In Oregon, a New Program Is Training Burn Bosses to Help Put More “Good Fire” on the Ground

More states and private landowners recognize the importance of prescribed burns to improve forest health and reduce the severity of wildfires, but the lack of firefighters trained to ignite and manage the blazes has slowed progress.

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A broadcast burn on The Nature Conservancy's Sycan Marsh Preserve in southern Oregon in 2017. Scientists found that prescribed burning helped parts of the preserve survive the enormous Bootleg fire in 2021. Credit: Amanda Rau
A broadcast burn on The Nature Conservancy's Sycan Marsh Preserve in southern Oregon in 2017. Scientists found that prescribed burning helped parts of the preserve survive the enormous Bootleg fire in 2021. Credit: Amanda Rau

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In July 2021, the massive Bootleg fire in southern Oregon burned 650 square miles and left vast swaths of forest littered with dead trees. 

But when the smoke cleared, scientists discovered that forests treated with prescribed burns—blazes intentionally set by firefighters and foresters to reduce the flammable vegetation available to feed big fires—had largely survived because fewer woody fuels were available to stoke the megafire.

Evidence like this is fueling a renaissance of prescribed burning in the U.S. West. Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service has resolved to thin and burn 50 million acres —an area the size of Nebraska—and officials are increasingly recognizing myriad Indigenous uses of fire that improved the health of forest ecosystems and made explosive wildfires less likely to burn in them.

Now, states are joining the movement to return what proponents call “good fire” to landscapes at risk of blowing up with uncontrollable wildfires. But as a spate of devastating, climate-fueled conflagrations like the Bootleg fire led Oregon officials to consider setting more prescribed burns, they were stymied by a shortage of qualified professionals to ignite, manage and snuff them. 

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“Finding those folks is one of those real bottlenecks,” said Mike Beasley, a retired Forest Service fire chief based in Eugene, Oregon.

It’s a challenge forest managers have encountered across the country.

Beasley and state officials are ramping up Oregon’s capacity to conduct prescribed burns with a new state certification program for burn managers, who are known as “burn bosses” in firefighting circles. 

Oregon’s new certified burn managers will be able to plan and lead broadcast burns—prescribed blazes that are ignited and allowed to burn across a specific area—on much of the state’s privately-owned land. A lower-level group of qualified burn managers will be able to set fire to burn piles—woody fuels cut down or gathered from a forest floor and stacked into what looks like a giant campfire—a widely-used practice in agriculture and forestry. 

Critically, the new crop of certified burners will have some limited protection from civil liability if a burn escapes containment lines. That’s rare, but high-profile disasters have tanked public trust in prescribed burns in Colorado and New Mexico. In 2022, the boss of a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in eastern Oregon was arrested for “reckless burning” when the fire he was overseeing escaped containment. Before the new protections, there was plenty of concern about liability among burn bosses in Oregon, said Amanda Rau, prescribed burn coordinator for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Beasley began teaching the freshman class of 17 would-be burn managers at a Eugene community college this month. He also became one of Oregon’s first certified burn managers when the state recognized him as a veteran burn boss last year, alongside about a dozen others. 

With the new program, Oregon plans to build a prescribed fire workforce that’s separate from the federal firefighting bureaucracy, which critics say is too slow to use controlled burns despite a growing sense of urgency from scientists and tribes. Meanwhile, Oregon officials are trying to break down other barriers that limit when and how prescribed burns can take place. Leading that work is Rau, who was hired in 2022 as the state’s first prescribed burn coordinator. 

About 20 other states have certified burn manager programs, and some states in the Southeast have trained their own workforces for decades. Rau and others say Oregon is still behind the curve.

“The reality is, we’re working hard to change that,” Rau said. 

Record Fire Season Fuels a New Approach to Wildfire 

The Oregon Department of Forestry keeps an incomplete database of controlled burns on some private and federal land in Oregon. State and federal officials oversaw the burning of about 100,000 acres in 2022, according to the data. However in Florida, long held up as the gold standard for prescribed burning in the U.S., a network of agencies and private burn associations set fire to about 2 million acres each year for ecological and land management benefits.

Rau said fire is an integral part of Oregon’s natural and cultural history. When the famed Scottish botanist David Douglas entered Oregon’s Willamette Valley on horseback in 1826, he found that Indigenous tribes widely set fires to improve forage and herd deer. 

“Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near low hills that verdure is to be seen,” Douglas wrote. 

But colonization snuffed out that connection with fire, Rau said. Settler communities forbade the deliberate use of fire, and in the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies fought to suppress all wildfires as quickly as possible, creating a dangerous buildup of vegetation and flammable, fallen timber in forests.

The Oregon Department of Forestry hired Amanda Rau as the state's first prescribed burn coordinator in 2022. Rau, who has extensive experience in prescribed burning, is helping roll out Oregon's new certified burn manager program. Credit: Jeff Dean
The Oregon Department of Forestry hired Amanda Rau as the state’s first prescribed burn coordinator in 2022. Rau, who has extensive experience in prescribed burning, is helping roll out Oregon’s new certified burn manager program. Credit: Jeff Dean

Climate-fueled drought dried the unnaturally heavy load of woody fuels in Oregon forests, leading to the state’s most destructive wildfire season on record in 2020. That summer, dozens of wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and killed nine people.

Just days after the Bootleg fire ignited the following year, former Gov. Kate Brown signed an omnibus bill that pumped $220 million into wildfire preparedness and response. The bill also required the Oregon Department of Forestry to build a certified burn manager program. 

Christopher Adlam, a fire specialist with the Oregon State University extension, said it was exciting to see lawmakers and officials invest in prescribed fire. 

Historically, the state Department of Forestry was “lukewarm at best when it came to burning,” he said, noting red tape and wariness from state officials who needed to approve burns. 

“It’s easy to be in the camp of just screaming into the void and saying, ‘We need more of this,’” Adlam said. “All of the sudden, somebody is like, ‘OK.’” 

A High Bar for Burns Builds Trust

This winter, Beasley will take his students to field sites and teach the craft of writing a “burn plan.” Burn leaders craft these granular plans, detailing the operation’s purpose, area vegetation and topography, and even what percentage of the trees they hope to burn. 

The plan also includes a “prescription,” which spells out the narrow weather conditions in which the fire can be set. Relative humidity, temperature and moisture levels in the fuels need to be at levels that allow the fire to burn, but not so dry and hot that it will burn too intensely. Wind needs to be blowing enough to dissipate smoke and in directions that don’t push it into communities, but not so strongly that the blaze explodes. In case that were to happen, the plan details contingencies for worst-case scenarios. 

Beasley said his students will also learn the basics of fire behavior, even though some are already very experienced with prescribed burning or firefighting.

Not all students will actually receive their certification to burn. After Beasley’s classroom, students will have to pass the Department of Forestry’s final exam. He expects the bar for a broadcast burn certification to be very high and based on the student’s experience with burning outside of the training, though he’s not yet sure what the criteria will be.

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Some states have more stringent rules for certification. In Colorado, only federally-certified burn bosses can receive a state certification for broadcast burning, said Kirk Will, prescribed fire chief for the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control. That rule leaves out fire practitioners with other kinds of experience, such as running cultural burns for tribes, as well as many federal firefighters. It can take years for a wildland firefighter to meet the qualifications for that status. 

“We’re not just out there striking a match and throwing it into a pile,” Will said.

But Will said that high bar helps build trust among communities, an increasingly critical component of increasing the acreage treated with prescribed burns. State lawmakers removed the Colorado State Forest Service’s ability to conduct prescribed burns after one escaped and killed three people in 2012, although the agency can set fire to burn piles on state-owned land. And after two prescribed burns combined in 2022 into the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a 90-day pause on burns on land the agency manages across the country.

The shortage of appropriately trained personnel, however, is continuously slowing down burns.

Beasley said even federal agencies and nonprofits are short on federally-qualified burn bosses. By opening up the work to people with experience outside of federal firefighting, Beasley said Oregon is joining a growing movement led by indigenous practitioners to get more communities involved in controlled burns. 

“I think we really need to democratize fire,” Beasley said.

Those who earn their certification in Oregon will join a growing movement of nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy, which has been training burners for years, and private landowners who want to conduct burns themselves, though Oregon agencies will still have the final say whether burn bosses can actually set a planned fire.

Burn managers certified by entities other than the federal government are already helping normalize the craft in California, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California fire network director and national authority on prescribed burning. 

“Before the rollout of the CARX (the California State-Certified Prescribed Burn Boss) program, I could count the available private burn bosses on one hand,” she said.

California lawmakers created the certification in 2018, but Quinn-Davidson and others were initially frustrated to see the “revolutionary” program delayed by skeptics at Cal Fire—the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In 2022, a Cal Fire spokesperson told KQED the agency needed time to stand up the program.

Six years later, California has certified about 30 private burn bosses and another 60 are working toward certification, Quinn-Davidson said in an email. She said they’re already getting more “good fire” on the ground, although California is still seeing fewer prescribed burns than she would like. 

Beasley said he expects Oregon’s program to move much faster than California’s, in part because of Rau’s sense of urgency about prescribed burning. 

Cal Fire and the Oregon Department of Forestry are “different animals, in a good way, when it comes to this,” he said. 

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