Fellows grow good fire in the North Bay

Fellows grow good fire in the North Bay

Community members across the North Bay are learning the intricacies of “good fire” as part of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward fellowship program. Fellows grow their controlled burning leadership knowledge over the course of one year and 300 hours of training. Supported by their employers, the 15 fellows receive one-on-one mentoring, classroom and field-based courses, and experience working on prescribed burns.

Gear is provided with a generous grant from California Fire Foundation and stipends for Fellows by the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation. Each Fellow has a capstone project where they partner with a landowner to plan and organize a prescribed burn.

The experiences of the fellowship prepare participants to act as a fireline leader on prescribed burns, gain certifications, and progress toward becoming California state-certified burn bosses — increasing the North Bay’s capacity to safely implement prescribed burning in support of healthy ecosystems.

Fellows become land stewards across the Bay Area

This is the second cohort of Fire Fellows. Peter Nelson, graduate of the first Fire Forward class, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley, and tribal citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, reflects on his time in the fellowship: “I’m thankful for the Audubon Canyon Ranch Fire Forward program and everything it’s taught me about prescribed burning and fire. I’ve picked up a lot of experience in prescribed burning and cultural burning over these past few years, and I’m taking that with me in my tribe, my personal life, and my academic work studying indigenous stewardship and how we can put these practices appropriately back on the land.” Other fellows from the first cohort are now bringing the knowledge and qualifications gained in their time with the Fellowship back to a wide variety of land stewarding agencies across the Bay Area.

Meet the fellows, 2022-23:

David Leyva
“Since learning about the historical use of prescribed and cultural fire here in Northern CA, I have become captivated by the regenerative effects that “good” fire can bring about, and consider myself a “Student of Fire”. I work as a foreman in the Land Management division of Hanford Applied Restoration and Conservation, an ecological restoration contractor based out of Sonoma County. I am participating in the Fellowship to increase my knowledge and experience with safely implementing prescribed fire in order to assist with increasing the pace and scale of returning fire to our fire-adapted landscapes in much of California and beyond, resulting in a safer, healthier environment.”
Thea Maria Carlson
“I am a farmer, earth steward, facilitator, and community weaver working at the intersections of food and agriculture, environmental stewardship, and social justice.
 When the land and community where I live, Monan’s Rill, burned severely in a 2020 wildfire, I realized that fire was an essential missing element in my work, and I immersed myself in learning about fire ecology, prescribed fire, and cultural burning, including hands-on training with Fire Forward and cooperative burns with the Good Fire Alliance. 
The landscapes of California have been shaped and stewarded with fire by Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years, and they need fire to be healthy — the massive wildfires we are now experiencing are the inevitable result of over a century of fire suppression and prohibition of traditional cultural burning, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. 
I am participating in the Fire Forward fellowship so that I can help return good fire to the millions of acres that desperately need to be intentionally burned to support ecological health and community resilience, and to contribute to a revitalization of good fire that honors and centers the traditions, knowledge, leadership, and sovereignty of the original stewards of this land.” 
Steve Pye
“I am a contractor specializing in conservation and restoration work in the Bay Area. I have a Masters in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Planning. I am passionate about the work I do, and love working in a field that allows me to utilize my education and experience to apply conservation and restoration science as a contractor. My hope is that my continuing education in prescribed fire will become an integral part of what we do as its efficacy and numerous benefits to flora, fauna, and public safety are further realized through ever greater advocacy and community support.”    
Michael Zehr
“I am a jack-of-all trades lucky enough to combine my diverse skillset with a passion for land stewardship in the field of ecological restoration and conservation. I have a deep desire for intimacy and connection with the natural world which informs my worldview and ultimately inspired me to get involved with good fire. As a land steward and someone who cares deeply about humanity’s place within nature, gaining competency in prescribed fire seemed so obviously essential and I’m stoked to have found a dedicated community in which to grow my skillset and knowledge. My hope is that through this fellowship, I can help to further the movement of returning healthy fire to this California landscape whilst stepping into leadership roles within my community.”
Ashley Grupenhoff, 
Ecologist, University of California Davis
“For the past 6 years, I have been working at the interface of fire ecology research and management across California’s diverse ecosystems. Broadly, I am interested in providing empirical data to overcome the challenges we face with balancing anthropogenic perturbations with the protection of natural resources. I was immediately drawn to prescribed fire as a way to manage resources and reduce the buildup of fuels, as Indigenous people had for centuries before colonization. As such, I have dedicated myself to understanding fire, respecting fire, and supporting fire. I have been ecstatic to get involved with the Good Fire Alliance community and am continually inspired by their dedication to increasing community-based burning.”
Naftali Moed
“I developed a strong connection to my surroundings hiking, biking and volunteering on the public lands around Pacifica where I grew up. These formative experiences have driven me to pursue a career in the stewardship of our open spaces. I’m excited to continue learning and building my skills in support of expanded use of beneficial fire in the North Bay.”
Devin Dombrowski
“Ever since moving to Lake County and experiencing devastating wildfires on a near-yearly basis, I’ve been very motivated to help my neighbors clean up their properties and bring good fire to the land. Joining the Fire Forward Fellowship has given me a huge development in my leadership skills and ability plan prescribed burns. I can’t wait to put that to use!”
Len Mazur
“I am (more or less) a lifelong resident of Sonoma County, CA. I currently work for Sonoma County Regional Parks as a field botanist where I coordinate the department’s invasive plant management program, monitor rare and special status plants, and support the planning and implementation of habitat restoration and fuels management projects. I am developing my relationship with fire because I am interested in exploring the seemingly endless potential that prescribed and cultural fire offers to stewarding ecological systems here in Northern California. I am excited and grateful to have the opportunity with this year’s Fire Forward Fellowship program to continue to develop my skills and experience as a fire practitioner in hopes that I can support regional efforts to partner with good fire as a tool to protect our communities (both human and ecological) and enhance our natural native landscapes.”
Amanda Botsford, Land Steward at Bouverie Preserve Audubon Canyon Ranch
“As a land manager, I show up in service of the land I steward. There is no ‘I’ in stewardship, only ‘we.’ It is with great humility and humbleness that I learn from the land and from one another. Utilizing fire as a stewardship tool is vital to the health of our lands moving forward, as it has been an integral tool for thousands of years. To tend to this place we call home, we must embrace the communal responsibility of understanding fire as our ally and our place in the interconnectedness of it all. Fire is inseparable from nature, and inseparable from us. I’m discovering that prescribed burning is a dynamic web of learning, of active engagement with one another and the land we are stewarding together. I am empowered by this community of fire practitioners that are devout, kind, and on a lifelong quest to bring good fire forward. We are here to plant the seeds of thoughtful fire stewardship in each other’s hearts, so that our communities may continue to build and nurture fire resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities. This fellowship offers an opportunity to work together on this journey. We are all connected and we all have the capacity to impact one another for the betterment of the whole. That, in turn, fills me with a bone deep gratitude and humbleness to grow as a lifelong student of fire.”
Joaquin Pastrana
“In 2021, I started as a GrizzlyCorps member at the Yolo County Resource Conservation District and Fire Safe Council. New to prescribed fire, I am a student of fire with hopes of becoming a practitioner of fire throughout my community. I am drawn to prescribed fire as I have quickly realized it is a tool that can benefit both my work in ecological restoration as well as wildfire mitigation. I am a recent college graduate with a degree in Public Health, and have always known that I wanted to do something focused on protecting people and the environment. However, I was never sure how I would be able to mix those two goals until I discovered the use of good fire. During my time with Fire Forward, I hope to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to bring prescribed fire back to my community and become more in touch with the land.” 
Jiordi Rosales 
“I am a land-steward of Bellwether — a cultural revitalization project in the coastal mountains of Northern Sonoma county in Kashia Pomo territory. I have been sponsored by the Kashia (as a nontribal partner) to join the Fellowship in order to support the rematriation of cultural burning practices to tribal territory. My dedication to fire is from the recognition that to live in California, one must live in intimacy with fire. I dream towards a time when intimacy with prescribed burning be normalized as an integral part of living within this ecosystem — not just for fire specialists. I applied to join the Fire Forward Fellowship specifically because of the way Fire Forward is organizing and teaching prescribed fire practices to everyday ‘unqualified’ people.”
Paul Weber, Vegetation Management Technician for the Natural Resources Management Division at Sonoma County Regional Parks
“I have been professionally stewarding public and private lands in Sonoma County since 2014. I currently work for Sonoma County Regional Parks where I specialize in ecological restoration and fuels management. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that the most diverse landscapes are those that have been managed using the most diverse set of tools, prescribed fire being one of them. My relationship with fire began during childhood where pile burning with family was a common occurrence, but it wasn’t until I began training with Fire Forward and volunteering with the Good Fire Alliance that I realized the true depth of what it means to bring fire to a landscape. Through these experiences, I have gained a much richer understanding of the cultural and ecological elements that come with prescribed fire. I hope to use what I learn from the Fellowship program to better steward our community’s public lands by assisting with the re-introduction of good fire practices to our natural spaces.”
Christine Byrne
“I am an environmental educator, a climate and labor community organizer, and a lifelong resident of Sonoma County. I am deeply committed to building my personal skills as a land steward, and working towards building a movement across nonprofits, public agencies, and the private sector to make Sonoma County more resilient and just in the face of climate change. I am thrilled to be a Fire Fellow and for the opportunity to share prescribed burn skills with my colleagues at Sonoma Water, my fellow organizers at North Bay Jobs with Justice, and with the youth that I teach across the North Bay.”    
Sergio Trujillo
“I was born in Chicago and spent my childhood in Georgia. My dream has always been to either join Law Enforcement or become a Firefighter. I moved to California in 2014, shortly after that I experienced the tragic impact the Tubbs fire had in our community, which gave me motivation to lean towards becoming a Firefighter as my career. I am now pursuing a career as a Firefighter and I am excited to have been one of the lucky 15 fellows to get accepted into the Fire Forward Fellowship. I’ve been very lucky to have a huge support system within Conservation Corps North Bay and Chuck with the Watershed Training and Research Center. I’ve been able to get my basic Firefighter Type 2 certificates as well as the S-212 certificate, and also working towards becoming a Firefighter 1. To be able to keep pushing forward in my career I am hoping that after the program I am able to join CAL FIRE and be able to work on a fire engine.”