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Firecraft: Stewarding Cultural and Ecological Responsibility

Reflections by Joshua Harjes

November 13th, 2023

Kashia Pomo Territory

California North Coast Mountains

S-130 Field Day(s) and Good Fire

This past November, the School for Inclement Weather collaborated with Fire Forward of Audubon Canyon Ranch and Cazadero’s Biswell Forestry to host a special Firefighter Type 2 (FFT2) training called “Firecraft.” Students completed all of the exercises of the S-130 field component, observed and practiced with live fire, and connected with the land and each other. At most FFT2 trainings, the S-130 field component takes place in just one day; this training spanned three days. This provided students with a unique opportunity to learn those skills at the same level of rigor, while also providing space and time to relate that knowledge to a spiritual understanding of fire.

The Firefighter Type 2 qualification entails a series of online modules that can be taken for free on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Website. These modules cover fire behavior, wildland firefighting tactics, and the Incident Command System. This information is important for crews to work safely and effectively on a wildland fire incident. All Firecraft students had completed these prior to the training, so we focused on the field components of the S-130 qualification. Small teams tackled each element over the first two days of the training: Earth, Water, and Fire. On these assignments, students gained skills in hand line construction, firing patterns, and progressive hose lays. Above all, we learned how to safely carry out these tasks as a team. 

Looking SE from the top of the burn unit.

Held on Kashia Pomo Territory, most of the attendants were guests on this beautiful land. By conducting the FFT2 training over the course of three days, there was space to acknowledge the importance and meaning of fire on the California landscape. For thousands of years, Native Californians lived in cooperation with the land and life existing in this state. Then, and now, Indigenous folks manage our ecosystems and make them more resilient. Over these thousands of years, native plant and animal species have become what is called fire-adapted: they depend on specific return intervals of fire to thrive.

For the last 150 or so years however, the land has been deprived of this practice–what some call “good fire”. Since Euro-American settlement of California in the second half of the 19th century, fire suppression policies have characterized forest management in the west. This is why our state sees megafires burning homes and millions of acres of forest today. Reintroducing carefully managed fire to California is important for the safety of our ecosystems and our neighbors. Part of returning fire to the land must also include respecting traditional ecological knowledge and returning power to Indigenous-led land management. The Firecraft training does just that.

Experiencing Fire for the First Time

During Firecraft, I practiced the exercises that are typically a part of the S-130 field day: progressive hose lays, fire shelter deployment, and the use of hand tools. However, I also learned about cultural burning practices, and got a chance to experiment with live fire. The extended length of the training and thoughtful supervision of the instructors made these special parts of the training possible. When we imagine training a workforce of responsible fire practitioners that can tackle California’s fire crisis, an understanding of live fire and a respect for traditional ecological knowledge are essential components. 

On our fire training assignment, my team ignited a grassy hillside unit. We had cut a handline around the unit as part of our earth assignment training the day before. It went a hundred-or-so feet down the hillside from our anchor point, which was a one-lane dirt road, then cross-slope about forty feet, and finally back up to the road. A very, very, small unit–perfect for budding fire practitioners to practice their ignition patterns. 

The mini "practice" burn unit.

One by one, we began walking cross-slope along the top of the unit. I was in position 2 on the dot firing team. The strip head firing positions moved across the hillside quickly. The fire picked up the harding grass and burned hot. I felt its heat and heard loud popping and sizzling noises from the burning grass. At first, I just wanted to get across and out of the heat quickly. I felt my heart rate pick up as I neared the flames. But, it was beautiful. I thought I’d like to savor the moment of moving through the fire. There is something peaceful in proximity to the fire and its high activity. When I was walking past the flames I felt a balance between myself and the fire. I slowed down then, and picked my dots intentionally. Walk two paces, stop, tilt the drip torch for a count, continue, keep my head up, situational awareness, observe the fire. The fire burnt out in less than a few minutes.

Lessons in Mindfulness

On the final day of the training, we conducted a burn in honor of the Kashia Pomo Cultural Department, who could not attend as they were in mourning after the loss of a loved one. We started with a solo meditation to connect with the land that was to be burned. During the meditation, I watched the clouds rolling over the sky. The fuels in the unit were dry and the sun was shining, but conditions were safe for burning. The air was cool with moisture and incoming clouds promised rain that evening. After our individual meditations, we convened for a prayer to give gratitude to the land, each other, and to Mother Nature. We prayed for a blessing that our fire today would be a source of healing for the land. These powerful moments of reflection and prayer carried an aura throughout the afternoon. We moved and burned with intention and respect. Over grassland, and through black oak woodland, the fire burned beautifully. 

Looking W from below the burn unit.

When it comes to fire and land management in California, these lessons in mindfulness are crucial to ensure that our actions are ecologically sound and culturally respectful. Firecraft is a training that incorporates the skills and techniques covered in any FFT2 course, and weaves it in with lessons in cultural and ecological responsibility. This is valuable training for anyone who wants to engage in the world of fire and land management. 

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