Understanding How to Manage Wildfire with Fire
Professor trains to be a prescribed fire crew member
On a sunny day in June, about 30 acres of land tucked along rolling hills just north of Capay were set on fire. Wearing a bright yellow, long sleeve shirt, long pants, leather gloves, hard hat and heavy-duty goggles, UC Davis Assistant Professor Emily Schlickman participated in her first prescribed burn, a planned and controlled fire that aims to help reduce wildfire risk.
Schlickman has been teaching landscape architecture and environmental design since 2019. Before that, she spent six years at a landscape architecture/urban design firm in the Bay Area, often working on sites in fire prone areas across Northern California.
Earlier this year, she started training to become a certified prescribed fire crew member. The training mirrors the traditional wildland firefighting certification process; it requires learning about fire behavior, safety protocols and the use of specialized equipment to conduct controlled burns safely and effectively.
“I think getting on-the-ground experience is incredibly important,” Schlickman said. “For the past few years, I’ve been reading a lot about fire, interviewing people about their experiences with fire – not just prescribed burning, but wildfires too – but I haven’t had any first-hand knowledge or experience with fire. I wanted to walk the walk.”
She joined about 50 volunteers and professionals from fire agencies, including the Yolo County Prescribed Burn Association and the Capay Valley Fire District, at a private ranch early one Saturday morning last month to light the land on fire to see up close how this tactic is used to reduce the build-up of flammable materials while managing invasive species.
Schlickman was part of the holding crew, which stays on the perimeter of the burn area with a Mcleod tool and pump hose (carried on her back) to monitor the fire and make sure no embers fly into land not intended to be ignited.
“We need more professionals who can put fire on the ground; that was part of the reason why I wanted to go through the certification process,” Schlickman said.
As part of the certification, she enrolled in five online courses that took her about 50-60 hours to complete. This fall, she plans to finish the certification process by doing a pack and fire shelter test, which will allow her to participate in a wide range of prescribed burn activities.
Design By Fire
The risks of wildfires have been increasing around the world. Schlickman, along with her UC Davis colleague Brett Milligan, an associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental design, have written a book that focuses on what people from various countries have been doing to better live with wildfire. The book, “Design by Fire: Resistance, Co-Creation and Retreat in the Pyrocene,” is set to be released August 31 by publisher Routledge (available online).
Schlickman and Milligan developed 27 case studies from fire-prone locations, including the U.S., Mediterranean region, South Africa, Chile and Australia, and outlined what practices have been successful, the challenges of managing wildfire and possible ways to mitigate risk in the future.
“One major thread that we saw through a number of our case studies globally is the idea of using fire as a way to manage fire,” Schlickman explained. “Our landscapes are fire prone and fire adapted, and we actually need to burn in order for these catastrophic fires to not be so intense and
Cultural and ecological benefits
Even though the prescribed burn Schlickman witnessed near Capay lasted less than seven hours, it will have an ongoing impact on the landscape. For instance, the fire burned through invasive grasses into their root systems creating a rich soil for future native plant growth.
“There are so many benefits of fire beyond community protection; prescribed fire also has a range of cultural and ecological benefits like reinvigorating fire-adapted habitats to allow for certain species of plants and animals to thrive,” she said.
She’s been learning a lot about those cultural benefits too. Her research has focused on topics including landscape management, climate change adaptation and increasing resilience in wildfire-prone areas. Schlickman has been visiting with members of the Yurok tribe to gain knowledge about cultural burns, which are like prescribed burns but are planned fires set by Indigenous people to manage the landscape and support important species and traditions.
This fall, with funding from UC Davis’ Public Impact Research Initiative, she will be participating in a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) burn with members of the Yurok tribe. The cooperative burn will bring people together to exchange ideas about ways to manage risk and steward the landscape.
“When I first spoke with Margo Robbins, a cultural burner with the Yurok tribe, she said something that really resonated with me,” Schlickman said. “She said, ‘I’m a fire lighter, not a fire fighter,’ and that is something I always come back to with my work. While I’m technically getting my firefighting credentials, I am more interested in lighting fires to help bolster resilience.”