Working with Fire-Prone Communities in the Northeast: An Interview with Maureen Brooks
Author: Maureen Brooks
Maureen Brooks is a cooperative fire specialist on the fire and aviation staff for the Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry, USDA Forest Service (NA SPF). In her role, she provides technical assistance to 20 northeastern states regarding fire prevention and planning, risk assessment and wildland-urban interface issues, as well as manages program grants for six states. She also serves as the staff liaison for the Mid-Atlantic Forest Fire Protection Compact, provides staff support to the Northeast Regional Strategy Committee in the implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy), and serves as an emergency support function 4* lead during hazard response incidents.
Before joining the USDA Forest Service, Maureen worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service. In her nearly 20 years there, she worked as a forest ranger, education and fire prevention specialist, and fire training and prevention officer. She holds an Associate of Arts degree in Forest Technology from Allegany College of Maryland and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Towson University.
How would you characterize NA SPF’s role in helping communities become more fire adapted? What is your specific role?
NA SPF is working to protect lives, homes and property from wildfires on state and private lands, and to maintain healthy forests and grasslands. To that end, the financial, technical, educational and related assistance we provide helps states and local entities access leading-edge prevention, mitigation, fire control and management techniques. Some of the community benefits are: enhanced hazard mitigation efforts across ownership boundaries; fire protection training opportunities for local volunteer fire departments; strengthened state and local fire protection capacity; and increasingly engaged communities and homeowners.
For example, in Wisconsin, residents with burn permits used to have to call their local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office each day to find out whether or not they could burn. This process was time-consuming for DNR staff. Federal funds enabled the state to create an automated system for residents that provides local information on daily burning via phone and online systems.
In Maryland, federal funding supported the development of an app that helps users evaluate their properties for wildfire risk and identify mitigation activities needed.
As a cooperative fire specialist, I provide technical support to Mid-Atlantic states and partners regarding programmatic and grant management. I also work across the 20 states to provide technical assistance and information related to implementing fire prevention, community wildfire protection planning, Firewise and fire adapted communities initiatives.
What are some of the challenges for a program that spans a diverse, 20-state region?
Every state is different. Some states have large fire management programs with dedicated fire management staff, while others have smaller programs with only field staff, and no managerial staff support. So, my challenges include how to assist all the states equitably and how to determine the appropriate level of technical support for each state. One size doesn’t fit all.
How has your job changed since the Cohesive Strategy and the development of the Northeast Regional Action Plan (NE RAP)?
I have provided staff support to the Cohesive Strategy in the northeast region since the first phase of the initiative, during which I wrote many of the regional products. In later phases, I was involved in the development of the Northeast Assessment, the Regional Action Plan and the Regional Strategy Committee. I am currently the vice chair of the Northeast Regional Strategy Committee, and we are engaged in the implementation of the NE RAP. That committee is advancing many projects, including the development of a community wildfire protection guide tailored to the Northeast. We are also engaged with our region’s fire science exchanges and consortia, and FAC Net members. In my job as a cooperative fire specialist, we are integrating the goals of the Cohesive Strategy into our grant programs and our program of work. We are also reaching out to other program areas to encourage them to integrate the goals of the Cohesive Strategy.
Describe one of your favorite fire adaptation projects you’ve encountered in your career.
Well, I have a few projects that are notable for me. But, one would be the phragmites control project in Delaware. Phragmites is a genus of four highly invasive and flammable grass species that invade wetlands and crowd out native vegetation. It has taken over hundreds of acres of Delaware’s wetlands. In the coastal areas, phragmites can be found growing near homes and structures. For several years now, the Delaware Forest Service has been actively working to eradicate phragmites through a system of spraying, mowing and burning. The result has been that the native vegetation has returned to the treated areas. It’s been a very successful project, restoring 400-600 acres of wetlands each year.
In your region, what are the key issues related to improving wildfire outcomes?
Funding and personnel are key issues for improving wildfire outcomes. NA SPF is seeing reductions in budgets at all levels — federal, state, local government and non-profits. On the one hand, there are fewer dollars and fewer people to fund and implement projects. But, we have also seen this create more opportunity to develop partnerships. An example of this would be in New Jersey where the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and the New Jersey Fire Safety Council have teamed up with Sustainable Jersey to offer community incentives to develop Firewise communities, and implement mitigation projects and other activities which help communities adapt to wildfire.
What advice do you have for our readers who are working to increase public acceptance of prescribed burning?
I would encourage people to continue to spread the word about the benefits and importance of prescribed burning. You all are the experts. If you are credible and honest with the public about your work, the public will respond in kind.
What are you most excited about working on in 2017?
There are several innovative projects being implemented across the area this year — both educational and direct mitigation — as well as projects implementing Community Wildfire Protection Plans. So, I will be looking forward to their accomplishments. I am excited to see more communities get involved and watch the momentum build for local projects.
*Editor’s note: “During disasters and other major emergencies, the USDA Forest Service coordinates and staffs emergency support function (ESF) #4 to be the face of federal firefighting support to FEMA and other responding agencies. The purpose of emergency support function #4, firefighting (ESF #4) is to provide federal support for the detection and suppression of wildland, rural, and urban fires resulting from, or occurring coincidentally with, an all-hazard incident requiring a coordinated national response for assistance.” See this Emergency Support Function #4 Reference Guide for more information.