Reimagining Fire

Episode 7 of Season 4 — Hosted by Save the Redwoods League.

 

Photo of Saul Tejeda (left) and Katie Low (right)
Saul Tejeda (left) and Katie Low (right)

In this seventh episode, host Emily Harwitz delves into the world of fire adaptation and resilience across California with a double feature: Katie Low, fire ecologist and Statewide Coordinator for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Fire Network, and Saul Tejeda, an Assistant Captain on the Yosemite Wildland Fire Module with over a decade of experience on the fireline. This episode goes broad and deep, so if you’re hankering to learn about California’s state of fire preparedness, how a prescribed burn happens, how technology is advancing wildland firefighting, or the technical nitty-gritty of what it’s like to work with fire, you’re in luck.

About our guests

Katie Low

Katie Low is the Statewide Coordinator for UC ANR’s Fire Network. She works with the Network to help California’s residents, natural resource professionals, and communities accelerate the implementation of fire resilience projects. Locally, Katie delivers science-based training about home hardening, defensible space, wildfire preparedness, and vegetation management for communities in the western Sierra. She also works with organizations and universities to provide professional development opportunities for early career fire and forestry professionals in an effort to develop a diverse and robust workforce. Katie earned a Master of Forestry with an emphasis in fire ecology and a B.S. in Ecosystems Management and Forestry and B.A. in Geography, all from UC Berkeley. Her research interests include assessing the short- and long-term ecological impacts and efficacy of fuel reduction and forest restoration treatments on California’s mixed-conifer forests.

Saul Tejeda

Saul Tejeda is an Assistant Captain on the Yosemite Wildland Fire Module. With over 10 years of experience as a wildland firefighter on wildfires and prescribed burns, Saul has dedicated his career to working with fire to restore ecosystem balance and protect communities within the wildland-urban interface. He’s also a wildland firefighter educator and advocate for firefighter mental health.


Read Transcription

Episode 7: Reimagining Fire

SPEAKERS

Emily Harwitz (host), Katie Low (guest), Saul Tejeda (guest)

[INTRO MUSIC]

Emily Harwitz 00:00

Hi and welcome to another episode of I’ll Go If You Go! I’m your host, Emily Harwitz. It’s July, which means we’re solidly in Fire Season here in California. With our changing climate, we’re now seeing warmer and drier conditions across many Western states, including California, leading to longer and more active fire seasons. But as you’ll hear from today’s guests, there are exciting things afoot in the world of fire—not only creative ways to prevent severe wildfires, but also ways to put good fire on the ground and use it as a tool of renewal.

We have a scintillating double feature for you today. First we’re talking to Katie Low, Statewide Coordinator for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Fire Network. She also researches the dynamics between forest health, wildfire, and ecosystems management.

Then, we’ll dive into the world of wildland firefighting with Saul Tejeda, an assistant captain on the Yosemite Wildland Fire Module and a wildland firefighter with over 10 years of experience working on the fireline. When we spoke, Saul had just gotten back from a fire assignment and was about to head out on another, so this was an extra special conversation! I hope you’re ready to get fired up about fire!

[MUSIC FADE]

Emily Harwitz 01:01

Today, we are recording live from the redwood forest in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland.

Katie Low 01:06

Hi, my name is Katie Lowe, and I am the statewide coordinator for UC ANR’s Fire Network. I am a fire scientist or a fire ecologist, so my professional background is in forestry and resource management and fire ecology. What I do on a day-to-day basis is mostly at my computer, but I work on a variety of projects, from doing my own research with my teammates up in the Sierra Foothills—we’re doing a lot of goat grazing research—so I would tell people that I hang out with goats a lot.

Emily Harwitz 01:44

What is the goat grazing research about? How does that relate to fire?

Katie Low 01:48

Yeah, the goat grazing research is looking at how effective small ruminants, so goats and sheep, are at reducing fuel loads and controlling vegetation.

Emily Harwitz 02:01

So basically what’s happening is, these goats and sheep are grazing vegetation that would be flammable, but because they’re eating it up, you have less severe wildfire.

Katie Low 02:11

There’s actually significant investment from local communities and agencies across the state to do more of this grazing, but there’s actually not a lot of research out there that documents whether or not it’s effective in forests. So the Fire Network is a statewide team of scientists and volunteers and agency partners, and we all collaborate on different research projects and workshops and classes for California’s residents and natural resource professionals on all topics related to fire.

Emily Harwitz 02:45

Can you give me an example of some of those topics?

Katie Low 02:47

Yeah—some of my coworkers really are building strong programs in prescribed fire, so teaching landowners and professionals how to safely and legally put prescribed fire on the ground to reduce fuels and reduce the overall fire risk to their communities. And then other things that we do, or I do, rather, is we teach people how to prepare their homes for fire, so more built environment fire resilience. So, how can you retrofit certain aspects of your house to be more resistant to embers and radiant heat and flame contact. Or, how could you change your landscaping in front of your house and in your backyard to be more resistant to fire? That sort of thing.

Emily Harwitz 03:30

How did you get into fire science?

Katie Low 03:32

I went to [UC] Berkeley, and Berkeley’s forestry program is so intimately connected with fire ecology and fire science because the Sierra Nevada—where most of our field-based learning takes place, and even just in the East Bay—all these ecosystems are so dependent on fire, and they co-evolved with fire over the years, and so fire ecology and fire science was a big portion of my education. And it’s just really cool to learn about how you can use fire as a tool in these ecosystems to make communities safer, to better the health of ecosystems, and to make sure they persist into the future. And so there’s so many opportunities available and I was very fortunate to be able to follow my passions and enter into the field after graduation.

Emily Harwitz 04:19

Yeah. Not only are there so many ways to use fire, but also to return fire to the landscape, because it’s always been part of nature—it’s one of those things like wind or lightning. It just happens.

Katie Low 04:30

Yeah, lightning caused ignitions and Indigenous people burning, of course, were the two primary causes of fire on the landscape before colonization in California and in the West.

Emily Harwitz 04:43

What is the role of traditional ecological knowledge in the work you do with the Fire Network?

Katie Low 04:47

That’s a great question. So the Fire Network is, again, a newer program from ANR, but a lot of our advisors, or our scientists that have worked in communities across the state, have been building and have meaningful relationships with their local Tribal communities. I know in the statewide work that we’re doing, we’re trying to pull in more Tribal perspectives and partners early on in collaborations, because they have, in many cases, some of the best knowledge about how to apply fire on the landscape. The ancestors of current living Tribal community members, they’ve been burning these ecosystems and stewarding them for thousands of years. I really do respect the knowledge that they have, both for ecosystem health, but also how to use fire as a tool, recognizing that cultural fire objectives are much different than Western prescribed fire objectives. In our work, mostly with extension, we’re helping private landowners learn how to use fire to reduce fuels and reduce fire risk. But I know with cultural fire, of course, there’s a whole cultural component.

Emily Harwitz 05:55

Can you give me an example of some of the science based research that you’ve come across to the Fire Network and how you’re working with communities to put that knowledge into practice?

Katie Low 06:04

I’m fortunate to work with a statewide team of six other fire advisors who are local fire scientists that live and work in communities all across California, and we collaborate on locally relevant research projects that help these communities, who live in very different ecosystems across the state, reduce their fire risk and become more fire resilient. Another thing that I really like about forestry and fire ecology is that most, if not all, of the research is so applied, meaning that you’re doing research, or I’m doing research, I should say, not because I want it to live in a paper forever in the library, but because I want land managers to be able to use our findings to actually make sure that forests persist throughout time. And another thing that I really appreciate about my research that I’ve done in forestry is that forests take decades, if not hundreds of years, sometimes, to regenerate and get back to where they were pre-fire suppression. But also in my case, because I do a lot of fire ecology research, it’s like in post-fire landscapes.

So one thing that I am really grateful for is, I get to benefit off of the work of many scientists who came before me on projects that have taken decades to set up, both in terms of, ‘it’s taken many years for them to put the experimental treatments on the ground,’ to ‘it’s taken many years for the trees to grow, and therefore many periods of data collection.’ It’s a really special process for me to be a part of in terms of forest ecology and research. And so I do think, why shouldn’t the public benefit from having this knowledge? Because small private forest landowners make up 50% at least, of forest land ownership in California, and at the end of the day, you know they have to feel inspired and have the knowledge that they need to make the change on their property.

Emily Harwitz 07:52

How would you describe the communities you work with?

Katie Low 07:55

As I mentioned, I work with a core team of fire advisors, and as a statewide coordinator, I get to work with many communities across the state, but I also get to work with communities locally in Placer and Nevada counties in California, which are in the northern portion of the Sierra Nevada area and the Sierra Foothill region. So I work with small private forest landowners, I work with the ranching community, I work with Tribal communities, I work with homeowners that don’t necessarily have forested property or wildlands, but they live adjacent to wildlands.

Emily Harwitz 08:31

So it sounds like the communities you work with are basically in wildlands that are susceptible to fire, which is a lot of California. How do you decide what trainings to offer to which communities?

Katie Low 08:42

At the beginning of my position, myself and my colleagues, we asked all the clientele in our regions what their fire related needs were. Again, I really do think the strength of extension is, we don’t just do what we want, we also do what the community needs us to do and the science that the community needs. And so I was able to figure out that at least in my region locally, there was a need for us to deliver trainings on built environment, fire resilience, so home hardening and defensible space, and then also defensible space. Defensible space describes the way that you can manipulate a landscape or the vegetation around your home to reduce the pathways that fire can take to your house.

Emily Harwitz 09:29

Fire has the coolest terminology.

Katie Low 09:33

Yeah, yeah. And then home hardening, it refers to retrofitting or maintaining individual structural elements of your house to be more resistant to embers and flames and radiant heat. So basically, another thing that I really appreciate about extension is that you were challenged to also be creative in your role. So not just giving lecture after lecture, PowerPoint after PowerPoint, because everybody learns differently, right? So trying to work with my collaborators to figure out the best ways to bring people to the table and to make sure they’re really feeling engaged and learning.

An example of something that a colleague and I did recently was, we hosted a ranch hardening workshop where we worked with the ranching communities in the Sierra foothills to talk about how they can harden their ranch infrastructure for fire and how they could prepare for fire in general, because ranching communities are very vulnerable in many ways. And one thing that we did, because home hardening is not the easiest thing to learn all the time, and it’s very PowerPoint and visually based, is we played ranch hardening bingo, and we hosted a field tour, and we brought people around this ranch, one of our research and extension centers that is in Yuba County. And we were driving around, and we gave people bingo cards. And you know, as they saw what we were talking about, they could mark it off. And they learned that way. Got a couple people to get bingo that day! It was quite successful.

Emily Harwitz 11:04

What was the prize?

Katie Low 11:05

It was a mug and a sticker. Nothing too glamorous.

California, both the residents and resource professionals, we’re at this tipping point where we are still fortunate enough to have time to be proactive instead of reactive in terms of our fire management, and we’re fortunate to have landscapes that exist right now that haven’t experienced high-severity, high-intensity wildfire like we’ve seen in some of the other parts of the state. And I think we’re at this, like, really unique nexus, or this critical point, we only have one chance, I think, to really do it right, and we’re already reimagining so many different things—reimagining how to make homes more fire resilient, how to build more fire resilient communities, how to reintroduce fire back into so many landscapes.

Emily Harwitz 11:54

What’s the common thread between forest health and wildfire, community education, and ecosystem management?

Katie Low 12:00

I would say community buy-in is the common thread between those things. For me, what comes to mind is that, to some extent, people have to want to come to the table to learn about how they can prepare for wildfire, or feel inspired, at the very least, to learn more about these topics and then go back to their own homes and properties and actually implement those things that they are learning about. And then, of course, with the hope that they go back and do those things, then they will be managing their ecosystems. And then, therefore, we’re all actively managing our landscapes and there’ll be greater forest health and therefore persistence into the future.

Emily Harwitz 12:41

I love that you made that point about community buy-in, because it’s easy for me to sit over here and think about all the reasons why I think fire is so beautiful and interesting and cool, but it is really important to be sensitive to the fact that, for people who live in more fire-prone landscapes, fire can be a real danger.

Katie Low 13:00

Yeah. And one thing that I’ve learned since being in my position is, it’s really important to meet people where they’re at. A lot of events that we host, there’s so many differing levels of knowledge and different perceptions of fire, willingness to use fire as a tool, and it’s important to meet people where they’re at, be mindful of maybe some recent traumatic experiences that people have had with fire. I know in a lot of the communities that our advisors work in, there have been recent, large, catastrophic fires that have really made a lasting impression in people’s minds. And so changing opinions on fire as instead of something to be feared, to something that we should respect, is really important and is a big goal of ours and mine.

Emily Harwitz 13:49

So with all that being said, what is your personal perspective on fire? What draws you to it?

Katie Low 13:55

I really do respect fire. I see it as a fantastic tool. From just a vegetation management perspective, it can be used in so many different ways to meet so many objectives, whether you’re just simply reducing the woody fuels around your home to reduce fire risk, to restoring native grasses so you can improve your rangelands. And then there’s also, of course, the cultural piece too, that I think is really important. Fire sustains cultures, it sustains livelihoods. It provides food sovereignty for nations. And it takes decades to cultivate this knowledge, you know, and that’s something that I’ve really come to respect. Working with fire practitioners in our field is just learning from all these people that have been on the fireline for decades and have made it their career. They have so much knowledge to share. It’s really impressive.

Emily Harwitz 14:47

Now we’ll get to hear from one of these fireline experts about what it’s like to be boots-on-the-ground and how wildland firefighting is evolving.

Saul Tejeda 14:55

I’m Saul Tejeda and I’m an Assistant Captain on the Yosemite Fire Module.

Emily Harwitz 15:00

What is a fire module?

Saul Tejeda 15:02

We’re used for multiple things as far as, if we do need to do a burning operation—

Emily Harwitz 15:08

—like a prescribed burn?

Saul Tejeda 15:09

Yeah, exactly. Usually for a wildland fire, at least here in Yosemite, we’re a self-sufficient mod for at least seven to eight days where they could fly us out into the wilderness and we’re just self-sufficient—having our own food, our own power supply—we have solar panels—and then just trying to use fire to [let it] do its own thing, and then we manage it. Unless they want us to put it out, then we’ll put it out. But if it’s a wild start, then we just let fire do its own thing—it’s in its natural habitat—and then we corral it to where we don’t want it to go, using natural barriers, and then [let it] get good acreage on the land. Especially here in Yosemite, we definitely like using fire to our advantage.

A lot of times, when my family asks me, like, ‘oh,’ you know, ‘he’s a firefighter, he’s out there with the hose and putting buildings out.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, that’s not me.’ The main way we do it is, we usually have saw teams, either multiple saw teams, depending on the terrain type, and then we also cut line. That way, we’re separating the fire from the other fuels around us.

Emily Harwitz 16:21

What does a saw team do?

Saul Tejeda 16:22

So you pretty much have a sawyer and swamper, and it’s a team of two, and the sawyer cuts out all the fuels depending on what we call the ‘specs’ that you want to build for the line, so depending on the different fuel type, [you’ll want] different specs. If you have brush fuel type, then you’re going to want a wider gap between that fuel possibly catching the green side on fire. So if you have like, six-foot brush, then you probably want a 20-foot gap so that that way, if the fire leans over, it’s not going to catch the other side on fire. So you usually say specs are going to be 20-foot wide with two-foot scrape. And then the scrapes are pretty much different types of tools to just scrape the ground away, like all the way down to bare mineral soil. That way the fire doesn’t go—it sounds very like, ‘wow, that’s how you guys fight fire?’ But it works.

Emily Harwitz 17:21

I mean, it’s cool. It’s very elemental. You’re using the resources that are already on the ground to work with the fire’s natural behavior.

Saul Tejeda 17:28

Yeah. And then, you know, further going into that, that term is ‘line cutting.’ So you have multiple saw teams, and there are also different ways to implement those saw teams, like you could have—oh, man, it’s a whole different class and I usually teach it, so I could go very much into detail about that, but you’re pretty much cutting the fuel, removing it and putting it somewhere else. That way the fire doesn’t get to burn it.

Emily Harwitz 17:55

I’d love to hear about this burn you just came back from.

Saul Tejeda 17:58

I was pretty fortunate, because this was a training assignment for me for UAS—unmanned air systems, since we don’t call them drones, but we do IR imaging

Emily Harwitz 17:59

—IR for infrared—

Saul Tejeda 17:59

which helps us spot fires that are in the green. It helps us do aerial ignition as well by having an aerial ignition device on the UAS. That way, you’re able to drop these little balls. They’re like potassium balls that you put antifreeze in, and then the chemical reaction in that pretty much causes a fire. And then it’s all very well-timed to drop around, depending on the size of the burn, it could be hundreds and thousands of them.

Emily Harwitz 18:39

Wow.

Saul Tejeda 18:39

There are different systems of UAS machines that we use. You’ve got to get pilot-carded for it, too. We’ve got to know our airspace, we’ve got to know who’s flying around what elevation. So there’s a lot that goes into it before we even fly.

I didn’t talk about taskbooks, but each one of these qualifications [sound of paper rustling] requires a taskbook, and a taskbook is multiple pages of whatever set task that you have to do to be able to get that qualification. So for mine, I have Helicopter Crew Member, Incident Commander, Fire Effects Monitor, Crew Boss, Prescribed Fire Burn Boss, Firing Boss, Advanced Faller. And then, right now, I’m a trainee in Incident Commander Type 4, and then on the UAS as well.

Emily Harwitz 19:25

That’s really exciting. And as more of these tools develop, I mean, who knows where that’ll take you.

Saul Tejeda 19:30

Exactly, and that’s as we see, hopefully, those tools growing and it becomes more of a thing, because right now, for everything, it’s just helicopters that we use. Like the little balls that I was telling you about for doing aerial ignition, we used to use a whole helicopter for that with three people in there. And then also helicopters, usually for firefighting, at least for dropping buckets of water and stuff, they have to be grounded because they can’t fly at nighttime. So we could fly the UAS at night to be able to fight fires and do aerial ignition. And then, usually, for any helicopter mission, you’re also asking, is this flight necessary? Like, is it necessary to have three people to go out there? And if something mechanical happens and the ship goes down, you know, you just cost that. But if a UAS goes up and it crashes, there’s just some money wasted, but no lives. So it’s so many advantages to having a UAS out on the field rather than the other alternatives that we’ve had in the past.

Emily Harwitz 20:28

I think oftentimes we think of technology as antithetical to nature, but I really like how you just gave this exciting example of how the technology that we’re developing can actually help us work with nature.

Saul Tejeda 20:39

Yeah, and I guess I could tell you, throughout my career, when I started back in 2008, a lot of people were in this, like, suppress fire mentality. Like, ‘oh, wait, fire is good?’ Like, we do prescribed burns around the meadow and like, ‘oh, wow, you guys caused this?’ And then you explain to them as they come into the park. Everybody who’s a firefighter, like I said, also is like an information officer. You can inform those people, like, I tell the crew that, anytime you see somebody and they’re wondering, educate them, let them know. And then from there, you could spread the seed to that person who teaches two, two teaches four, you know, and then so on and so on.

And I could tell you, when we do prescribed fires now, people are like, ‘oh, are you doing a prescribed fire?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, we are.’ And it’s like, ‘oh, that’s good!’ You know? I’ve seen the growth of people’s knowledge around it. There’s, honestly, I don’t get too many people that say, ‘what are you doing? What’s going on?’ It’s more like, ‘oh, you’re doing a prescribed fire.’ It’s like, ‘whoa, you use my terms.’ It’s very awesome hearing that because you know that the knowledge is spreading to know that there’s good fire out there. And isn’t it funny, too—I don’t know when you had your aha moment, but the whole time I was taught that fire is bad. But then you start thinking exactly how you said it, like, it’s part of nature. It makes you think, like, no duh! Fires happened before we were here, like, obviously, Mother Nature’s taking care of herself, causing natural lightning, natural fires. There’s a great rebirth to it.

Emily Harwitz 22:16

Thank you so much Saul for joining us today on I’ll Go If You Go.

Saul Tejeda 22:21

Yeah, thank you very much for inviting me. There’s many ways to navigate trying to be a wildland firefighter.

Emily Harwitz 22:27

Cool, and good luck on the burn, the prescribed burn you’re about to go on.

Saul Tejeda 22:31

Oh, this one’s the Basin Fire. It’s an actual wildland fire.

Emily Harwitz 22:34

Oh!

Saul Tejeda 22:35

I’m pretty excited too, because this is going to be my first UAS in a wildland fire.

Emily Harwitz 22:40

Well, extra good luck then!

Saul Tejeda 22:41

Yeah, thank you very much.

Emily Harwitz 22:46

[OUTRO MUSIC]

Emily Harwitz 23:33

Thanks for joining us on I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast. This season is produced by Leslie Parra and hosted, edited, and sound engineered by Emily Harwitz. Thank you to Adam Kaplan for tech support, and Caleb Castle, Marcos Castineiras, and Mary McPheely for graphic design and media support. Theme song and music by Nhu Nguyen and Anni Feng. You can find seasons one, two, and three wherever you listen to podcasts or on savetheredwoods.org where you can also find transcripts of each episode. 

If you like our show, please rate and review. It helps more people find us and join in the conversation. For behind-the-scenes and bonus content, follow us on Instagram @IllGoIfYouGoPod. If you have comments or questions, you can email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you and maybe even share your comments on the podcast. That’s all folks. Catch you next time!

About the podcast

I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast.

On I’ll Go If You Go, we have thought-provoking conversations with emerging environmental leaders from diverse backgrounds who explore and work in the outdoors. By examining how we think, work, and play in the outdoors, we’re building community and illuminating how Californians from all walks of life experience nature and conservation, in the redwoods and beyond.

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About the host of Season 4
Since 1918, Save the Redwoods League has protected and restored redwood forests and connected people with their peace and beauty so these wonders of the natural world flourish.

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