Photo Credit: UCCE Rx fire team Shaver Lake burn, November 6th 2019. Photo by Susie Kocher.
This month, we connected with Susie Kocher, Forestry & Natural Resources Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, to learn more about her role connecting community members to research-based information and education about forest and fire management. We were excited to learn more about Susie’s prescribed fire work with landowners in California and some of her more recent wildfire risk reduction projects and partnerships. Enjoy a ‘day in the life’ with Susie!
Jessica: First things first: Please tell us about your role with Cooperative Extension in California and where your job takes you!
Susie: Well, like most people, right now my job takes me into my spare bedroom to work in my home office and not many other places. But back in the before times, my job took me to forested areas around the state to host workshops on forest management, prescribed burns, wildfire recovery, defensible space and home hardening. As an extension forester, my job is to connect the University of California and research-based information to local communities. That means I conduct applied research, outreach and education about forest management issues for communities in the Sierra Nevada. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve already been doing this work for 24 years, first in Plumas county in the northern Sierra and now in the central Sierra Nevada. I guess time flies when you’re having fun.
Jessica: Can you tell us more about the region?
Susie: The central Sierra Nevada is home to beautiful forests, oak woodlands, grasslands and many rural and suburban communities with a high wildfire hazard. Tourism, recreation and second home ownership are major economic sectors as we are within striking distance of Sacramento, Reno and the Bay area. We still have a basic (though declining) amount of wood product industries and businesses, including viable mills and biomass facilities. And we have a vibrant agricultural sector with laid back wineries that mean you never really need to go to Napa for your enology fix. I’ve lived in South Lake Tahoe for the last 14 years.
Jessica: Given we are in the midst of a pandemic and we anticipate new social distancing protocols in the field, how are you adapting your summer project work connecting with the community?
Susie: Like in most regions, most of our regular in person educational events have been pushed on-line. My partners have been encouraging people who are stuck at home to work within that sphere. We are seeing a huge uptick in enthusiasm for gardening and other home-based pursuits so we’ve all been trying to insert fire preparedness messages into those new pursuits.
I’ve also gotten involved with a Converge working group funded by the National Science Foundation based at the University of Colorado on cascading disasters that will be focused on wildfire preparedness and evacuation during a pandemic. We will be conducting interviews to document how communities in California and Colorado are implementing wildfire preparedness activities during the pandemic. I look forward to learning from local practitioners about how they are adapting their activities and then sharing that with my local clientele.
Jessica: Have you always been interested in this work or was there a catalyst that led you to focus on fire-adapted work?
Susie: Yes, but I didn’t get really involved until 2007 when the Angora fire burned through South Lake Tahoe and destroyed 250 homes, starting about ½ mile from my house. That was a big year for me. I still had a home in Plumas county and got to witness the start of the Moonlight fire and the Stream fire that same summer. I decided that all those pyro cumulus clouds were trying to tell me something and so I listened. I’ve been working mostly on fire issues ever since.
Jessica: It sounds like your personal experience with fire helped set the stage for your future work helping communities better live and understand fire. How do you approach learning and leading with fire these days?
Susie: I approach working with landowners and communities as a convener, helping to gather people together to share knowledge and strategies for wildfire risk reduction. Communities have a lot of expertise in the issues they care about. Scientists can also help answer some questions through the knowledge gained through more formal research processes. In my role with Extension, I can focus on bringing these two together to help people learn what they need to do and organize themselves to reduce wildfire risk or recover from wildfire on their own property.
Jessica: Your work takes you to a wide range of communities. Can you share one or two fire-adapted projects that you’ve participated in recently?
Susie: Yes! I currently have a contract with CalFire to host forest stewardship workshops throughout the state of California. For this project we started in 2020 hosting in-person (now on-line) stewardship workshops for landowners helping them identify their forest management goals, as most consider the threat of wildfire their biggest concern. And then we develop a forest management plan to reduce their risk. We are able to help them set up an initial site visit with a Registered Professional Forester to finalize their plan so they can apply for cost share programs to help manage their forest.
Another project this year is working with my local Tahoe Resource Conservation District and my extension colleagues from UC and the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Living with Fire program to develop a Home Retrofit Guide for the Tahoe Basin. The guide will help homeowners and building professionals learn about retrofits that can reduce the ignitability of their homes. We’ll be doing workshops, now virtual, later this summer with these audiences.
Jessica: Those both sound like really great community education projects! Please keep us updated on the Home Retrofit Guide, as I imagine this product will translate well for other communities interested in reducing fire risk. Another community project I’ve heard a lot about are the hands-on, experiential ‘learn and burns’. And word is, you’re the Learn and Burn guru! How do you approach working with private landowners using live-fire on their forests and grasslands?
Susie: Aha! Yes, I have been hosting prescribed fire on private lands workshops in my region for the last three years. This has been probably the most rewarding project I’ve ever organized. People are so excited to learn about how to use prescribed fire as a management tool! In California, like in most of the West, we are pretty much starting from scratch as most of the knowledge of how to use good fire has been lost.
We got started with our first workshops in the Sierra through the mentoring of my most awesome UC colleague from Humboldt county, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, back in 2017. Since then we’ve been able to expand and host our own workshops all through the Sierra Nevada. A ‘learn and burn’ workshop is one where we are doing instruction in prescribed fire (with concepts like burn planning, permitting, prescribed fire as a management tool, fire weather and fire behavior, air quality and smoke management, burn plan development, unit preparation, tools and equipment). Then we go out together with participants and do a burn together, making sure everyone gets to handle the drip torch and have time doing both holding and ignition. If you want to know more about these workshops, you can check them out here.
The key to our success so far has been working with partners who are supporters of good fire and have a location that will allow us to bring others on site and let them participate in a burn. So far those have been larger landowners, including Berkeley Forests – the research forest system of the University of California Berkeley, and Southern California Edison – at their Shaver Lake property near Fresno.
We did have smaller landowners ready to burn and host others this spring, but sadly we had to cancel all our spring workshops that were scheduled in person for March and April. My amazing colleagues from Mariposa county reorganized these workshops into an online format. You can check out the workshop recordings. Though it was disappointing to not be able to host an actual demonstration burn, we were able to reach a very broad audience and many new people in this new on-line format.
I also need to credit my awesome extension colleagues, Jenn Fawcett and Laurel Kays from North Carolina State. They put together a guide on how to host learn and burns that has been super helpful in my planning and figuring out how to host these events in my region.
Jessica: You’ve shared many great ways to connect with community members and landowners through a fire-learning lens — it’s inspiring! Do participants tend to share your initial excitement during their first prescribed burn?
Susie: I feel really fortunate to be in a position where I am involved in the latest research on wildfire and forests and yet also able to work with people on community based-problems. Helping people learn about how to get where they want to go gets me jazzed to keep going. People have really loved getting to experience good fire for themselves. I find that they seem concerned and nervous about the flames and smoke in front of them for maybe the first 15 minutes or so. After that, it just seems like a normal and obvious tool we should be using.
Jessica: It’s awesome to hear about these program successes and how partnerships have played a big role in your work. Are there any particular lessons you’ve learned along the way that you’d be willing to share with others trying to get past initial humps or project setbacks?
- Don’t try too hard to control who should be learning with you and when. I did try for years to host events for different segments of targeted audiences, but very rarely successfully. For example, the educational workshop this week is for landowners and the one next week is for agencies. No matter who the workshop is aimed at, we always get a wide variety of people who come according to their needs and schedules and we welcome everyone. Diversity of experience is a strength and people end up learning a lot from each other. Trust people to know best what they need to learn and when.
- Keep at it. If you offer educational opportunities steadily, year after year, the word gets out and people who couldn’t come last time will come next time. Advertise batches of events together so people can work one into their schedule. Prescribed fire use and knowledge has been suppressed for about 100 years, it’s going to take a while to make significant progress. This is going to take steady work over many years.
- Don’t take no for an answer. You don’t need the permission of every agency or influential person in your community who is not sympathetic with the good fire message to move forward. Find the other prescribed fire advocates in your area, figure out what skills you have together as a team and then share them with your community. Nothing succeeds like success and good fire doubters will eventually come around.
Jessica: And last, but certainly not least — when you’re not wearing your Extension hat, how do you spend your time?
Susie: Right now I’ve got my husband and two college aged offspring, aged 18 and 21, sheltering in place with me so I find I’m doing a lot of cooking! My veggie garden is probably the most developed ever and we are hoping our first brood of domesticated quail hatch any day. We’ve also had lovely walks, bike rides and canoeing within the local area. Back when we all used to leave the house I liked to go sailing, backpacking and traveling. Hopefully we’ll be doing that again someday.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your work with us, Susie!
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