Editor’s note: Kara Karboski is a program manager at the Washington Resource Conservation and Development Council focused on developing community-led prescribed fire across the state. Kara is also the lead for the Washington Dry Forests Fire Learning Network and leads the planning for the Selkirk TREX. In this blog, Kara details the lessons learned from a recent multi-state learning exchange, held in northern California, for leaders of Prescribed Burn Associations and other organizations involved in the movement for good fire. The learning exchange was funded through the Fire Learning Network and the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program (a grant awarded by the California Department of Conservation).

In March 2023, 33 people from across the United States and Spain met in Northern California for the Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) Learning Exchange, hosted by The Watershed Center, to dive deep into community-led cooperative burning, explore collective challenges and solutions, fill our cups with knowledge, and water the seeds with future leaders and innovative ideas in prescribed fire.

Over the course of seven days, learning exchange participants traveled across California, from snowy Plumas County in the northern Sierras to Lake County, the home of Clear Lake in the Coast Range of California. Through these travels, participants discussed and explored all aspects of PBAs and community-led prescribed fire, from formation and structure of PBAs, to training and equipment, to cultural burning and partnerships.

“I left the week feeling motivated, inspired, and re-energized to tackle the barriers where I live and work with fresh insight and perspective.”

– Kristin Leger, The Ember Alliance

This exchange built on the legacy of similar Fire Learning Network events conducted in 2016 and 2017. In the fall of 2016 Great Plains fire practitioners visited California, with California partners making the trip to the Midwest in the spring of 2017. These exchanges were a major contributor to the explosion of PBAs in California, with leaders in California now able to spread their knowledge to new partners and places.

Plumas County – Success Stories from A Private Landowner

The first stop was the Plumas County Cal-TREX. Despite record breaking snow, a reprieve in the weather brought an opportunity to work on prescribed fire skills and knowledge. The learning exchange participants intermingled with TREX participants, sharing their knowledge and digging in dirt together. This was an important training for local partners to “build the burn team” by establishing basic skills in prescribed fire and tuning up for the coming burn season. It also provided an opportunity for learning exchange participants to see first-hand experience of a different training model and bring home the first set of ideas.

Twenty or so people in hard hats stand outdoors around a truck with a large water orange container next to it, in a demonstration for water storage during a prescribed burn.

Participants in the learning exchange get hands-on training using pumps and water storage options for prescribed fire. Photo credit: Kara Karboski

After the Plumas Cal-TREX training weekend ended, the learning exchange participants joined together and traveled north up the Feather River Canyon through the footprint of the 2021 Dixie Fire to Greenville, CA, a town almost entirely destroyed during that fire. There amongst the burned landscape were some spots of green forest, including the home and property of Jeff Greef, member of the Plumas Underburn Cooperative. Just months before the Dixie Fire started, members of the Plumas County Cal-TREX, Plumas Underburn Cooperative, and Watershed Research and Training Center spent two days on Jeff’s property, taking their time to conduct prescribed burns around his home on 5 acres. When the Dixie Fire came through later, his forest had already seen thinning and prescribed fire and now his forest and house still stand. While the prescribed burning done by the PBA might seem small in scale, the impact was significant.

“The biggest strength of the PBA is that it’s a reflection of its community.”

– Lyndsey Lascheck, The Nature Conservancy

Gaining Perspectives in Lake County

Due to incoming weather (more snow!) the learning exchange participants traveled early to Lake County to continue drinking from the proverbial PBA fire hose. Participants spent an entire day discussing the finer elements of PBAs, leaning on the knowledge of multiple California and Oregon PBAs to share their stories and take the time to impart their lessons learned and best practices. We discussed everything from liability and risk management to equipment caches and PBA organization and structure. Even though the day was spent inside, being around like-minded folks and exploring these topics was a huge value.

The following day we met once more on the shores of Clear Lake and the current and ancestral home of the Pomo people, adding new faces and an opportunity to reflect and take space on big ideas around cultural and Indigenous led burning. Through the morning and afternoon we held space for the Pomo themselves, learning of their history and stories and their relationship with fire and discussed how we can show up and support tribes in their work, including through PBAs.

Finally, we stood on a knoll above Clear Lake, at an important site for the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians, to see the work they’ve restarted in fire with the support of an Indigenous led non-profit, Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance and the Lake County Cal-TREX. We wandered the verdant hills, which had burned the previous year, overlooking Clear Lake. The stories of the Pomo, both past, present and future, and their relationship to this land were fresh in our minds. Throughout the week, we saw the ways communities were working to bring fire back to these lands. The stories we told ourselves and others were shifting, reflecting the use of fire by humans since time immemorial, and how the PBA model is one way to help bring that back.

It’s hard to describe the experience and impacts of learning exchanges, a feeling best shared under the open sky with dirt under your feet, working and learning together. As one participant mused, the learning exchange “was like drinking water at the oasis after wandering in the desert.”

Takeaways for Future Work

For participants, the value of the learning exchange is in connection to others, in building relationships, and knowing you are not alone in this work. The value is in learning new ways to do things, being exposed to new perspectives, and seeing and discussing similar and different challenges and solutions in our shared work. It’s the practical resources, examples, and documents we can take back with us to our communities. And it’s others demonstrating replicable success and illuminating those pathways – and providing the inspiration to carry us forward.

A group of twenty or so people stand outside in a stand of trees.

Participants learn about fire impacts in Plumas County. Photo credit: Kristin Leger

We emerged from that week with big ideas (how we are reframing restoration to build resilience in our changing landscapes and showing the fire world a different way of teaching and learning in community) and little ideas with big impacts (we are supporting others without judgment).

As everyone left to go back to their homes, we took away a few key ideas:

  1. Start small. Start burning.
  2. You must learn from your own experiences. Start with what you have and go from there.
  3. There is no “one size fits all” option and no perfect plan. Take inspiration back and find out what works best for your place.
  4. People come first! Focus on interpersonal relationships and meeting people where they are. Everyone has a role. Empower landowners and keep the believers engaged.
  5. Partnerships are essential. Lean on your partners who have experience and invite them, even if they can’t show up.
  6. Find individuals and organizations that are ready and excited to support this work.
  7. This is a marathon not a sprint. You will need long-term commitment and consistency.
  8. Liability is about risk management and mitigating these risks through changing our approaches to burning and through shared responsibility.
  9. Plan for prescribed fire from the beginning.
  10. Learning takes time – train early and often.
  11. Don’t reinvent the wheel!  Continue to ask questions and learn lessons from PBAs across the nation.

At the core of learning exchanges is the idea of reciprocity. That if we all come to the table ready to learn and share, understanding we all have something to teach and something to learn, we build something greater than we could do alone. That reciprocity is also at the core of PBAs and it was clear from that week in California that to be successful, we have to do this together in community.


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