Photo Credit: “I arrived at the property with my notebook, tree flagging and a healthy sense of self-worth. I was met by the owner, her contractor, and an impending sense of doom.” Photo by Deborah Lee Soltesz, Coconino National Forest
Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
~ Douglas Adams
I get a lot of use out of this quote. It was penned by the man who reminded us that flying is simply learning to throw oneself at the ground and miss. For me, it perfectly frames our relationship with failure. We love to celebrate our success and to share how we’ve reached our goals. But what about the times we came up short, or just flat-out blew it? Generally speaking, we try to forget about those moments as quickly as possible. There is a lesson in every failed attempt though. I would argue that we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes. Most of us have a botched effort somewhere in our past that we’d rather not talk about, but probably should. Today, I’m going to share one of my most fantastic professional failures.
In order to properly set the stage, you should know more about me, and where I work. I’ve been the wildfire mitigation coordinator in Eagle County, Colorado, for just over 12 years. It’s a mountain resort community, home to both Vail and Beaver Creek Ski Resorts, with a year-round population of about 50,000. Our most impressive statistic: the developed properties in our wildland-urban interface are valued at almost $6.5 billion. In many parts of the county, I have the unique challenge of transitioning gated-developments into fire adapted communities. I’m afforded powerful tools to accomplish this task, though: land-use regulation and building codes.
Eagle County adopted Wildfire Regulations in 2003, applicable to all new development (PDF, 297 KB). The regulations require that people use ignition-resistant building materials and create a defensible space around their home. This is primarily enforced during the building permit process. What sets my job apart from others is that I don’t have to ask people to cut their trees, I can tell them to do it! If they don’t comply, then they can’t move into their house. I get to swing the heavy stick of regulation, but careful, it’s a tool that can do as much harm as good, if not used carefully.
This fairy fail-tale begins on a hot summer day, early on in my career. I had been on the job for a little over a year. My demeanor at the time could be described as totally righteous, overly confident in my understanding of wildfire, and eager to put my knowledge to good use. I received a call from a contractor asking for the required wildfire inspection at a home where he was adding a small sunroom. I had deemed the property to be in a high hazard area, which he was unaware of. Nor did he know that we had passed countywide wildfire regulations three years earlier. I offered him a well-rehearsed speech on the intent of the code, and some thinly veiled threats about what might happen if he didn’t comply. He begrudgingly scheduled the inspection with me for the following day.
I arrived at the property the next morning with my notebook, tree flagging and a healthy sense of self-worth. I was met by the owner, her contractor, and an impending sense of doom. The house, with its expansive wood decks and siding, was buried deep in a stand of conifers overlooking the valley below. Great care was taken during the construction of this home to preserve every stem and branch on the property. So much so that the deck had been built around the trunks of several large pines, literally making the trees part of the structure. It was a sight to see, and I couldn’t wait to grab my tree flagging and get to work.
I explained that I was there to identify trees that would need to be removed to mitigate the home’s wildfire hazard (whether they liked it or not). A look of panic quickly spread across the owner’s face, she then turned to her contractor who had another reaction entirely. His mood went from zero to furious in about five seconds. He had been waiting to let me know how unhappy he was with the additional cost of fire-rated building materials for the roof and siding. Now, he also had to spend time and money removing trees! I was in deep.
Things then … escalated. Smug with the conviction that I was doing what was in their best interest, I marched into the woods and started marking trees. By this point, the owner had completely broken down, and was following me around, sobbing as I marked her beloved trees for execution. Her contractor kept switching back and forth between consoling his client and letting me have it. This went on for nearly an hour, and I proceeded to mark about 50 small trees for removal (saying nothing about the trees growing through the deck; I’m not a monster). I tried every line I knew about fire behavior, ladder fuels, embers, radiant heat … nothing seemed to impress them. In fact, each defense of defensible space only made them more upset.
Once we’d all had enough, I handed them my inspection report, got back in my truck, and drove home. I had a little more than an hour to reflect on what had just transpired, craft a few missed rebuttals that would have probably changed everything, and question what exactly led to this spectacular failure. It didn’t end when I got home. I laid awake long into the night, replaying the day’s events, trying to make sense of it all. I thought I was the good guy here? What happened?
Here’s what I learned: You cannot make people do what’s ultimately in their best interest. In fact, trying to force them can have the opposite effect. We all experience the world we live in differently. In this case, the people I was attempting to work with had little to no understanding of wildfire mitigation. I came in as a “subject matter expert,” flexing my authority, ignoring their concerns and values. I equated my desired results with the desired results, without offering a chance for their input. I dismissed the owner’s attachment to her trees, and the effect that my recommendations would have on the contractor’s bottom line. This site visit was a confrontation waiting to happen from the minute I hung up the phone the day prior, and I let it go on for far too long, allowing emotions to trump any sort of meaningful dialogue. I chose to defend myself, and my field of expertise, over empathy.
Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda …
In hindsight, I had several opportunities to change the outcome of what was instead a failure. I could have changed my approach on the initial phone call, spent more time bringing the contractor up to speed. I definitely could have handled the owner differently. I should have ended things the moment she became upset, instead of continuing to mark trees. Let her have some time to come to grips with the requirements, and seek her input on the desired outcome. In the end, that’s exactly what I did. I talked with the owner and her husband the following day, and we agreed to meet again to revisit the tree marking (without the contractor there). We talked it through, removed a few of the most troubling flags, and came to a compromise. The second visit went smoothly, and when all was said and done, the husband admitted to me that they liked the results. Mission accomplished!
I’ve since changed the way I handle scheduling calls entirely. I take the time to explain the intent of the actions being required, attempting to create a sense of buy-in rather than forced compliance. I’ve found that the final results are much better when the people who live on the property have a say in what happens. For example, I rarely mark trees, unless asked to do so. Instead, I explain the parameters of what needs to occur, then allow for total design control by the owner to reach a previously agreed upon outcome. This usually results in more vegetation removal than I would have asked for, and gets us to that great moment where the owners admit that they like the results. A little bit of extra customer service goes a long way and is greatly appreciated by most.
Regulatory approaches to wildfire mitigation have their place in the grand design of fire adaptation, but they cannot be viewed as a one-size-fits-all approach. If you do not create a sense of buy-in with those affected, the intended results are often not achieved. Let this be a lesson to anyone working within a regulatory framework. Walk softly, and be careful with that big stick.
Eric Lovgren is the wildfire mitigation coordinator for Eagle County, Colorado. He reduces wildfire risk through the thoughtful implementation of land-use regulations and building codes. Eric interacts with homeowners, developers, fire districts, land management agencies, and numerous residential and environmental groups. Eric is also responsible for the design, implementation and oversight of all county-led hazardous fuel reduction and forest health projects. He maintains numerous professional certifications, including wildland firefighter qualifications. He facilitates the Eagle County Wildfire Council and Climate Resiliency Team, as well as the REALFire Program, a partnership with the Vail Board of Realtors. Eric serves as vice-chair for Fire Adapted Colorado, where he engages with other wildfire practitioners throughout the state and shares knowledge and best practices related to FAC. Eric spends his winters skiing as much as possible, and his summers floating down the Colorado River. Eric is also a bluegrass addict and banjo player. Whether you want to talk music or wildfire, he’s your guy.
Editor’s note: This post is part of FAC Net’s Fantastic Failures blog series. Learn more about the series and how to participate.
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