IMAGINING A BALANCED FUTURE
BY LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON
Imagine this: it’s 2050. Fire regimes are intact and flourishing across the United States. Coastal prairies and mountain meadows are teeming with grasses and flowers, and forests are open and healthy, with scattered clusters of old and young trees. Stream flows have increased, even during extreme drought, because frequent fire has released so much water from the clutches of dense, fire suppressed vegetation. The rivers are full of fish, the oak woodlands humming with birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
Homes are hardened and communities are fluent in fire, and backyards, parks, and nearby forests are a patchwork of blacks and greens, depending on when they were last burned. More people are trained in prescribed fire than not, and states have fully assumed liability for their essential work.
Summers are smoky from wildfire, but not like they were earlier in the century when we were still selecting for all the worst fires by putting all the easy ones out.
After centuries of imbalance, both fire and people have restored their inherent roles as forces for good on the land.
In their 2014 book The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity, Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven describe radical imagination as the ability to imagine the world, life, and social institutions not as they are, but as they might otherwise be; it is the courage and the intelligence to recognize that the world can and should be changed, the authors say.
The concept of the radical imagination was introduced to me by my brilliant professor friend Sarah Ray, who in 2020 published a A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. Ray describes a moment when she asked her college class to envision a climate-changed future where all their good work had come to pass, and they and others were thriving. Ray asked the students to describe, in that future scenario, what people would be thanking them for. This was meant to be a fun, inspiring exercise, but instead the room fell silent. Ray soon realized that the group of 20-somethings could not envision this kind of future – they could not imagine effecting needed change or thriving. And they are not alone; as Ray describes in her book, feelings of futility are common in this “age of overwhelm,” during which climate change, fire, drought, disease – and now war – are deflating our hearts and minds.
An eternal optimist, I was intrigued by the idea of the radical imagination. And in reading more, I learned that the radical imagination is a common denominator of many social movements: you can’t be the change you wish to see if you can’t visualize the change in the first place.
It turns out radical imagination is also a common denominator of many of my favorite fire people. Last fall, my friend Zeke Lunder – a wildfire mapping guru who now runs the fire reporting website The Lookout – articulated his radical fire vision during an entertaining interview with a California-based bike parts company. His post-apocalyptic fire story starts out like something from a comic book: “Imagine a country ravaged by a century-long battle with wildfire. After this bloody siege, with rapidly escalating casualties, fire has unexpectedly joined forces with a new superhero named ‘Global Warming.’ I come to power at a time of unimaginable destruction, with our communities in smoking ruins, people shell-shocked, and forests on the brink . . . ”
After setting the stage of this war-torn country, Zeke describes a necessarily evolved approach to fire management, with changed policies, investments, and tactics that allow fire and people to peacefully co-exist. The interview beautifully hit the nerve of many of our deepest fire problems: culture, capacity, connection.
Those same themes were fodder for another friend, Will Harling, who leads a community-based fire program on the Klamath River in one of the most remote parts of northern California. In 2020, Will wrote a poem that laid out his radical vision for fire on his landscape:
In ten years, the fire ceremonies on Offield Mountain will be restored,
And people will see that we made the wild in fire,
In ten years, an interconnected series of well-planned fuelbreaks,
Will allow us to share the inherent risk of managed wildfire and prescribed fire,
Everyone will know there is no solution that does not include fire on the land,
In ten years, Californians will think about fire like Floridians,
Prescribed fire will still be more fun but about as stressful as mowing the lawn . . .
Ten years from now, we will manage landscapes for processes not species,
And what seem like conflicts and tradeoffs will be revealed as the balance,
The balance of life on the land,
Ten years from now or perhaps a hundred, we will learn to live with fire,
Because the lessons will keep coming,
Eventually every one of us will have lost a piece of what we love,
And will choose the uncertainty of embracing fire, even while it burns us . . .
In ten years, creeks that have been dry for decades will flow again,
Salmon will turn gravels that have long been out of reach,
The fruits of the land will be sweeter, the deer and elk fatter,
We will remember what it means to be stewards of place,
To give back what is owed to the land that feeds us.
-Excerpt from 2020 poem A Future with Fire
These stories are inspiring on their own, but they are also helping shape a larger collective vision for good fire in California – a community-led vision that is increasingly widespread and increasingly powerful.
PRESCRIBED FIRE ASSOCIATIONS
As Khasnabish and Haiven said in their book, the radical imagination is not just about dreaming of different futures; it’s about bringing those possibilities back from the future to work on the present, to inspire action and new forms of solidarity today.
In California, we are in the midst of a social movement around prescribed fire. Just five years ago, the bulk of prescribed fire in California was led by federal fire management agencies such as the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and community organizations, cultural practitioners, ranchers, and other private landowners were largely missing from the conversation.
In 2017, my colleagues and I borrowed inspiration from the Great Plains and imported the prescribed burn association (PBA) model to California. I work for the University of California Cooperative Extension as a fire advisor, and I traveled to Nebraska with my fellow extension advisor Jeff Stackhouse, a local rancher named Dean Hunt, and our colleague Mathew Cocking from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to learn more about community-based prescribed fire programs. In the years that followed, Jeff and I traveled around California to host workshops and demonstration burns, and inspiring people to reclaim their right to good fire. Today there are more than 18 grassroots prescribed fire and cultural burning groups around California, training community members, implementing burns, and inspiring neighbors and agency partners. People like Will and Zeke are at the helm of this work, helping us understand what is possible.
There is a simple beauty to the movement: the right to burn, the connection to place, the power of fire to bring people together. California’s prescribed fire movement finds ranchers burning alongside tribal members, timber companies burning with environmentalists, university students learning from crusty old fire dogs. The movement reminds us that we’re all students of fire, and that sometimes those who think they know the most also have the most to learn.
Just recently, I did a quick survey of California’s PBAs and other grassroots burning groups. I learned that since the beginning of 2019, the 13 groups that responded had implemented 356 broadcast burn projects – with no escapes and no damages. These practitioners, often just in blue jeans and ball caps and burning with their children, grandparents, and neighbors, are reimagining prescribed fire in California.
Khasbabish and Haiven say the radical imagination is about drawing on the past, telling different stories about how the world came to be the way it is, remembering the power and importance of yesterday’s struggles, and honoring the way they live on in the present.
In many ways, California’s prescribed fire movement centers on a shared understanding of the history of fire in California, and the various forms of political and social oppression that underpin current fire policy. The insights of cultural practitioners have been fundamental to our policy efforts in recent years. For example, the Karuk Tribe’s recent Good Fire Report, which was based on interviews with California’s prescribed and cultural fire leaders and summarized barriers and opportunities, informed several successes during California’s 2021 legislative session. These included changes to California’s prescribed fire liability standard via Senate Bill 332, the appropriation of $20 million to develop a Prescribed Fire Claims Fund, and another bill (Assembly Bill 642) that focused on various aspects of cultural burning. Most of these efforts have also been informed and supported by members of California’s ranching community, as they too have a deep but interrupted prescribed fire history. Recent policy work has found these often-disparate groups suddenly on common ground, recognizing their shared histories and the potential for a shared fire future.
A FUTURE WITH FIRE
According to Khasnabish and Haiven, social movements are animated by the radical imagination.
In California, and across the West, we are in a time of unprecedented challenge: widespread drought, extreme fire behavior, firefighter burnout and despair. And yet, it is during this time that the need for collective vision and action has become most clear. The leaders of California’s prescribed fire movement – the community members, the cultural burners, the ranchers, the retired burn bosses – have come together to lay out a new fire future, and each tragedy and challenge only seems to further fuel our passion.
We can envision a future in which local and traditional knowledge are guiding this work. We can envision landowners and land managers having a deep comfort with fire and using it regularly. We can envision holding on to our remaining forests, woodlands, and prairies, threading the needle between too much and not enough fire. We can envision people from all backgrounds being trained and certified as burn bosses and effectively leading this work, with real incentives and protections from the state. We can imagine what future generations might thank us for, and we are trying our best to do it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lenya Quinn-Davidson is a fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in the North Coast of California. Lenya’s primary focus is on the human connection with fire and increasing the use of prescribed fire for habitat restoration, invasive species control, and ecosystem and community resiliency. Lenya works on prescribed fire issues at various scales, including locally in Humboldt County, where she works with private landowners to bring fire back as a land management tool; at the state level, where she collaborates on policy and research related to prescribed fire, and helps inspire and support prescribed burn associations; and nationally, through her work and leadership on prescribed fire training exchanges (TREX). Lenya is passionate about using prescribed fire to inspire and empower people, from rural ranchers to agency leaders to young women pursuing careers in fire management, and everyone in between.