By Madeline Scheintaub, Land Steward
What do you say when you are asked about your job? I’m a firefighter, a fire manager, a forestry technician? How do you describe your work? As emergency response to protect life, property, and resources? A way to go cool places with awesome people? A satisfying challenge that pays the bills? A non-stop wrangling of people and money so stuff can happen on the ground? You may be these things, but you are more. You are a land steward.
If you are involved with wildland fire, in any capacity, you are working with land and fire. Wildland fire always happens in a living landscape of plants, animals, and a multitude of less charismatic organisms. It is an ecological process. What we do, what you do, whenever you take action in response to a fire is to try to modify that process. We work to influence fire size (with fire lines); intensity (with fuel breaks, water, retardant, ignition tactics); duration (with decisions to let parts of a fire burn, or to line it and move on); location (with lighting in some places and keeping fire away from others); etc. Sometimes fire is amenable to our efforts, and sometimes not.
The tactics we use to modify fire behavior are in themselves ecological actions. We dig up dirt in fire lines and during mop up. We cut down trees and bushes. We move water. We move organic material (live and dead fuels). We add nutrients (retardant). We move invasive species, even when we are trying not to. We burn lots of fossil fuels.
Planning or implementing a prescribed fire or fuels project is relatively easy to recognize as land stewardship. The projects are often designed with ecological goals, after all. Responding to a wildfire with a five-minute response time is no less land stewardship than completing a prescribed fire a decade in the making. The fire lines you put in, the burn outs you conduct, the retardant you call for, the fires you let burn, they are now a part of the land. How our actions interact with a fire and a landscape may have highly beneficial outcomes for ecosystem and human health. Or the reverse. Or both.
Being a land steward carries responsibility. The responsibility is like that of being a leader or team member. You are watching out for more than just yourself. It can take work to do well, but it is work that is intensely satisfying. I approach being a land steward like I approach everything related to fire. I go in with an open mind, aggressively and continuously gather situational awareness, do my best, learn from what happens, and share those lessons. We have conversations about humility and responsibility in the face of fire behavior and our own mistakes. I challenge you to extend that to the land and the ecology that you find yourself in. Land stewardship is at the core of our work. Take that recognition and see where it leads you.
Be courageous. Be curious. Steward well.