Feb 16, 2017
Community-Focused Mitigation Programs and Resources: Interview with Chris Barth
By: Chris Barth
Chris Barth is a fire mitigation and education specialist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Chris has worked for volunteer, municipal, county and federal agencies in fire management since 1992. During his career, he has worked with the public, stakeholders, partners and the research community to promote wildfire outreach and mitigation strategies. During fire season, Chris learns about how different communities are prepared for wildfire while serving as a public information officer and liaison officer on incident management teams. Chris has bachelor’s degrees in both biology and environmental conservation, as well as a master’s degree in environmental science. He is a member of Wildfire Research (WiRē) – an interdisciplinary collaboration focused on wildfire risk mitigation and wildfire adaptation as it relates to homeowners and communities. His background spans from wildfire to wildlife and has taken him throughout the American West and into east Africa.
What’s your role in helping communities become more fire adapted?
At the heart of fire adaptation is the acceptance of the responsibility of living in areas with wildfire risk. However, discussing wildfire risk is not generally a conversation that occurs at most dinner tables in the wildland-urban interface. As a fire mitigation and education specialist for the BLM, my contribution is to be thinking constantly about how wildfire could affect an individual or a community and to work with partners to address those risks. Just as a mechanic would advise me on how to keep my vehicle maintained or a financial advisor would help me make wise investments, my role is to advise others in the practice of living safely with wildfire.
What should we know about your agency’s programs?
Through funding agreements and technical expertise, BLM staff can support community efforts to plan and implement wildfire mitigation. Ultimately, the Community Assistance Program (watch this new video for background on the program) contributes directly to the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) and its goals of fire resilient landscapes, communities that can withstand fire without the loss of life or property and safe and effective wildfire response.
I have been fortunate to work with local, county, state and federal partners that understand the risks of wildfire to their communities and are dedicated to the goals of the Cohesive Strategy. Working together, we have coordinated our wildfire mitigation efforts through the identification of assets and needs within a given community. This strategic approach has resulted in the most efficient application of our partners’ strengths.
What do you like most about your job? Least?
Wildfires have increased dramatically in terms of both frequency and associated losses in recent years. The issues we are facing are very real and the existing efforts to reduce wildfire threats to communities are inadequate. It is a noble challenge to work in innovative ways to address this problem. I enjoy the opportunity to examine the problem more critically, rather than continuing to apply the same approach and expecting different results.
Describe one of your favorite fire adaptation projects.
One of the most innovative efforts that I have been fortunate to be involved with is WiRē, the interdisciplinary collaborative effort mentioned in my bio. WiRē focuses on homeowner wildfire risk mitigation and community wildfire adaptation. What makes this collaboration so special is that community residents provide information about their communities, the fire risks on their properties and their experiences with wildfire and wildfire mitigation. WiRē uses this information to tailor programs that support local solutions and help communities create their own paths toward fire adaptation. Because the community is front and center, and the work is in-depth, the partners involved really understand the dynamics and are invested in lasting solutions for the community.
Tell us about the experiences you’ve had that have shaped your views about fire.
I view all of my experience (and particularly the dedicated, intelligent individuals who I have worked with) as having been instrumental in shaping my views about FAC and living with fire.
I began my career in fire management 25 years ago as a firefighter. My background in fire behavior and fire management strategies helped to frame my understanding of how wildfire affects the landscape – including homes and communities. As the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s wildfire mitigation program coordinator, I translated the realities of fire behavior to homeowners and the public so that they could make informed decisions about mitigation. As a member of the WiRē team, we developed a proven method to apply local, community-specific information to improve programs that support fire adaptation. As a fire mitigation and education specialist with the BLM, I have integrated my previous experiences to help with strategic planning for successful and sustainable regional wildfire councils like West Region Wildfire Council and Firewise of Southwest Colorado, as well as Fire Adapted Colorado — a statewide fire adapted communities network.
What are you most excited to work on related to wildfire resilience in 2017?
I recently accepted a new position as the lead fire mitigation and education specialist for BLM – Montana/Dakotas. While it is tough to leave all of the accomplished and effective partnerships that I have had the pleasure to work with in southwest Colorado, I look forward to working with new partners in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota as they work toward fire adaptation.
If you wrote a FAC memoir, what would you emphasize the most?
The ability to take responsibility for living in an area at risk from wildfire is dependent on the characteristics of one’s community and one’s role in that community. As such, I cannot understate the value of establishing a practitioner-researcher collaboration to better inform a comprehensive FAC program. Because those living in the wildland-urban interface can choose to take – or not take – action to reduce their wildfire risk, it is critical to understand the actual views of the individuals living in these areas. With this insight, wildfire mitigation programs can be more effective and efficient in encouraging FAC behaviors, local officials can make more informed policy decisions and land management agencies can better evaluate fuel treatment options.
Any closing remarks?
Fire adapted communities, to me, is a systematic body of concepts. It has been explained using terms like “rainbow,” “starburst” or “umbrella.” Unfortunately, practitioners were using the individual concepts before FAC was characterized as a body of concepts. I believe this caused, and continues to cause, confusion among wildland-urban interface residents, wildfire mitigation practitioners, agencies responsible for wildfire management and others.
Lastly, this work requires dedication. Often, partners are engaged in one or several parts of the FAC equation. I feel that to be successful, this work needs one or more individuals that are able and willing to think strategically about the big picture. Stakeholder involvement will ebb and flow. FAC champions parlay success in one area into motivation for additional growth in other areas.
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