Welcoming a new class of prescribed fire apprentices

Welcoming a new class of prescribed fire apprentices

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Paid positions are needed for people who want to develop their skills into a career

Since 2018, Audubon Canyon Ranch has trained and partnered with an ever-growing grassroots community of volunteers from the Good Fire Alliance, who have supported the implementation of over 114 prescribed burns with Fire Forward.   

Without the generosity of these volunteers, our capacity to lead burns and support regional partners would be dramatically reduced. However, the volunteer model requires that participants pay for training and dedicate weekends or take vacation days to continue developing field skills. Often, it takes years to become proficient, preceded by weeks and hours for coursework and field experience, leaving behind many people who want to participate but cannot afford to pay for training or volunteer their time and labor.       

“We need our grassroots community. But we also need paid positions for people who want to develop their skills into a career,” explains Sasha Berleman, director of the Fire Forward program. “It’s not ‘either or’ — it’s ‘both and’.”

Apprentice Lauryn Newson practices handling a drip torch. Photo credit Erika Lutz.

A new model for workforce development in the field of prescribed fire

Prescribed fire continues to be defined as a priority tool to address the growing forest and wildfire crisis at the national and state level. The 2023 Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission report states that “dramatically increasing the amount of beneficial fire on our landscapes is essential.” In 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom called for a state-wide increase in prescribed fire in California’s Wildfire & Forest Resilience Action Plan. However, there remained a deficit in jobs or paid training opportunities to fulfill these strategies.  

CAL FIRE and others were looking to fill that gap. “There is a need for more highly-trained, professional prescribed fire practitioners as California increases focus towards prescribed and cultural fire as a tool to mitigate the negative impacts of wildfires,” explains Justin Britton, chief of operations of CAL FIRE’s Wood Products and Bioenergy division. 

In 2022, we proposed a plan for creating paid apprenticeships. CAL FIRE funded the proposal, awarding Audubon Canyon Ranch a multi-year $2 million grant for prescribed fire workforce development. The grant funds fifteen full-time year-long apprentice positions between 2023 and 2026. “Supporting Fire Forward’s Fire Management Apprenticeship gives CAL FIRE an opportunity to invest in this next-generation prescribed fire workforce,“ said Britton.   

Paying apprentices supports the quality and diversity of the candidate pool by ensuring that the opportunity is open to everyone. According to a 2019 study conducted by National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid interns not only perform better on the job, they also end up with more and better job offers than their unpaid counterparts.  

“We are thrilled to be able to offer, through this CAL FIRE grant, additional pathways to professional fire and forest stewardship careers in communities threatened by the impacts of climate change and century-long removal of stewardship,” continued Berleman. 

2023 apprentices Marty Malate with Joaquin Pastrana caught in a moment of joy in the field. Photo by Erika Lutz.

Integrating leadership experience beyond the fireline 

Over their full-time 11-month-long apprenticeship, participants cross-train with a variety of local and national partners. With experiences ranging from formal wildland fire training courses to developing prescribed fire leadership skills in the field, apprentices gain knowledge in planning, preparing, implementing, and monitoring beneficial fire and stewardship projects. Because the training has been designed around a holistic approach to stewardship, apprentices also learn interdisciplinary skills in ecology, community building, and relational communication.  

Graduates leave the program with the skills to plan and coordinate ecosystem stewardship projects, including prescribed burns, and to support making the work accessible to others — as well as the flexibility to take their careers in a variety of directions, including joining fire or stewardship crews, leading stewardship and fire programs or community networks, or pursuing allied career paths.

2024 Prescribed Fire Apprentice crew at Bouverie Preserve. Top row: Prescribed fire module lead Paul Sokoloski, apprentices Alfredo Campos, Mariah Chastain, and Cal Howell, prescribed fire practitioner Kira Rowan, and squad lead Michael Garrett. Bottom row: apprentices Chase Whitener and Lauryn Newson, and squad lead Annie Madden. Photo by Chase Whitener.

Meet the 2024 prescribed fire apprentices 

We’re thrilled to welcome five all-star prescribed fire apprentices joining our 2024 cohort, led by Squad Lead Annie Madden. These outstanding individuals bring a depth and breadth of lived, work, and academic experience, and demonstrated commitment to tending the land in community.

Alfredo Campos

Prescribed Fire Apprentice Alfredo Campos grew up in the Bay Area, spending the last 10 years living in the East Bay, where he earned an associate degree in business management. In 2023, he was part of Fire Foundry, a program that helps people clear a pathway into the fire service. There, he worked in fire fuel reduction and attended classes at the College of Marin. His interest in working with fire sparked as he learned more about fire behavior and ecologically sound practices to prevent and suppress fires.

Mariah Chastain 

Prescribed Fire Apprentice Mariah Chastain was born near her family’s traditional land and one of the most beautiful places in the world, Yosemite. She grew up in the small towns of El Dorado County and found her passion for land stewardship in her Indigenous culture and love of the outdoors. Mariah moved to Sonoma County in 2016 to attend Sonoma State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and planning with a minor in biology. After college, she became a field supervisor then the Sonoma coordinator for Conservation Corps North Bay, where she worked on a variety of natural resources management projects and created defensible space in many areas affected by recent wildfire. As coordinator, she mentored people from diverse and historically left-out communities build skills in natural resource management to further their careers. This sparked her interest in both fire ecology and the need for more diversity in these spaces. Mariah also worked for Sonoma County Regional Parks, helping create safe, clean, and accessible parks for all. She is excited to redirect her time toward land stewardship and dive into the prescribed fire world. 

Cavin (Cal) Howell

Born and raised in Sonoma County, Prescribed Fire Apprentice Calvin (Cal) Howell grew up deeply connected to the Northern California landscape. After earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from St. John’s College, MD, Cal pursued a master’s degree in environmental policy from Bard College in New York, where here searched factors that led to successful inter-cultural negotiations within the Klamath River dam removal agreements. Upon returning home to Sonoma County, Cal worked as an intern with LandPaths, serving on the equity committee and reconnecting with the land alongside the stewardship team. Cal joined Santa Rosa Junior College’s Wildfire Resiliency Program in 2023, where he caught the ‘fire bug.’ Cal is passionate about the intersection between ‘good fire,’ community stewardship, and sustainable land management policy. When not in the field, he can be found throwing pottery or cooking for his family. 

Lauryn Newson

Lauryn was raised on the ancestral lands of Ohlone, Miwok, Muwekma, and Confederated Villages of Lisjan — otherwise known as the Bay Area. They are third generation Californian, from Richmond, with roots extending to the Deep South and West Africa. 

They are a multidimensional spirit who has a background in audio and music production. However, in more recent years they’ve been exploring what it means to transmute their existential grief into environmental and collective action. This has led Lauryn on a self and community guided journey into nature, ecology, and land stewardship by way of fire and other collective and ancestral practices. They continue to learn alongside community and organizations that facilitate spaces for queer and BIPOC people to engage with multigenerational and intuitive land practices such as Sankofa Roots, Critical Ecology Lab, and The School for Inclement Weather. 

Lauryn is reclaiming their place in the natural world as an ode to her community and ancestors who have been systematically displaced from nature and their indigeneity. They extend a labor of love to the land in the name of reciprocity, future resilience, and a more sustainable future where black and brown people not only exist but are flourishing in relationship with the land. She’s thrilled to bring good fire back to the land and hopes to engage this knowledge wherever it can be of service.

Chase Whitener 

Prescribed Fire Apprentice Chase Whitener was born and raised in western Washington, where he enjoyed exploring the lush coniferous ecosystems. After earning a bachelor’s degree in integrated human biology from Bastyr University, he set aside plans to pursue a naturopathic medical career and moved to Northern California with its striking oak woodland environments. A chance enrollment at the Santa Rosa Junior College in the Wildfire Resilience Program at Shone Farm ignited his passion for land stewardship and regenerative agriculture. Since then, Chase has worked as an ecological restoration technician with WRA Landscape Restoration, building on his knowledge of invasive species management, native plant installation, and fuel reduction. Through the apprenticeship, Chase is excited to learn how to wield prescribed fire as a responsible firelighter, especially in a cultural context. 

2023 Prescribed Fire Apprentice crew at Martin Griffin Preserve. Photo by Erika Lutz.

Expanding career pathways in prescribed fire

In December 2023, the inaugural cohort of apprentices graduated from the program, their year bolstered with a variety of learning experiences with Audubon Canyon Ranch staff, local partners, and national agencies. 

Their year included experiences such as a 150-acre prescribed burn at Painted Rock, where the crew supported the Moraga-Orinda Fire Department as lookouts and weather monitors, collecting incident status information to share with fireline supervisors. Their leadership skills were strengthened through a growing partnership with The Nature Conservancy, where three apprentices furthered their squad leader skills in eastern Idaho’s Caribou–Targhee National Forest. 

Closer to home in Sonoma County, the apprentice crew joined California State Parks for many burn operations to steward public land. Over the course of the year, their participation enabled the successful burn of over 5,000 piles, according to Ryan Klausch, California State Parks’ program lead for Wildfire and Forest Resilience Program at the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District. 

“Having thousands of piles, every practitioner counts. Lighting and tending piles efficiently takes skill, particularly if construction is poor or conditions are not ideal,” Klausch explains. “Novice burners will often fail to fully ignite piles, use too much fuel, or neglect ignited piles. The apprentices and State Parks crew spent weeks learning together, sharing strategies, and building cohesion. It’s the type of partnership that I envisioned for developing local capacity for wildfire and forest resilience.

Kira Rowan tends a pile burn at Salt Point State Park during her 2023 apprenticeship. Photo by Benjamin Holman.

Graduates take next steps with stewardship and fire careers

By the time they had graduated from the program, the 2023 apprentices were poised to be hired into the next steps in their land stewardship and management careers. Joaquin Pastrana moved on to become the first prescribed fire program manager for Nevada County RCD, and Dianne Dollente joined Marin Water as a park ranger trainee. Kira Rowan, Spencer Adams, and Marty Malate were promoted as prescribed fire practitioners in Audubon Canyon Ranch’s new Prescribed Fire Module, a crew of 12 full-time staff dedicated to prescribed fire stewardship. 

“We’re all being students of fire together. We’re all on this journey together, learning how to work with fire together. It’s not just about me and my growth, but the growth of everyone around me” reflected Kira Rowan about her promotion from apprentice to practitioner. “It feels good to be part of a learning environment. It’s exciting to share what I know with the new apprentices — to see them excited and doing what I just did for the first time. I’m very honored to stay with Fire Forward and work along such an inspiring, dedicated team.”

Learn more about our prescribed fire apprentices

Follow the story of the apprentices’ 11-month professional journey by becoming a member