Erasing the Lines on Wildfire in Reno, NV: The 2017 WUI Conference

Chief Of U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell adresses attendees at the 2017 IAFC’s WUI conference. Ken Pimlott, Director of Cal Fire on right.

Dear Peppermill Resort and Casino: Thank you for hosting the 15th annual Wildland Urban Interface Conference recently in Reno Nevada. Your confusing hallways, over-abundance of mirrors, psychedelic carpeting, lack of windows, low ceilings, and stifling warm air were all appreciated and no doubt helped me seek refuge at the Blackjack table. However, you did allow me the rare opportunity to be in the same room with some of the leaders within this wildland fire community I will probably never again have the privilege to interact with, including Chief of the U.S. Forest Service – Tom Tidwell, Director of Cal Fire – Ken Pimlott, Director of the Nature Conservancy – Chris Topik, a whole bushel of Type One Incident Commanders, and all the top names in between. And I’m ever-grateful for being able to escape from your two-card Blackjack-trap 800 dollars ahead. This has allowed me to give my fiancé 200 dollars for clothes shopping, art supplies, health powders like Moringa, or whatever else she decides to buy with money she wasn’t expecting to have. Meanwhile, I’ve been browsing eBay in search of a large arbor fly reel, a spey rod, and things not possible without your Blackjack table. A sincere thank you..

This conference was out of my element. Being the youngest person in a room of a few hundred big league’ers by 10, 20, 35 years is humbling. This group of people was so far ahead in their career; they had taken a direction within wildland fire I had yet to even ponder. At the boots-on-the-ground level, we’re often asked to plan out where we see ourselves in 5 years, to incorporate training schedules, to identify goals and establish alignment. Where do I see myself in 20 though? 30?

On Day 1 of the official conference I attended two sessions: 1) A Grassroots Approach to Fire Adaptedness: Local Success Stories, and 2) Wildfire Knows No Boundaries, Do You? A Panel Discussion From Leadership. I heard talk from the Fire Adaptedness session community members about what they were doing to spread the concept of creating fire adapted communities, including “educating the public”, forming needle pick-up days, and establishing a chipping program, whereby local residents can make their property more fire adapted without having the burden of disposing the vegetation removed. The overall impression I had from this session was that to accomplish anything on a large scale, community-wide, neighborhood-wide, landscape-wide, etc., the “red tape” and political/social/economic and invisible barriers had to come down. Creating these fire adapted communities, or attempting to contribute effort towards doing so, brings separate houses of people into a community, helps form a community, or elaborates on a community already in place. “A community isn’t a housing development, it’s the people inside them working together with others” I heard said.

The Panel Discussion From Leadership was surreal. Being a part of a large federal organization, I never forecasted myself actually hearing them talk in person. I think this is because our responsibilities are so different, that to have our circles coincide is at times unimaginable. It was difficult not to become a bit frustrated during this session, as it felt like we were enduring nothing but broad generalities concerning the aims, goals, and speculations from the boss’s of the major players in wildland fire; it felt more akin to a press release than speeches or discussions among a crowd of like-minded people. What I appreciated were the frank questions from the audience to the U.S. Forest Service Chief, and his subsequent calm-under-pressure responses. This session got me thinking about leadership and how – in the world of policy and the political climate of overseeing a large organization, responsible for lots of territory and budgetary demands – leadership qualities and characteristics take on a very different manifestation. The machismo in this room was less about how many cuss words can fit inside one sentence, how big-a-tree you can fell, tactical competencies, and the physical act of firefighting.

After this session I found a Firewise hat giveaway in the Exhibit Hall, skipped the free fried tater tots, eating a couple waffle fries instead, and skipped prime rib and the open bar to leave the Peppermill for a preferred carne asada burrito at a nearby joint called Yesenias. The overall environment of the WUI conference can be disorienting, lacking footing in reality. You move between hearing the Chief of the Forest Service talk about the future of wildland fire and a plate of waffle fries, wildland fire salesmen trying to interest you in a Wateraxe, sunglasses, or new Nomex, and then blur it all together with a trip through the disorienting maze of casino, slot machines, poker tables and chainsmokers. By the time the night is over and you’re laying in your bed watching a reality television show about uneducated people living the back-to-the-land life for millions of viewers, you start to get dizzy. If you can re-read your notes, pop a couple tylenol pm and fall asleep, maybe Day 2 and 3 will bring it together, maybe tomorrow there will be more guiding light.

Day 2 and Day 3: Repeat.

The underlying message for this year was working together. Getting rid of boundaries. Making connections, establishing working relationships with people outside your agency, neighborhood, community, state, and comfort zone. I think about where I am with my job, with my efforts and my local sphere of influence and consider how effective I’m being, or not. What relationships have I started or failed to, and why? What is preventing me from taking that first step towards contributing on a more meaningful level within this community of fire, in life? Yeah, I don’t know that I gleaned the same level of comprehension as those more suited to receive what this conference had to offer, but somewhere in there I found more fuel and inspiration to continue down this road.

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