Forest Fire Resiliency and School Shootings

The Umpqua Forestry Coalition is a “broad-based, community group that advocates for forest management activities on public lands in Douglas County, Oregon” (taken from their website http://www.umpquafc.org/).  Last night they (the UFC) hosted a public forum pertaining to a project which has been in the works over the last few years called the Calf/Copeland Restoration Project. The USFS summarizes the project as follows:

“This project would restore habitat for legacy trees including sugar pine, ponderosa pine and white oak, and increase landscape resiliency to uncharacteristic fire, pest and pathogens. “https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=46990

The evening was preluded by a 107 minute drive from my house, a brief hundred dollar donation to Seven Feathers Casino, and some boneless chicken wings from Safeway.  As I left the Burg (AKA Roseburg) and made my way North on HWY 99 towards Umpqua Community College I reflected on the school shooting which occurred one and a half years ago.  The shooter (who I will refrain from naming, because as I recall he was drawn towards violent action by the lure of “limelight”) killed nine other people before shooting himself in the head.  I was in Roseburg running work errands for the forest while the shooting took place.  Multiple people on our forest had personal ties to the school, and we collectively were given the afternoon for personal leave/reflection. Most of the guys I rode around in a fire truck with or worked on the crew with played ultimate frisbee or went fishing.

It has affected me in unnamable ways. I cannot enter a school or large room of people without remembering that day, where I was, how close I was to what happened. I remember the controversy surrounding the aftermath, how president Obama wanted to visit to express condolences and how, being a second amendment adhering town, was reluctant to allow it.  At the time Obama was pushing for tighter gun control measures and many thought he was using the tragedy to push his agenda, rather than helping a community grapple with such large scale tragedy.

So as I pulled into the parking lot to get directions for the Public Forum concerning a forestry project directly related to my chosen profession, I was in a reflective state, somewhere in the past. I scanned the campus roof tops and bizarre building architecture, somehow projecting dark brooding sentiment on inanimate building materials.

The night was broken into a neat, organized structure, which allowed for 30 minutes of sandwiches, gossip, catching up and relentless handshaking, followed by three speakers, a bathroom break, and a Q&A to close.

Once again, as previously experienced in my trip to the IAFC conference in Reno, I was the youngest person in the room.  Everyone seemed to know each other which was at odds with the idea of getting the public involved.  But Roseburg is a smallish community, so it’s possible to throw a bunch of interested citizens in a room and find most know each other. This was more than that though – my impression was that most of the people present were somehow involved with the project already, whether directly contributing towards it’s development, or working for an agency somehow affected by it (as I was). It felt lacking in public engagement.

The presentation by all three speakers boiled down to the all-too-familiar “decades of suppression has led to this horrible situation…”  As a joke, a Professor from OSU began his presentation by saying “My name is…..and I too have suppressed fire.”  As if fire suppression were alcoholism or a drug addiction. He re-emphasized this stance during his speech, by presenting the audience with a visual showing the pathology of fire suppression.

Related to a book I’m currently reading for this years Wildland Fire Leadership Development Readers Challenge by Stephen Pyne,“Between Two Fires”, was this dilemma we as a country face with regards to land management, fire regimes, ecology and fire resilient landscapes, along with the overall forest health.

The Professor’s joke about fire suppression got me thinking about this book and how in the west we still often don’t know how to implement “Good Fire”. You can hear it in the skepticism among employees, still “suppressing the fire” as part of their job, but in many ways bemoaning the action, questioning it, as in “why in the shit are we putting out this snag fire in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere?” And also in the eagerness for prescribed fire among employees, followed by the usual crash of anticipation when we find out once again there is only one or two smallish burns scheduled. Sure, we are wildland firefighters, but we want to be fire practitioners, too.

This Forestry Forum resembled another project I am familiar with in Oregon called the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.  I’ve walked some of the ground with Chris Chambers of the Ashland Fire Department, whereby he gave myself and a crowd of people the pitch of what they were doing, why they were doing, it and how they were doing it. The big takeaway was how the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project was able to effectively implement a project in a tree-hugging town like Ashland. How does a community once harboring earth-first advocates and people who drop everything to go sling a hammock 100 feet in the air to save a tree, permit such active management in their backyard? Public awareness.

This UFC forum was another strand of public awareness, even if the majority of the people present were required to care, for the sake of their jobs. By getting the questions and concerns and arguments out in the open during Planning, and maintaining the discussion throughout the project and beyond, the chances of mishaps, of things going south, diminish. It’s a lot like being a contractor: In order to ensure the customer (or where a big chunk of ground is concerned, the public) is happy when all is said and done, you have to be in constant communication during the project – Roseburg is less likely to gripe about air quality if they understand the benefits of restoring fire and creating fire resilient watersheds. There’s going to be less outrage over mechanical treatments if everybody understands why it makes sense with the topography, not to mention the nitty gritty financials.

What I realized after attending this forum was the necessity of establishing working relationships with people outside of fire suppression. In order to understand our mission as Fire Management, we have to understand the what and why and how of management, which requires an understanding of those who influence management. This was made clear by the Speaker who talked about the Spotted Owl, and how the project pertained to helping preserve habitat otherwise lost to the aimlessness of 21st ecological management. By getting key ‘ologists’ , fire managers, all agencies involved, local stakeholders, landowners and public at large together on your forest, park, etc., and hashing out reasonable ways to find solutions everybody can be proud of at the end of the day (and actually acting on them), that’s how we reduce some of the bureaucratic nonsense plaguing our society. I don’t know. GS4 rant/food for thought.

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