Large fires can impact the health of watersheds.
Fire Crew Large fires can impact the health of watersheds. © Alan W. Eckert

Stories in Michigan

What Exactly is a Burn Boss?

A discussion about prescribed fire with Rodolfo Zuniga Villegas

TNC staff participated in a prescribed burn at Ives Road Fen Preserve on May 6th, 2019.
Michigan Burn TNC staff participated in a prescribed burn at Ives Road Fen Preserve on May 6th, 2019. © Rebecca Hagerman/TNC

When people and organizations fight wildfires such as the blazes in Australia or the Western United States, we are often witnessing the final defense against these fierce acts of nature.

These situations give us no choice but to act and act quickly.

However, there are people that start blazes intentionally, with a specific goal to promote a healthy and balanced ecosystem. One of those people is Rodolfo Zuniga Villegas, a restoration associate at The Nature Conservancy in Michigan. He’s also what the fire industry would call a “burn boss."

Burn bosses are individuals that are qualified to plan, organize and execute what are known as “prescribed” or “Rx burns." These are intentional blazes created to manage and restore forest and prairie ecosystems.

In fall and spring, these controlled burns help prevent major fire events from occurring during warmer, dryer months, when overgrowth acts as kindling, igniting wildfires like those witnessed in California and Oregon. 

Villegas says this is because of centuries of fire suppression. 

“In Michigan, we find that low-intensity fires used to occur every six to 10 years in many areas. This meant that there would never be enough material to start a major blaze, since the underbrush would be burnt away before accumulating.”

Villegas states that as humans began settling further into the country, they would suppress these fires due to the havoc they would wreak on pre-Industrial wooden structures.

“This led to an imbalance in the natural cycle of fire."

Humans were moving to areas where fire had been existing for thousands of years, thus altering the ecosystem greatly.

As a trained burn boss, Villegas executes controlled burns in order to rebuild this natural cycle.

The path to certification is not as easy or straightforward as one may imagine. There are various types of qualifications, but the general system can be visualized as a ladder. An individual works up that ladder, involving coursework and specific training at each rung.

Villegas is what is known as RxB3, a prescribed burn boss type 3. At his current level, Villegas can execute low complexity burns with around ten firefighters working with him.

These types of low complexity burns usually mean the risk of fire escaping or growing too large is unlikely, especially with smart planning. Burn bosses like Villegas must plan when and where to deploy their crew, so that the fire can be managed safely and efficiently.

(ALL RIGHTS GRANTED TNC, CREDIT MANDATORY). Sharon Ruble Tract, Fay Lake, Prescribed Burn April 2017.  Photo Credit:  © Chris May/The Nature Conservancy
Sharon Ruble Burn Sharon Ruble Tract prescribed burn © Chris May

Numerous factors influence how and when a burn should be implemented. Everything from humidity to the maximum wind speed on a given day has an effect and must be taken into careful consideration by the burn boss.

“The burn boss is directly responsible for the fire and must prioritize safety for their crew and for the surrounding communities.”

The system maxes out at RxB1, meaning Villegas can take more training to move up to larger, more intensive controlled burns.

It takes years to train to be a burn boss, but the experience can be extremely worthwhile according to Villegas.

“Knowing that our work is having a restorative impact, and that we are preventing a major fire event from happening in the future is deeply rewarding. You can see the impact in just a few weeks. When I return to a burn area just days after and see the green sprouting from the ground, it makes me smile.”