ecologically driven prescribed burning, we are missing real opportunities to improve the health and adaptability of our lands and communities in the face of climate change. Many people we love, and many whom we don’t even know, will have to live with the consequences of our inaction and hesitation.
What’s the best part of the work for you?
My favorite part of work is being out in the field working on prescribed burns. Nothing compares to the visceral experience of being next to flames. It takes over your whole body, the loud hum of cracks and pops, radiating pulses of heat, and sinus-draining smoke. And at the same time, your mind can’t focus on anything else. You’re constantly evaluating the weather, fire behavior, and alternative plans if conditions change in the slightest way. I love being completely consumed by it. It constantly challenges the limits of my physical and cognitive capacities. As I work more on prescribed fires, I’m lucky to be able to step into more leadership roles, overseeing a squad of 4-5 people or multiple squads. This requires me to not only personally respond to changing conditions and guidance from my leaders, but also quickly make decisions that keep my crew safe while meeting the burn objectives. This requires split second decision making and clear, concise communication to crew members, all while creating learning opportunities for those new to prescribed fire. The community of people that make up the Good Fire Alliance are all deeply invested in collectively restoring a positive relationship with fire, and it’s always so joyous to spend time working with them, slowly finding our way through the fear and despair that fire has brought to our lives. I get home exhausted, challenged, fulfilled, and so grateful to be part of this beautiful community.
We hope you are as excited as we all are about our new expansion into fire ecology now that you’ve learned a little bit more about what that means. Stay tuned for more and make sure you’re sign up on our email list, you’re following this blog, and you’re following Point Blue on social media. We’ll be sharing more real time updates in those places. If you have specific questions about this work, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll direct your inquiries appropriately.
Point Blue blog posts on fire:
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