Sasha Berleman’s Revolutionary Rx for Fire in California

01/17/2018 06:29 pm ET

Sasha Berleman’s Revolutionary Rx for Fire in California

By Jonah Raskin

This June, California voters can approve SB 5, the “Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access For All Act of 2018.” If they do, $5 billion will go toward water infrastructure and state and local parks. The only key word that’s missing from SB 5 is “fire.” Indeed, no legislative act that aims to address California environmental issues can avoid it, as last year’s firestorms demonstrated.

While Sacramento lawmakers catch up with fire and its prevention, environmentalists hope to use “controlled” and “prescribed” burns to eat up dead, dying and diseased trees, reduce fuel and make “catastrophic fires” less likely.

The most articulate advocate for controlled burns in California is Sasha Berleman, 26, a fierce fire fighter, and a fire ecologist at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen. As a member of “hot shot” crews, which have been traditionally male, Berleman has fought summer blazes as fearlessly as any guy. She also has a UC Berkeley Ph.D. in “wildland fire science,” once largely a male field of study.

In a recent article in Bay Nature magazine, Berleman wrote that in the San Francisco Bay Area “there isn’t a “no fire” option.” She explained that, “Because of our Mediterranean climate—wet, cool winters and hot, dry summers —fire will always be a part of our world here. Additionally, as climate change affects our summers by extending that hot, dry season and causing hotter, drier weather within it, our fire season is getting longer and becoming more extreme.”

Last May, Berleman took part in a prescribed burn at Bouverie Preserve, which boasts a new, “revolutionary” Fire Ecology Program that aims to change “land management techniques and cultural relationships to fire.” Twenty Bouverie acres went up in flames, all of them under control. The controlled burn helped to reduce grassland and thereby diminished both the intensity and the speed of the 2017 firestorm when it crossed Bouverie.

Berleman had lots of help from Cal Fire, the National Park Service and local fire departments.

Last October, she and a crew of volunteers also saved M.F.K. Fisher’s historic home at the Bouverie where the legendary food writer entertained guests and served champagne and oysters. Berleman, her friends and neighbors used the water in the swimming pool to put out the blaze.

In the wake of last fall’s big fires, fighters are more open than ever before to the idea of fighting fire with fire. It’s still an uphill battle, in part, Berleman says, because human beings are afraid of fire and have forgotten how to live with it.

“If we don’t want huge fires we need a landscape where fires are self-limiting, even under high fire weather conditions,” she told a crowd of 75 conservationist and environmentalists who gathered recently at Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County.

Fire was the one and only subject on the agenda.

Berleman won over the crowd with her candor and her clear explanation of the complex ecology that exists in places where the wild and the urban interface and where fire hazards are often magnified, as they were in and around Santa Rosa, Kenwood and Glen Ellen

While Berleman works at Bouverie and lives in Berkeley, she grew up in the Inland Empire in southern California, a place she calls “fire prone.” From an early age, she was taught the dangers of fires and so she came of age afraid of them. Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably, she decided, when she was in college, to study fires and to learn how humans might live with them.

“There is some overlap between what I do and what forensics does,” she explained when we met in Santa Rosa. “We both look for ignition points and we’re both interested in the path of a fire. But my focus isn’t on the cause. Instead, it’s on fire regimes. I want to give each eco-system the kind of fire it needs and wants.”

That almost sounds like love.

Last October, when she fought the wild fires at the Bouverie she learned a few important lessons.

“I saw that if we stick together as a group with resolve, and not stand alone, we can do it,” she said.

She also learned that human beings have consistently failed the land.

“We contributed to the stress of the forests,” she said. “There were just too many trees with Sudden Oak Disease. They helped fan the flames.”

What other advice did she have?

“We should probably avoid using words like “catastrophic” and “inferno,” Berleman said. “Journalists do that a lot. It doesn’t help.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Burning Down the House: Jack London and the Wolf House Fire of 1913.

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