Forestry Third-Year Student and Volunteer Firefighter Chanel Keller Fights Fire with Fire
Chanel Keller, third-year, forestry and natural resources major
Keller (third from left) during training with the cultural
fire exchange with the Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk tribes.
Cal Poly third-year forestry and natural resources major Chanel Keller manages to balance her rigorous academic career with work as a volunteer firefighter/EMT for Mid Coast Fire Brigade in Monterey County, California.
“I have worked in fire suppression for five years,” Keller said. “My fire chief, Cheryl Goetz, suggested that I take my love of fire and plants and work toward a bachelor’s degree in forestry. I also work for and am a member of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County, apprenticing under the wings of Tribal Chairman and Chief Tom ‘Little Bear’ Nason, who has experienced 47 seasons of fire suppression, fire mimicry and traditional ecological knowledge.
“My work with our tribe focuses on cultural burning by preserving and continuing application of traditional ecological knowledge to resource management, including protecting 1,000-year-old redwoods, 800-plus-year-old ‘grandmother oaks,’ and cultural sites,” Keller continued. “We recently acquired 1,200 acres atop our ancestral sacred lands in Palo Colorado Canyon, where I live, work with my tribe and volunteer with Mid Coast Fire Brigade. I am using my degree to help my community by sharing my knowledge of fire behavior to attempt to limit damage to our area that has been caused by allowing fuels to build up in surrounding areas. I will also use my degree to facilitate a cultural fire program for our ancestral lands, create a fire break and protect our watersheds and steelhead trout, as well as protect endangered plant species.”
Keller with daughter, Kit Coyote.
Keller said that creating a healthier forest surrounding the wildland urban interface is critical. “The Colorado fire near Big Sur that took place on Jan. 21, 2022, was a wake-up call to our community,” she said. “This winter fire demonstrates how fire season in California is now year-round. Even when we try to do all the right things, fires can escape us with devastating results that affect not only residents, but also upwell the lives of firefighters, displace animals, shift the local native flora and allow invasive species to fill the vacant areas.”
“The Colorado fire burned over 600 acres and threatened the Mid Coast community,” Keller continued. “It was fueled by high winds and vegetation, despite the fire occurring out of ‘fire season’ and homeowners taking all the necessary precautions. Our area is under constant threat due to drought and climate change. Our community and my tribe realized that we need to take steps now to mitigate fire risk in our fire prone area of the chapparal. Our tribe is in the process of beginning a fuels-reduction project as well as putting ‘good fire’ to the ground in 2023 and working with multiple organizations. My role in these organizations will shift as my education and trainings allow. I am both a fire suppression firefighter and an apprentice cultural tribal burner. My hope is that our tribe can use fire as a tool to shape our environment to benefit the ecosystem, protect our neighbors and preserve our cultural heritage.”
Find out more information about the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County and the cultural fire program at https://www.esselentribe.org/
Read more stories in the Summer 2022 Newsletter