Fueled by Balance Meet Sami Schinnell

Early in their careers, Sami Schinnell, director of cooperative fires at TNC in Washington, and her teammates burned a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, a routine land maintenance. From afar, his boss shouted: “Hey Sami! Take the drip burners and turn on the other side of the street.”Sami was confused because the road offered a limit to the spread of the fire. She wondered about her responsibility to keep part of the country intact. After the fire, she asked her boss for his instructions. She remembers saying: “A hundred year ago, this road would not have been here. This would not have been an obstacle to the spread of the fire. Of course, the fire would have burned here.”His boss spoke the language of before, when the human relationship with fire was balanced, less restricted and motivated by a healthy respect.

After decades of implementing repressive measures that approached fire with, wildland in the United States, like Schinnell, are looking for a more balanced relationship between land and fire. Schinnell joined TNC in the winter of 2022 and I sat down to talk to Sami about her work with Prescribed Burning.

In a large-scale “living laboratory”, TNC and its partners combine forest restoration, Ecological fire and applied science on a 10,000-acre area on the Cle Elum Ridge in the Central Cascades region of Washington State.

These efforts and the landscape help us better understand how research combined with restoration can improve forest health, increase community resilience to wildfires, support water security in our state’s most polluted basin, and improve community access to nature. More importantly, much of what we are learning can be applied on a large scale to address the wildfire crisis in the western United States.

You are an experienced firefighter with 26 seasons of both fire suppression and prescribed ing under your belt. How did you come to use fire as a means of maintaining and restoring land?

I didn’t have a career in mind when I started as a wildland firefighter. Work ticked a few boxes – making money and being active. It quickly became an addiction, I would say. The adrenaline of being by the fire attracts. I like the ability to work hard with a group of people to achieve a common goal. I love the camaraderie, the hard work and sleeping face down on the ground. After working in firefighting for a while, I quickly realized that my core value was more focused on forest ecology. I was introduced to prescribed burning when I started working for the forest service and I found out that prescribed burning is what I want to do.

Did You Say Addiction? What are you trying to imply?

Well, yes. I mean that in the most positive way. Keep this in mind when sitting around a campfire. How many times are you completely fascinated by this? If you’re like me, you could just stare at this thing all day. It consumes everything and helps me to be present. True, a campfire is very different from a forest fire or a prescribed fire. Whatever it is, it attracts you — whether it is small or when multiplied over thousands of acres.

It’s so relatable! Tell me; how did you get to TNC and what is exciting about your current position?

In 2009, I attended a mandatory fire training exchange (TREX) in Nebraska. TREX training started with the Conservation agency. Jeremyey, Director of prescribed Marksmanship Training at TNC, is TREX’s father. I was allowed to go to one of the first courses, where I was introduced to conservation — its Mission and its prescribed fire program.

In December 2022, I started my position as director of cooperative fires at TNC. This means that I can support an “all hands, all countries” approach to using prescribed fire to achieve land management objectives. I work with all interested parties — from state and federal agencies to NGOs and tribes to private landowners -to help connect needs with their solutions. We are trying to identify the landscapes and communities most exposed to the negative effects of forest fires and to develop action plans to reduce these. It involves a lot of relationship building, education and training, site visits and planning; it is extremely satisfying when all this translates into a safe and successful prescribed relationship with the partners.

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