Editors’ Note: Recently FAC Net got a chance to catch up with Ashley Blazina, the Community Wildlife Preparedness Coordinator with the Washington Department of Natural Resources in their Forest Health and Resiliency Division. Ashley works across the state of Washington focusing on coordinating and collaborating with communities on wildfire preparedness and adaptation. Ashley is also very active with the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC) and through this work brings a wealth of knowledge and a holistic approach to her position in the state agency which she feels is essential to better serving all Washingtonians. Dive into the world of Ashley Blanzina and take a tour across Washington in this Day in the Life!
FAC Net: Tell us about yourself! What is your role with Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR)?
Ashley: My title is Community Wildfire Preparedness Coordinator – I work with a lot of cities, counties, organizations and people. Coordination is key to my role, meaning I help to coordinate different resources such as educational and learning opportunities (like webinars), as well as connecting people with each other for potential knowledge exchange opportunities. For example, a community may be having challenges developing evacuation routes given their limited road network and the variety of neighboring landowners. I would connect this community with a community that went through a similar challenge, so that that first community isn’t starting from square one. There’s almost always someone who’s gone through a similar challenge, so a lot of my job is figuring out ways for folks to not reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. Sometimes, communities don’t always have the resources needed to be properly fire prepared so I will work with them to identify those gaps, and resource needs.
My focus is the entire state. There is a marked difference between western Washington and eastern Washington. In eastern Washington there are a number of different partners and programs that are devoted to wildfire preparedness, so my role is more often helping folks connect, establish alliances and encourage collaboration. In western Washington, I have a more active, on-the-ground role because wildfire isn’t as commonly talked about and folks haven’t been as directly impacted by fire beyond smoke, though that did change this past season. In western Washington, I am doing more of the community level and individual risk assessment work. I also work on hosting workshops to assess where the local knowledge base is for wildfire readiness and awareness. Capacity is still very much being built in the western half of the state.
My background is in ethnoecology, which is the study of people’s relationships to their environment. Fire is a really interesting relationship to study. And in my work with DNR, I look at the social aspects of fire adaptation and preparedness. It is interesting seeing people become more resilient and adaptive to fire, to see the different nuances – social, cultural makeup, all of the different moving parts of a place — and think creatively about how these aspects of place can thrive with wildfire. This is the kind of stuff that fuels my work and passion.
FAC Net: What role does Washington DNR have in helping create and support fire adapted communities?
Ashley: Washington DNR is known as the force that leads wildland fire suppression. We have the largest wildland fire forces and we will continue to serve that role, but in recent years, there’s been a lot of diversity and growth in the ways we are supporting fire adaptation. Our different divisions and regions within DNR are beginning to work in more complementary ways. For example, our Geology Division has a landslide hazards program. This program actively looks are where some of these landslides might happen in a post-fire environment. Additionally, our Landowner Assistance Program helps landowners harden their homes and structures and they’re helping them identify ways they can develop defensible space.
Within my division — Forest Health and Resiliency — everyone (to some degree) is looking at the person/people aspect of forest health, and the resiliency of our landscapes. We have been using the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for the east side of the state. In 2020 we released the 2020 Washington Forest Action Plan which looks at the entirety of the state and helps define priority landscapes, particularly in western WA and for different program areas. This document helps expand the variables we are thinking about and lays out the differentiations between western and eastern Washington.
FAC Net: Can you give us an example of some of the types of projects you work on related to FAC?
Ashley: There was an interesting study we conducted from December 2019 to June 2020 looking at how recreationalist populations that move from the west to east side of the state are affecting wildfire risk. We looked at their awareness and education about wildfire, as well as the social and behavioral aspects of these folks. For example, we asked people to rate their level of wildfire awareness and then gave respondents some simple wildfire knowledge questions. Often they rated their knowledge higher than what it actually was. We are still analyzing the data but it is interesting to note the differences between confidence levels, knowledge and how this can inform our educational and outreach target areas.
FAC Net: You have been an active participant in the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC). What has been your favorite part of participating in that Network and why do you think it’s important for agencies to be involved in networks like WAFAC?
Ashley: I got involved early on in my time at DNR (I started in August 2019) and was blown away by the diversity and range of people involved. When I got to go to my first workshop, I found this incredible network of passionate, caring, thoughtful people who aren’t afraid to push boundaries on how to be creative about our resources and how we think about fire adaptation. I was so excited to witness all the different viewpoints and types of expertise within the network.
I think it’s really important for state agencies to expand how we are thinking about these issues — we tend to have meetings and sessions with other state agencies and the thoughts can become homogeneous. A network like WAFAC provides those different points of view because the reality is, fire is a social issue, it is a cultural issue, it is an economic issue and there are so many different branches that need to be included for fire adaptation to continue. By nature, states have deliverables and need to be quite quantitative in their work and somewhat bounded on their project scope. But with WAFAC it’s not a project, it’s a practice, this widening of concept is huge for helping DNR to expand how we think about what success means.
FAC Net: Can you give us an example of interesting or unique partnerships you have in your work?
Ashley: I am currently working on a partnership with Shoalwater Bay Tribe as they relocate their reservation inland. They are on the Washington coast so you’d think fire isn’t a big concern but in reality, conditions can dry out very quickly depending on wind, and thus create a fire risk. The tribe has made the decision to move inland and develop a new reservation to better adapt to climate change. They want to reflect climate change in their development plans and they want to be sustainable and self-sufficient. They also want to ensure they are making themselves as fire resilient as possible. I am working with them to identify vegetation changes and variations as they develop the land from the previous land use of timber harvesting. It’s been super interesting to reflect not only fire adaptation, but also to consider cultural understanding and uses within the lens of climate change. For example, there are roads currently established that are good for berry harvesting, but does that road location fit into a fire resilient landscape? This partnership is something I am excited to be working on.
FAC Net: What advice do you have for folks interested in engaging with state agencies as part of their fire adaptation work?
Ashley: One of the biggest is the timelines of public agencies versus private companies and small organizations. Timelines are all different in terms of who needs to OK things, what is associated with different budget cycles and allocations, and that can slow things down. I think with any project, making sure timelines and time orientations are lined up and discussed by all partners, including the state agency partners, is a good practice to foster. I do think there are ways to constructively chip away at things within these longer timeline considerations; it just takes some creativity and patience.
FAC Net: What is your favorite part of the job?
Ashley: The people in general – the people I work with are inspiring. It is amazing what individual residents in communities are willing to do with their free time. I am astounded by how different communities come together and work. For example, this summer there was a wildfire in one of DNR’s pilot project communities and one of the facilitators for the project had lost power. She drove all the way into town to find Wi-Fi just so she could join the Zoom meeting. Smoke was billowing behind her, and yet she was there. It was a case in point to me about how passionate our partners in communities are about this work, and why I in turn do this work. There has been a lot of examples of this — community members going above and beyond what is expected. These individuals are often not getting compensated, but they see the importance of it. It is a constant source of inspiration and it helps to motivate me to keep working at my job to help them with their projects.
Also, I love how many places I get to visit across the state — well, before Covid-19, that is. I love all of the different corners and places in the state I’ve gotten to go, places I’d never get to visit otherwise. I relish in meeting people where they are, seeing people where they live, understanding what they hold near and true. It’s important for me to see and experience what their community looks like because it can help a lot with understanding if fire adaptation practices are really going to work on the ground.
FAC Net: How has COVID-19 impacted your work, and how have you adapted?
Ashley: It’s affected it a lot – before Covid I was traveling two-plus times a week and since February I’ve gone out twice. So my day-to-day has had to change to virtual. I’ve developed more virtual workshops and produced or coordinated a couple of videos – check out our YouTube channel. For example, one was about burn pile safety, and another about smoke preparedness for at-risk populations and how to address that within Covid-19 regulations. The silver lining has been that we’ve had a larger audience for these pieces than we might’ve regularly — we even had an attendee from Iowa, which we’d never reached before.
However, not being able to go visit in-person has been hard especially in communities where access to phone and internet is spotty. As a civil servant, I am tasked with serving the people of Washington, and I don’t feel I have been doing as equitable of a job as I could. This is an area that has been a challenge in the past, but it has become really apparent with Covid travel restrictions. We are prioritizing the lack of virtual access in our planning for the next year. Those that already engage with us know about where to look for our resources — more of our time needs to be devoted to folks we haven’t heard from. A tool I have found that is helpful is from a group called Front and Centered which created this Environmental Health Disparities Map. It is helpful when looking at what sort of things to consider such as access to vehicles. This becomes really important when considering evacuation routing and messaging. Also, WAFAC has been great with outreach, partnership and development of materials for Spanish-speaking populations. Additionally, I am also aware that in some communities, I am not the right messenger and so it’s important that whatever we create be user-friendly enough for anyone to adopt and share.
FAC Net: Do you have any exciting upcoming projects, resources or programs you would like to tell us about?
Ashley: Beyond ensuring more inclusivity in our work, we are really excited to release our Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Map. We’ve been working on this planning tool for over two years and have reflected a lot of feedback from partners both within the learning network and outside; from individual landowners, to county commissioners to those outside the state, and even those that have done nationwide WUI maps. We want to share how the WUI map can be a planning tool, we want it to work as an umbrella but also provide use at the county and city scale. It’s important that we’re clear that the map is not a wildfire risk map but it’s a planning tool in a larger toolkit to better understand and think about where people are developing, and how we can have structures that are more wildfire-resilient. When this tool is published it can be found here.
Also I want to add that I have been so appreciative of FAC Net and WAFAC – every person I’ve met is so passionate and creative in how they think about wildfire preparedness and how we’re living with fire in a holistic and sustainable way. That is something that makes me feel energized about my work. Oftentimes we can feel siloed in our work, but being part of a larger network and being able to see the different pieces and how it contributes to a larger community really helps me feel connected to the whole and realize the impact we are all collectively making.
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