Photo Credit: Pam Wilson is the soon-to-be-retired executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado. In this interview, she talks about the impressive networks she’s helped form and what they’re accomplishing! Photo by Pam Wilson
What did you do before working on community wildfire resilience?
During my first career, I worked for the USDA Forest Service. My last job with them was on the San Juan National Forest as a public affairs specialist for their Fire and Fuels Program. This was an awesome “white hat” job; I not only got to promote Forest Service efforts, but I also got to highlight our partners’ accomplishments. During that time, I also became qualified as a public information officer, working on both local and national wildfires. That experience opened my eyes to how rewarding it is to work with communities.
In 2007, I took an early retirement and bid the Forest Service farewell. I loved the break from “working,” but I really missed working with people. A year later, I was approached about the FireWise of Southwest Colorado (FireWise) coordinator position; I was intrigued. The job was advertised as only 35 hours per month, which seemed manageable (remember, I was retired at the time!). And here I am, nine years later, getting ready to bid farewell to the organization that has given me so much.
My background gave me a unique perspective when it came to FAC work. I had not only a strong desire to help people make their properties more prepared for wildfire, but I also wanted to help them understand the mystery and benefits of managed and prescribed fires.
Tell us about some of your partners and what you’ve accomplished together.
One of the key features of FireWise is our Neighborhood Ambassador Program, through which volunteers motivate and engage their neighbors. We currently provide support to about 160 ambassadors (across three counties), and they amaze me every day with their energy and enthusiasm. I get super excited when a homeowners association (HOA) buys reflective address signs for the community, or when an ambassador convinces the HOA board that it needs a line item in the budget for wildfire mitigation.
In recent years, I’ve been thrilled to see how non-traditional partners are helping their communities. This past winter, the Pine River Irrigation District (PRID) called me, wanting to buy an air curtain burner for Vallecito, a resort community that was greatly impacted by the Missionary Ridge Fire. PRID ended up purchasing the air curtain burner and providing the land for slash collection. For two weekends a month for five months, FireWise volunteers helped unload slash and collect volunteer hours while PRID personnel took charge of burning the slash. This great example of neighbors working together is a partnership that we hope to continue for many years.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad shines as another example of how a business can play a role in advancing fire adapted communities. Though I could cite many examples, their most unique effort is definitely the Christmas Tree Train, a unique partnership with the San Juan National Forest, San Juan Mountains Association and FireWise. For the three weekends after Thanksgiving, the train heads north into the San Juan National Forest, where riders disembark and cut down a Christmas tree (generally a Douglas fir). Each day, six partners ride the train and talk about the area and their organization to passengers. They are also available to help choose and haul trees to the loading spot. The train provides saws to cut the trees, personnel to load and unload the trees, and they even throw in free hot chocolates on the ride back to Durango! This has become a “destination vacation” for many families across the country and is helping thin an overgrown forest.
How did Fire Adapted Colorado (FACO) get its start?
About two years ago, I teamed up with other FAC practitioners in Colorado to start a statewide network, FACO. Our goal is to increase the capacity of wildfire-centric organizations in Colorado, through sharing best practices and serving as a collective voice. FACO has a dedicated “working board,” and it has been a great experience to work with other FAC practitioners on our common goal.
One of our first efforts was to become the fiscal agent for the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, an event that disseminates fire adaptation and resilience knowledge to Colorado wildfire practitioners — and of course, gives us the much-needed opportunity to network!
This past month, we hired a network coordinator, and it feels like FACO is about to take a giant leap forward. We were fortunate to find someone who is passionate about networks, so I can’t wait to see what’s around the bend!
Tell us about a time that connections through the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network made a difference in your work.
Joining FAC Net opened so many doors. For example, after exposure to FAC Net’s Watershed Resilience Quick Guides, a field trip to the Santa Fe Watershed, and subsequent training on the Rio Grande Water Fund, FireWise started the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest Collaborative (DWaRF) in 2015. Today, we are partnering closely with the San Juan National Forest, water boards and many others to make a difference in this watershed.
This past spring, at the FAC Net workshop, I connected with Jeremy Bailey who leads the implementation of the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) strategy, and our conversation led to positive outcomes for both of us. As part of a TREX last spring, Jeremy sent some participants to help with Community Wildfire Preparedness Day activities in southwest Colorado. Fellers dropped large trees, a task that is difficult for many of our older residents, while others helped with hauling and piling slash. Thanks to the help from TREX participants, one community treated 14 acres! Further, the assistance turned us on to a new model of funding tree felling that gives residents the responsibility of cleaning up the slash. On Jeremy’s end, the collaboration raised TREX’s profile with our agency partners, and we’re now discussing opportunities for TREX to expand across the region.
What motivates you?
The people I work with. Myth busting. Helping people. A heartfelt “thank you.” Growing a successful program. Seeing people take responsibility for where they live. Having another FAC practitioner ask for details about one of our programs. Hearing that our organization has a great reputation. The network we’ve created in southwest Colorado and the one we’re starting to create throughout Colorado. Helping our communities and residents. Need I say more?
How will you know when you’ve succeeded?
Defining success — where do I begin? Many people may tell you that success it is all about “acres treated,” and while I believe that is a piece of the puzzle, my definition of success is about creating a community that understands its wildfire risk and takes action (and responsibility) for mitigating that risk. Those actions may include the creation of defensible space, but shouldn’t stop there. Many communities have issues with access, poor signage and residents that know nothing about evacuation planning. Success includes the community making a commitment to the future by budgeting for mitigation, sharing their expectations for living in the wildland-urban interface with new residents, promoting the need for work on adjoining lands, and more — without being asked! We have catalyzed many such communities in southwest Colorado, and I am extremely proud of their efforts.
Many people may tell you that success it is all about “acres treated,” and while I believe that is a piece of the puzzle, my definition of success is about creating a community that understands its wildfire risk and takes action (and responsibility) for mitigating that risk.
Last April, I decided to move on after nine years on the job, which is actually 6–7 years longer than I thought I would stay! Wisdom says you should leave when you’re at the top of your game, and I think I’m there — FireWise has a great staff, is in a relatively good financial position, and has well-established programs. It’s time to let someone new take the organization, our partnerships, and our wildfire resilience work to the next level.
I’m really looking forward to spending more time with my husband and our dog, Cisco, and the new dog that I’m planning to adopt. We love spending time outdoors — camping, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing.
But I don’t think I’m totally done working. There’s just too much cool stuff happening in this crazy world of fire adaptation. I plan to remain a FACO board member, and I’m exploring some other options. I want to stay connected to the awesome FAC practitioners and residents who I’ve met and worked with.
Last words to live by?
One of my early mentors was Craig Goodell, currently a fire ecologist in the Northwest. One of his frequent comments was, “It’s all about baby steps.” I have repeated that phrase many times over the years, and it’s just as true now as it was when I first heard him say it. When you take the time to work with residents year after year, they get a little more done every year, and you create buy-in for the work so that it becomes sustainable.
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