A Month in the Working Life of One Fire Adapted Communities Practitioner
Authors: Rebecca Samulski
Have you ever wondered what fire adapted communities practitioners do on a daily basis? This post includes a glance at how I mentor volunteers and create new advocates for wildfire preparedness as the Montezuma County Coordinator for FireWise of Southwest Colorado.
On many Tuesday mornings I meet a few volunteers for a Firewise coffee break. We reflect on the work they’ve been doing in their neighborhoods, share ideas, and make a list of what I can help them with. Last week I was fortunate to have new company—a brand new resident who saw a flyer and called with an interest in becoming a volunteer. These are the kinds of folks who become active Neighborhood Ambassadors, advocating for wildfire preparedness in their neighborhoods and meeting often with other volunteers. At our Ambassador meeting last month, I asked what the Ambassadors value about volunteering with FireWise of Southwest Colorado. They identified the key values they’re getting from the program: connections to neighbors and forestry and fire professionals, reliable information and resources to get work done.
Just as we share and learn from each other across the nation, we each leverage rich local and regional networks to get more done. Home sales are falling as wildfires affect home insurability, so the local Board of Realtors asked me to present at their monthly luncheon. After hearing more about FAC concepts, the brokers and realtors took two boxes of brochures to share with their clients. After lunch, I visited the community college, where I’d been invited to consider the possibility of incorporating Firewise principles into a house on the edge of the woods that is being remodeled for fire training. Turning that old double-wide into a model of a Firewise retro-fit built environment and defensible space, complete with interpretive signs, will be great exposure. First responders throughout the area will conduct their trainings in that building, and it will make an excellent Take Action or Wildfire Community Preparedness Day project.
Without smoke in the air, unprompted requests to give a presentation or participate in a project don’t come every day, so I outreach to other organizations. Last month I sat down with the NRCS District Conservationist to figure out how to get more forestry projects happening through his office. I have an advocate in him, as his family owns an 1800-acre ranch at the edge of the most densely populated, unincorporated WUI in the county. I also presented at the all-employee meeting at our local USFS ranger district to 20 public employees. I have worked closely with a few federal staff, but many Forest Service and BLM personnel in that office weren’t familiar with the wide range of wildfire preparedness resources available where we live. My goal was to familiarize them and prompt them to refer residents to FireWise of Southwest Colorado.
A local engine boss elaborated on why the previous week’s fire didn’t grow beyond 3 acres. He said that the BLM land had not been treated in the area where the lightning fire took off in the piñon/ juniper on that red flag day, but it quickly reached a 160-acre parcel owned by a retired park service chap who had drastically thinned his forest. The fire could only throw spots onto his land. The BLM crew went out to take some photos for me. Photos like these help me show the benefits of fuels work.
A lot of my time is also invested in planning and carrying out projects. I recently helped develop a community wildfire protection plan for a ~3200 acre community, and the plan was just finalized and adopted. More than 80 percent of the land in this community is covered in piñon/juniper forest or brush intermixed with deep canyons and 75 homes. Over the past 2.5 years that I’ve been helping them develop the plan, residents have made significant progress on key community fuel breaks. I was inspired earlier this month when a resident in one of the most high-risk areas of the community—who was adamantly resistant to wildfire mitigation in the past—saw a thinning project on the property across the road from him and sought me out to see if he could get involved. Last weekend, I went out to help enhance another fuel break along a steep canyon road into the same community.
This past month, I’ve been working to set a strong foundation for a wide range of local, state and federal agencies to come together and figure out how to do more thinning to protect our primary watershed. One of the key aspects of getting this work done is growing the industry to harvest and process the material. Scaling up is going to mean more networking across the country to figure out how to make the treatment economics work, so I started working with Nick Goulette at the Watershed Research and Training Center to engage interested FAC learning network members in the Treatment Economics community of practice.
There is always a lot happening aside from presentations and my day-to-day work with volunteers. I’m working with a partner to compile our wildfire presentations for schools and develop a strategy that includes promoting these opportunities in every school by the end of September. I’m also finishing up more than 400 drive-by wildfire risk assessments that are part of a Joint Fire Science research project, processing chipper rental rebates, reviewing our grant applications for work we hope to do in the spring, and preparing the annual request for funding from Montezuma County, in hopes that I can keep up all of this work next year.
It takes a community to prepare for wildfires, but it takes a fire adapted communities practitioner to help bring a community together around wildfire preparedness.