ALL RIGHT NOW

This Is Not a Drill

Thea Carlson prepares herself and others for the next blaze.

March 2024

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Thea Carlson fighting a wildfire

IN HER BACKYARD: Carlson fights fire with fire in her community and beyond. Photo: Ian A. Nelson

Many of the towering firs that surround Monan’s Rill, a 50-year-old collaborative community in rural Sonoma County, are now bare. “All those trees up there that have no green on them burned,” says Thea Carlson, ’03, motioning toward the charred treetops. “Enough to kill them.”

Beginning on September 27, 2020, the Glass Fire ravaged Sonoma County for 23 days. It destroyed 12 of the 13 homes on the Rill, sparing only Carlson and her wife’s. Most of the community’s 414 acres burned, including gardens, fields, forests, and buildings. Some 40 chickens died, two beehives were destroyed, and three goats were hospitalized because of burns.

Carlson, who has lived on the Rill since 2015, soon left her job as executive director of an agricultural nonprofit and committed herself to studying wildfire resilience and fire ecology. “My mom raised me with a really strong environmental ethic,” she says. “After the fire, a lot of people left, and I wanted to be able to more directly take care of the land.” She resolved to earn her wildland firefighter qualification so she could participate in prescribed burns. In addition to passing a knowledge test, she had to march three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds of weight. “I’d never run a marathon or done any sort of training for a thing before,” Carlson says. “I’d managed to skip PE in pretty much all my schooling.”

‘It felt hopeful to learn skills to try to cope with wildfire.’

But her natural inclination, says her wife, E Harris, is to face problems head-on. Carlson next created a course on fire-resilient landscaping at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she also co-leads a wildfire resilience internship program to teach students the basics of controlled burns, such as how to handle a chainsaw to clear brush, and of restoration-focused planting. “It felt hopeful to learn skills to try to cope with wildfire,” says Becca Williams, one of Carlson’s interns. “Thea has really thrown herself into using fire not just to help her own land but also other people’s.”

Carlson is also coordinating opportunities for Indigenous Californians to perform burns on their ancestral lands through the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance. And she’s nearly done with the requirements to become a state-certified prescribed burn boss. “This is needed to help keep our community safe,” she says, “but it’s also needed to help these ecosystems adapt in the face of climate change.”


Joseph Sarmenta, ’25, is a former editorial intern at Stanford. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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