.Burning Up

Prescribed Burn Associations could be the future of mitigating wildfires in Santa Cruz County

On a Sunday morning, a large, well-orchestrated crew dressed in Nomex yellows start setting tall dry grass on fire with calm precision and a variety of tools. 

This practice, known as a controlled or prescribed burn, is when a large area is cleared of vegetation by a managed fire. This particular June 4 burn, on a 540-acre property owned and managed by the San Benito Agricultural Land Trust, was part of a workshop for community members interested in learning how to safely burn on their own. 

Before the burn starts, a group of over 50 firefighters participate in a briefing to discuss wind, weather, burn strategy and potential concerns. 

Val Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, opens the burn along with members of the Esselen Tribe by lighting a small batch of grass on fire. 

A few volunteers rake vegetation nearby before one firefighter lights a line of grass on fire using a drip torch. The smoke kicks up almost immediately once the fire catches. The heat is intense, as is the smoke.

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This prescribed fire is different from others. It’s not run by a state agency, like CAL FIRE. Instead it’s run by a collaborative grassroots effort known as a Prescribed Burn Association (PBA).

PBAs are comprehensive networks of volunteers who pool their resources, time, knowledge and equipment to put “good fire” back on the land. Good fire is a planned fire, like a prescribed burn, used for land management practices. 

This PBA has an impressive roster of volunteers: tribal members, ranchers, fire departments, regional residents and landowners and environmentalists. 

As climate change causes more extreme weather conditions, wildfires are becoming more prevalent. PBAs are sprouting up across California as one solution to curbing wildfire severity. 

“The best way to think about it really is less of an organization or a nonprofit—it’s a network,” says Jared Childress, the Program Manager of the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA).

PBAs: What They Are

Fire advisors laughed California’s first PBA launched in 2017 in Humboldt County. Frustrated by the roadblocks they were hitting at the bureaucratic level, these fire advisors discovered PBA’s could be a more efficient way to bring good fire to private land.

Childress, in collaboration with colleagues from the UC Cooperative Extension, started the Central Coast PBA (CCPBA) in 2020, covering Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties. 

Childress is also a state-certified fire manager with specialized training to run burns safely and efficiently. 

“Prescribed fire has been this black box of agency for so long,” says Barbara Statink-Wolfson, fire advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension. “PBAs put the process back in the hands of people: ranchers, indigenous tribes. And they get things on the ground much faster. They’re just another way to increase the pace and scale of treatments.” 

Prescribed burning is a land management practice implemented nationwide. Without land management, flammable vegetation known as fuel loads, accumulate and become fuel for future wildfires.

“These landscapes, when you stop burning, intentionally or unintentionally, they start changing, usually for the brushier,” Childress says. “You lose pasture land, you lose biodiversity and then wildfires start getting harder to control.”

Since the first California PBA launched in 2017, almost half of California’s 58 counties are operating or considering operating a PBA.

“I think that we will see more and more PBAs. I mean they aren’t the only answer, just one of the answers. But every little piece counts towards a larger pool,” says Statink-Wolfson.

Almost half of the land in California is private. While not all of that land is burnable, PBAs can absorb some of CAL FIRE’s workload by implementing their own burns.

Since 2020, the CCPBA has run a burn with the Santa Cruz Land Trust, the Santa Lucia Conservancy, the Big Sur Land Trust, university land, dozens of private lands and more.

“We need to scale up to make a dent in the wildfire problem,” says Childress. “None of us have seen anything like this. The one silver lining to these really horrendous wildfires is that they create change.” 

Red Tape Slows Burns

When it comes to regulatory oversight, private landowners may need a variety of permits to initiate a burn in the state of California.

At the very least, a burn must have an air quality permit, issued by the overseeing Air District. 

“That applies to all of us. State Parks, CAL FIRE, none of us gets away without [an air quality permit]. It’s all based on what the weather is doing,” Childress says.

Even if a burn has been planned months in advance, air districts won’t give the green light until the days leading up to the scheduled burn to ensure weather conditions are favorable.

The second permit is issued when a burn shows environmental compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Before PBAs were introduced to California, many private landowners preferred to go through CAL FIRE’s Vegetation Management Program (VMP) to hold a prescribed burn. While CAL FIRE fronts much of the cost and assumes liability, this is often a lengthy process with a potentially indeterminate timeframe.

Putting together CEQA reports could take months or even years depending on the landscape. And even if all the paperwork is passed and the burn is scheduled, CAL FIRE may not be able to complete the burn if the resources aren’t available. 

Prescribed fire windows also tend to overlap with wildfire season, which means private landowners who contract with CAL FIRE must wait until wildfire threats are mitigated.

Until 2018, CAL FIRE had three years to complete burn contracts. However, in an updated law the state extended contracts to 10 years to ensure contracts were met.

PBAs, however, fall within a CEQA loophole.

CEQA applies only to agencies or associations that are state-sponsored in some way, or for burns that are run on state lands.

Currently, the Central Coast PBA is a grant-based project, with funding from CAL FIRE, so it must pass CEQA to initiate burns—nearly every other California PBA does not.

A PBAs, as a network run by private landowners and individuals, if not run by a state agency or accepting state funding does not need to be environmentally compliant. They also don’t require CAL FIRE’s resources, like tools or water, because PBA members share their own.

Private landowners could also do the burn on their own—however, they must ensure they are permitted correctly and have all the resources to manage the burn safely. Completing the field surveys to ensure environmental compliance with CEQA can be expensive. CEQA documentation can exceed hundreds of pages depending on the property. For an individual, these hurdles are costly and time consuming. 

Hiring a contractor to conduct the burn is another possibility, but contractors can be costly as well—potentially over $10,000 a day depending on the burn and associated resources.

Meanwhile, PBAs have the resources, the manpower and don’t require CEQA reporting.

“When a PBA does something, it’s essentially a bunch of volunteers with training. It’s a boon to the landowner, since they don’t need to pay a workforce. And it’s a win-win because the people in the PBA get more training,” adds Barbara Statink-Wolfson, a fire advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension.

Burn Bosses

California has rolled out several programs over the last few years, including initiating the burn boss certification program in 2019, to make prescribed burning more accessible. Currently, 17 burn bosses are operating in the state.

Burn bosses are hired, by both individuals and PBAs, to plan and manage burns. 

“One of the reasons people want to hire us is not only because of our skillset, but because we bring insurance,” Jared Childress, a state-certified burn boss, says. 

Burn bosses can obtain contractor insurance for something like a vehicle roll over or a chainsaw accident, but until recently insurance didn’t cover prescribed burns.

Just last week, CAL FIRE announced that the state is initiating a first-of-its-kind pilot program to support and protect prescribed and cultural burners. This fund will allocate $20 million to cover the potential of prescribed burns that escape the control zone. 

Prior to this fund, burners were liable to costs of surrounding property damage, resource allocation, and potential legal involvement.

This fund is in addition to a 2021 bill passed by State Legislators to ensure burn bosses will not be held liable for resources needed to contain an escaped burn.


  1. Thanks for highlighting this issue and the people who are actually doing something rather than throwing up their hands.
    Any good contacts to help/participate?

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Blaire Hobbs
I am freelance writer and editor with a degree in Cognitive Science from the University of California Santa Cruz and a professional background in media literacy, misinformation research, behavioral science, and teaching.
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