If you had asked me at the beginning of my master’s program where I think I’d be nearly three years after starting it, I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be here:
currently living in Southern California, where I swore I’d never live,
working within the fire realm of California–specifically with prescribed fire and cultural burning, and
not quite finished with the actual program (bah!)
My baseline knowledge about prescribed fire and cultural burning–both of which are intentional fire practices with different actions and objectives–initially came from a social science and academic lens through my master’s program at Chico State University and from more practical on-the-ground experiences through prescribed fire training exchanges (TREX) hosted by the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, Plumas Underburn Cooperative, and Butte Prescribed Burning Association. When I had initially applied for the GrizzlyCorps fellowships, I did not recall an explicit mention of prescribed fire or cultural burning involvement in the tasks described, but I was intrigued enough by the fire and forestry emphasis of the program to apply. I had four main motivations in mind in supplementing this interest when applying to the SoCal fellowship spots:
understand the SoCal fire climate and regimes for a more well-rounded understanding of California’s fire landscape
gain work experience in a year and figure out if I still want to be involved in California’s fire realm
utilize the education award at the end of my fellowship toward graduate school loans, and
admittedly, close the distance a little bit with my partner at the time and explore a new part of California
I felt like I had a lot to gain professionally and personally in spite of the passion pay, and was very excited to accept a fellowship spot with the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County (shortened as “the RCD” for the rest of this blog post) as my host site.
Sometimes work is outside. For this picture, the RCD’s Forestry and Fire Prevention Programs team is at Palomar Mountain, talking with project partners and viewing their project site. Outside work may also look like outreach events or providing support for the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County and the RCD’s Agriculture team.
It was truly serendipitous that one (of many) of the forest and wildfire resiliency capacity building projects of the RCD would involve researching into establishing a Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) in San Diego County–an entity that has a strong presence in many Northern California counties, but apparently not so much in Southern California. My coworker, Stan Hill, who had started working at the RCD in early 2022 after 30 years with the US Forest Service, spearheaded this formation a few months after he had joined, and handed the task over to me shortly after I onboarded. His initial efforts were to create a PBA with tribal cultural burning interests at the forefront of formation and for PBA activities.
A brief tidbit about San Diego, its tribes, and California history regarding tribes and fire: there are 18 reservations and 17 tribes within San Diego County—the most in any county in the United States. Historically, tribes in California have and continue to use fire to maintain and sustain their lifestyles and cultural obligations. Use of fire ranges from burning specific plants to encourage plant productivity for food; encourage growth of materials used for basketry, clothing, and tools; broadcast burning to clear leaf litter and sustain health of oak trees and their acorns; improve hunting conditions; maintain overall landscape health; and for ceremonial practices (1). Since the inception of the State of California, tribes within the state have been disenfranchised of their cultural fire practices and of their indigenous autonomy (you would think the language in the California Indian Protection Act of 1852 would support the opposite, based on the name of the act itself), though criticism and retaliation against their use of fire date back to Spanish presence in California prior to statehood (3). Stephens and Sugihara summarize the consequences of the state’s action in suppressing natural and intentional fires from the landscape, in saying that,
“Removal of anthropogenic fire from these ecosystems has brought about wholesale changes in species composition, by encroachment of invasive species, conversion to other vegetation types, and increased fire hazards (Fire in California’s Ecosystems, 431-432.)” (cited in Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People, 94)
while Frank Lake, a US Forest Service ecologist, Karuk descendent, and cultural practitioner, notes the impact of fire suppression on Indigenous stewardship:
“…literally the ecological vegetation characteristics in both species’ structure and composition are altered. This minimizes the legacy of Indigenous management, of the ‘tending’ of such vegetation for production of the many basketry, food, medicinal resources that can be visibly recognizes in the vegetation characteristics” (Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People, 105.)
This map image displays the estimated territorial boundaries of the four tribal groups of San Diego County: Luiseño, Cahuilla, Cupeño, and Kumeyaay)—and of those in the surrounding area. Image source: Acjachemem Language – Linguistics (by Kelina Lobo, Acjachemem enrolled tribal member and a linguist)]
While the coursework in my graduate studies did well to provide me with a general introduction into the history of state-enacted fire suppression and its impacts on tribes who depend on fire for fulfilling lifestyle necessities, sustenance needs, and cultural obligations, I had no idea what tasks I’d undertake to help with the efforts of a conceptual PBA interested in centering the cultural burning interests of tribes at the core of its formation. Research is the one word that encapsulates all the work that I’ve done for advancing the progress of PBA formation, supported by many other verbs and actionable buzzwords–such as coordinating and validating–that I’ll save for the resumes and CV.
Where most of my work and research takes place: behind a computer screen in the RCD office or remotely—sans the birthday decorations
My research process started with poring through a collection of documents that Stan had compiled prior to my start. There were some familiar files that I previously read through for my master’s project–policy and legislation papers, PBA maps, prescribed fire related documents–but now being read in the context of establishing a PBA in San Diego County for a non-academic related task. These documents worked well in first familiarizing me with San Diego, its indigenous folk, and served as a reminder of how established the PBAs are in the north part of the state and of the strong communal support behind them—notions to ideally emulate with this PBA.
In addition to reading through and referencing these documents, I’ve researched into many subjects, their nitty-gritty details, and collected information for the following summarized topics:
additional information about the indigenous tribes here and of the San Diego County region
figuring out the “why’s” and the standards behind the necessity for the permits and plans in the prescribed fire documentation process
understanding land jurisdiction and land responsibility areas
similar to the above: wrapping my mind around why tribal fee lands functioned differently than tribal trust lands for paperwork
how the two bullets above relate to potential differences in required documentation
trying to grasp the environmental review and compliance process
reviewing related policy, legislation, and reading
listening to stories of people involved with the PBAs and the intentional fire realm
While computer research gives me plenty to go off of, having conversations with the folks directly involved in prescribed fire and cultural burning renders more personal depth to the information I’ve gathered and offers information and experiences that I probably wouldn’t have read about online. I’ve reached out to many folks involved in these activities in the form of email exchanges, phone calls, and Zoom calls to assist in answering questions that arose during my research: PBA leaders, permitters, organization leaders, planners, on-the-ground burners, and even previous GrizzlyCorps fellows. Attending online and in-person workshops have also provided me with valuable learning opportunities to better understand prescribed fire, cultural burning, and the importance of these practices to various people and organizations—whether these stakeholders are located in San Diego or elsewhere in California. A non-exhaustive list of examples of groups providing these workshops and opportunities include Swanton Pacific Ranch's Fuels and Vegetation Education (FAVE) program, the California Wildfire & Forestry Task Force, California Indian Basketweavers Association, Climate Science Alliance’s Tribal Working Group, UCANR webinars, and the GrizzlyCorps program’s monthly guest speakers.
Group selfie with Dr. Stan Rodriguez and the Native American Conservation Corps team.
Dr. Stan Rodriguez instructed this group to shape oak into rabbit sticks, shinny sticks, Palomar hoops, and baby cradles by utilizing fire.
In addition to the time I’ve given to support the many involvements of the RCD, I’m hoping to leave the RCD with one main deliverables from my time investigating this specific topic: in place of a traditional toolkit, an AcrGIS StoryMap synthesizing the information I’ve managed to pull from all the above experiences.
The research I’ve done is akin to following a leftover thread and weaving something from it—an analogy I’ve taken from someone else who can probably relate to having many unwoven threads (read: unfinished projects, if the analogy is lost on you), begging to be worked on and completed. I hope that what I’ve created will serve as an educational aid to interested burners in the San Diego County area—that these deliverables are something that can be updated and improved upon as the PBA figured out how to better establish themselves and their reputation, and to reflect inevitable changes in documentation requirements and related legislation.
While the San Diego PBA will not be “officially” established during my time here, establishment is ultimately up to the RCD and Fire Safe Council in declaring the PBA as a functional one—in however they decide to define what those working functions are. Those criteria are still in the works. Until that time, here is a link to my in-progress deliverable: an ArcGIS StoryMap that attempts to neatly display, summarize, and convey the research I’ve done into an easy-to-navigate website with some interactive maps and features. As of the time that this blog post is published, the StoryMap is still in its rough draft stage. I have until the end of July to work on this, and I’ll appreciate any feedback that I may receive from any onlookers!
Skinner, Carl N., Alan H. Taylor, and James K. Agee. 2006. “Klamath Mountains Bioregion.” Fire in Calfornia’s Ecosystems, edited by N.G. Sugihara, J. W. van Wagtendonk, J. Fites-Kaufmann, K. E. Shaffer, and A. E. Thode, 170-194. Berkeley: University of California Press
“Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” Wikipedia, 18 Feb. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_for_the_Government_and_Protection_of_Indians#:~:text=The%20act%20facilitated%20the%20removal%20and%20displacement%20of,families%2C%20languages%2C%20and%20cultures%20from%201850%20to%201865.
Clark, Juliana. “The Case for Restoring California Indigenous Burning Practices.” The Progressive Magazine, 21 Oct. 2020, progressive.org/latest/restoring-indigenous-burning-practices-clark-201021/.
Norgaard, Kari Marie. Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action. Rutgers University Press, 2019.