While humans often see wildfire as an inherently bad thing, fires have been a natural part of ecosystems like Yosemite National Park for far longer than humans have been managing it. We chatted with Shanelle Saunders, acting fire information officer and lead firefighter on the Wawona Engine Module for Yosemite National Park, about why fires can be good for the forest and what it’s like being a woman in the male-dominated profession of firefighting.
This interview was conducted in October 2018.
What got you interested in wildland fire?
Shanelle: I initially started working in wildland fire to put myself through school. I realized that fire is such a big part of forest management, which has been a passion of mine since high school.
Do you see fire season in California getting worse?
Shanelle: Not necessarily worse, just longer. When we don’t get wet weather in the winters, it makes everything drier and lengthens our season. At this point, Southern California is experiencing a year-round fire season. Ours here in the park has become longer by a month or two already.
The fires surrounding Yosemite, such as the Ferguson Fire, received a lot of attention this past summer (2018). Was this season particularly bad for the park?
Shanelle: It actually wasn’t a lot worse than normal. The Ferguson Fire burned in the Sierra National Forest, not Yosemite. People across the country don’t know the forest by name, so it got attached to Yosemite because of proximity, which is something people understand and care about. I don’t want to say that we predicted the Ferguson Fire, but the area in which it started hadn’t seen fire history in over 200 years. Fire is something that creates renewal for the forests and occurs naturally. The area was one that was ready for fire.
How does fire create renewal for the forests?
Shanelle: Fire is a natural thing. It cleanses the forests. It cleans up dead and downed material that has built up and creates an opening for tree seedlings to take root. What people don’t realize is that fire isn’t always scary. The giant sequoias that you see here in Yosemite? Their seed cones need fires to open and disperse the seeds, which thrive in burnt soil. That’s just one of many ways fire renews and nourishes our beloved forests. It’s a natural part of the ecosystem.
How does Yosemite National Park manage the forests through fires?
Shanelle: We are constantly evaluating the forest. We look at the fire history of an area, what the area needs to thrive and what would happen if, say, a lightning strike started a fire in the wilderness and we let it burn. Especially in the higher elevation wilderness areas, we often let fires that start naturally burn. We carefully watch them, but generally these fires are low intensity and are very healing for the landscape. It’s rarely like the pictures you see of raging wildfires. Yosemite plans for approximately 16,000 fire acres annually. Some of that is from fires starting naturally like a lightning strike. Others are our team prescribing a burn. We are stewards of the land. We want to ensure that Yosemite is a place that generations down the road can enjoy. Ecological vitality, which fire creates, is a huge part of that.
What’s it like being a woman in fire?
Shanelle: I’ve had a great experience in my fire career. There’s always been other women on my crews, and I’ve had many strong and amazing supervisors who have been women. It’s a welcoming environment as a female. It takes grit and integrity to be a wildland firefighter, whether you’re a man or a woman. There are many demands to this job, both physical and mental. I’ve learned I can’t sit on the sidelines. I have to jump in with passion and confidence.
What’s your favorite spot in Yosemite National Park?
Shanelle: Glacier Point. I love watching the sunset there. I live in the Valley, so I don’t get to see the sunset often. It’s so beautiful up there.