California's New Certified Burn Boss Certification Travel Grant

Final report for ESP20-02

Project Type: Enhanced State Grants
Funds awarded in 2020: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G347-20-W7904
Grant Recipient: University of California Cooperative Extension
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Jeffrey Stackhouse
University of California Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


Prescribed fire is well recognized as a cost-effective and uniquely beneficial land management tool, with utility for range management, ecological restoration, fuels reduction, wildlife habitat enhancement, and more. In California, most prescribed burn has historically happened on federal lands, and private lands burning was largely planned and overseen by CAL FIRE through their Vegetation Management Program (VMP). After decades of decline, the VMP is now expanding, and CAL FIRE has made major investments to meet their statewide prescribed fire goals. Nonetheless, this state program alone cannot meet the demand from landowners. This landowner demand has created a training need for private prescribed fire practitioners to meet CAL FIRE requirements to lead community-based burns on private lands under shared liability with CAL FIRE to reduce this bottleneck (as required by SB1260). California Senate Bill 1260 recently mandated CAL FIRE to create a state certified burner program by 2020, but the main limitation is that only graduates of the first state certified burn boss course can teach subsequent courses, creating an immediate bottleneck in the availability of the course. For this project, we proposed providing travel scholarships for professionals within CAL FIRE, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension, agriculturalists, and other organizations that work extensively with prescribed fire to attend week-long California State Certified Burn Boss training to become certified burners/educators for the state and empower them as leaders and educators of the state certified burner courses. This grant was modeled after PDP travel scholarships to conferences where key Certified Burn Boss educators and class organizers could obtain travel support to host these courses across the state. 

Project Objectives:

The challenge in our work as extension professionals is to nurture the next generation of great prescribed fire practitioners, using a fine balance of inspiration, training, and regulation to get where we need to go. This certified burner program is a huge opportunity to change the norm in California, but there are bottlenecks that must be widened to make change beyond lofty agency goals. Through this Enhanced State PDP Project, we increased capacity for resource management-driven prescribed fire on private lands in California. Specifically, we:

  • We worked in collaboration with collaborators across the state to (CAL FIRE, NRCS, Cooperative Extension, California Deer Association, California Cattlemen’s Association, and especially the California Prescribed Burn Association), develop a list of current prescribed fire practitioners that have the interest and drive to be community leaders/educators in their regions that we wanted to target as educators and attendees to the second generation of Certified Burn Boss courses in California in 2022.
  • We recruited a cadre from the first California certified burn boss graduation list to lead the second state certified burner classes (with the list of strategically identified individuals aforementioned from partner agencies/groups) in partnership with the principal investigators. Cadre members had expertise in fuels management, incident command centers, fire behavior, and have familiarity with programs and policies that enable prescribed fire on private lands.
  • Provided opportunities for travel funds to individuals (exclusively offered to unpaid, volunteer instructors), either from the first or second graduating class, to serve as instructors for more locally-coordinated efforts across the state to create a third cohort of certified burners.

This project served as a pilot to explore future opportunities and models of seed funding for trainings across the state for the certified burn boss program. Since these limited funds were matched with volunteer time of highly qualified trainers and educators, we are hopeful that it can serve as an example to CAL FIRE that we can get a lot of training to the prescribed burners of California with little cost, hopefully stimulating a small annual budget to continue this work. 


Prescribed fire is well recognized as a cost-effective and uniquely beneficial land management tool, with utility for sustainable range management, ecological restoration, fuels reduction, wildlife habitat enhancement, ecosystem resiliency, and more. In California’s fire-adapted landscape, prescribed fire offers one of the most viable and ecologically appropriate pathways for landscape-scale management of resource concerns like woody encroachment, infestations of late season invasive species, and fuels accumulations. However, the use of prescribed fire has largely been limited to federal lands in California, where managers have the funding, resources, and expertise to plan and implement projects, and private landowners have had to rely on agency partners (and regulatory oversight) in order to utilize prescribed fire as a tool. Then came the 2017 fire season and with it, a surge of political interest in fire that propelled things in unprecedented ways. California Senate Bill 1260 was signed into law in fall 2018 and focused explicitly on prescribed fire, including development of a state-led training and certification program for private prescribed fire burn bosses. 


Increasing interest and demand from landowners has been an overwhelmingly positive development, yet it has also created a steep learning curve for new agency staff, and therefore, an opportunity for partnerships that enable prescribed fire-specific professional development and capacity building. These needs are not limited to CAL FIRE (our state’s fire suppression agency); similar demands and needs have also become common among staff within Cooperative Extension (CE), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other organizations. Among these groups, there is a clear need for training on how to best use prescribed fire to promote sustainable and effective management on private lands. Now we have the opportunity through SB1260 to not only train private, agency, and nonprofit prescribed fire professionals to be California certified burn bosses, but those individuals successful in completing the course will have the benefit of shared liability (up to 75%) with CAL FIRE for the burns they lead with common community members and agriculturalists across California.


Unfortunately, the California certified burn boss training is a week-long course, creating an economic burden for attendees and volunteer trainers. Agencies, NGOs, and private professionals alike have limited capacity and funding to support interested attendees to attend this course. Furthermore, although mandated with best intentions to meet demands for rigor within the program itself, the certified burner program immediately faces an immediate bottleneck, as only successful graduates of the course will be able to instruct future courses; therefore, the first class must teach the second, so on, and so forth. With time, there should be ample instructors across the state, but the initial lift of the attendees of the first few classes continues to be a big ask. This grant reduced the financial burden of these early leaders who were willing to take-on the burden of educating community leaders, agriculturalists, and volunteer fire department practitioners in California. We continue to build a foundation of community-based collaboration of using fire to improve the economic viability and safety of rural communities in our fire-prone state. The development of this certification and the growing community of graduates to available to assist with future courses due to the support from this project will continue to provide benefits to Californians well into the future. Since 2018, bills continue to flow through the legislative channels to support prescribed fire in California and a substantial proportion of those legislative benefits to prescribed fire practitioners are tied to the California State Certified Burner program. This project could not have had better timing to support the initial momentum of this emerging statewide program and the future benefits it will provide the west. 


Educational approach:

The development committee for the Certified Burn Boss Program met numerous times in 2020 to receive updates from the state's fire agency on the progress of approval for the Certified Burn Boss program, but due to COVID, delays resulted in no approved program by which to Certify burners who have taken the course. Early in 2021 we received a No Cost Extension for this project. In September of 2021 California State Fire Training approved the curriculum for the project and in April and December of 2022, the first two California State Certified Burn Boss classes were open to the public (maximum of 30 attendees each) and this funding supported travel for the CO-PI to attend each of these classes as the host/co-trainer and for 9 additional, unpaid trainers/attendees, who are statewide leaders in prescribed fire to assist in teaching the 2022 classes. In 2023, one additional Certified Burn Boss course was taught by past attendees and the CO-PI. 


This California Certified Burn Boss Course is very much a train-the-trainer model, but is accompanied by the bureaucratic red-tape of CAL FIRE and the California State Fire Training. As such, this is not a standard extension activity and requires many additional courses and expertise and experience in fire prior to taking the course. Hopefully, the regulatory burdens can continue to diminish as the program matures and the total number of certified burners continues to grow across California. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

April & December 2022 Certified Bun Boss Courses

Recruit geographically disperse class instructors and participants


Final approval of the Certified burn boss class occurred late summer of 2022. We will initiated outreach for participants late in 2021 for the April 2022 course in Eureka, CA. We first extended invitations to the most notable regional leaders of Prescribed Burn Associations and other private burn groups (including fire contractors) across the state that were the most active members of the California Prescribed Burn Association and the California Prescribed Fire Council. For both the April and December course, we had and overwhelmingly positive response from the prescribed fire leaders across the state and both classes had waiting lists long enough to where we had alternates for each person signed up for the course. 


Upon completion of the course, no matter their experience level, participants were assigned task-books that they then had to obtain signatures from state and federal practitioners to vouge for their past qualifications/experiences before being accepted by the State Fire Marshall. After obtaining all required signatures, the Class Certification and task books were submitted to the state, and within 3-6 months, certificates were mailed, affording the class graduates the liability and insurance benefits afforded to them as State Certified Burners in California. 

Outcomes and impacts:

The in-person courses consisted of 40-hours of classroom and field practicum. Participants were tested at the end of the week-long course and had to pass with a 70% success or higher. Unfortunately, some individuals were unable to meet the testing requirements at the end of the course. 

Topics included, but were not limited to: fire weather, fire behavior, fire leadership, incident command system, first aide, California fire law, air quality regulations, burn planning, smoke management planning, fire ecology, range and forest ecology, burn objectives, post-fire monitoring, fire modeling, and more. 


Learning Outcomes

60 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
60 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
60 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
2 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

We were able to host 2 courses in 2022 where 11 professionals' travel were funded through this project to offset their costs to attending these courses as attendees and trainers. Since we were recruiting the state's most knowledgeable and experienced fire practitioners for these first 2 events, with the purpose of training them to become trainers of the same course into the future, all of the attendees also contributed to teaching small portions of each course. . . truly a train-the-trainer model with the best fire practitioners in the state. Each of the two courses was capped at 30 participants per State Fire Training Center regulations. 


California is really showing a desire to lead the west in changing liability standards. Hopefully other western states follow the path of decreased liability for the private prescribed fire practitioner and prescribed fire continues to increase in utility across the western states. 

Face of SARE

Face of SARE:

We will be sure to incorporate the WSARE label in all programs and handouts to participants and that logo will persist into future meetings and trainings for the California Certified Burner handouts. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.