Images (back to front): Lake Tahoe, Credit: Don Graham shared via Flickr Creative Commons; Forest Shafer with his brother Keegan on a wildfire assignment, Credit: Forest Shafer

Fire in His Blood, Pace and Scale on His Mind: A Day in the Life with Forest Schafer

By: Forest Schafer Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team

Topic: Collaboration CWPPs Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Essay

Nametag reading: "Hi, my name is Forest Schafer, Coordinator, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, California. 10 years working with Tahoe Fire and Fuels; 15 years working on FAC"

It’s hard to forget your first wildland fire. Mine was years before I started fighting fires, and I remember seeing trees explode into flames as they lit up the dark road. I could feel the heat through the windshield of my dad’s utility truck as we traveled through an evacuation corridor. I wanted to panic. But the sight of firefighters, working calmly and deliberately as they started small fires along the roadside, was as memorable as the wildfire itself. Dad explained that they were intentionally burning the available fuel before the wildfire arrived.

You could say wildland fire is in my blood. I certainly feel like I’ve spent most of my life in a firehouse. I practically grew up in one in Lake Tahoe, California, where my dad spent his career as a firefighter. Then, just out of high school, I began working for North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, where I worked as a crewmember, and then as a forester, for 14 years. Last year, I transitioned to the California Tahoe Conservancy, where I’m privileged to continue working with the many partners of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (the Team) as we work to create fire adapted communities and resilient landscapes in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

My brother, too, works on wildland fire issues in the Tahoe Basin and leads the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District’s Zephyr Crew. We’re passionate about the power of wildfire preparation as a means to protect the community where we grew up. Together, we’re finding a balance between walking in our family’s footsteps and forging our own path.

Today is going to be a busy and exciting day, and I’ll need to think about how to balance my time and efforts. The Team is kicking off a new initiative for environmental reviews and then finalizing our annual workshop agenda. To top it all off, I have a grant proposal out for partner review, and I need to submit it by 5 p.m.

I put the rest of the day out of my mind for now, because a subcommittee is meeting about the first phases of a project that will complete programmatic environmental review for all of the nonfederal fuel reduction projects that will occur as part of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The concept came out of collaborative work at the Team’s workshop two years ago, when we realized that we needed a quicker way to plan projects in order to keep up with our fuel reduction needs. Since then, we’ve been working to secure funding and put contracts in place, and now the real work begins.

Specifically, we need to chart a careful direction that balances our available resources with the need to initiate the environmental review process for thousands of acres’ worth of projects. Our CWPP identifies where we need to implement fuel reduction treatments and, in general, what types and methods of treatments we will use. It helps guide our programs, but there can still be substantial delays before implementation because of regulatory requirements. Today we’re focusing on how to efficiently frontload the environmental review process by analyzing all of the work we plan to complete under our CWPP. This will provide us with a better understanding of the potential cumulative impacts and benefits of our collective forest management projects. It will also result in the quicker implementation of landscape-scale projects that involve multiple benefits and numerous landowners.

Thankfully, the project team includes scientists, foresters, project managers and environmental review specialists, and we successfully determine our next steps. I’m reminded that every day is a culmination of the hard work of our partners and community throughout the days (and often years) prior . Although day-to-day progress may seem slow, a brainstorming session one day can eventually become a realized solution.

That thought gives me hope as I head to my next meeting, this one being with the four division leads who participate in the Team. Each lead manages a defensible space and fuels reduction program tailored to meet the needs of their local fire protection districts. They work together with both the Team and the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities to align their efforts and to increase community engagement. Their partnership helps us move from mitigation at the individual-home level to neighborhood and community scales. At those larger scales, we increase community resilience by linking public shaded fuel breaks with defensible space on both vacant and developed parcels. We also collectively engage community volunteers, which increases participation in both wildfire mitigation services and evacuation preparedness efforts.

Today, we’re tasked with setting the agenda for our annual workshop. It’s always challenging to find the right balance in an agenda between structure and space for creativity. Thankfully, through participation in FAC Net, I’ve learned about Liberating Structures, a facilitation model that provides unique frameworks for collaboration and group decision making.

I hazard a peek at my phone, and the message I read swings my thoughts back to the grant proposal that’s due in less than three hours — I forgot to account for indirect charges in my budget. Thankfully, it shouldn’t be too hard of a fix. I just hope everything else is right because time is short, and this proposal is yet another culmination of a year’s worth of work. It’s focused on developing local, comprehensive solutions for woody debris, and it has a real shot at enhancing Lake Tahoe’s restoration-based, long-term economy.

“Sorry, I got distracted there for a minute. Where were we?”

The group has solidified how to structure our two-day agenda. A few Team members make recommendations based on their own respective areas of expertise, in efforts to round out the agenda. Mike Vollmer has been working on wildfire issues in the Lake Tahoe Basin since 2002 and shares some notes with us from the Team’s first workshop, 10 years ago. His notes remind us that it’s important to celebrate what we’ve accomplished together as we look to the future.

Four people seated in a circle, in discussion, while others observe/listen. Workshops like these are critical to advancing collaborative restoration at an increased pace and scale

Mike Vollmer (far left, seated) leads a “fishbowl conversation” at the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team’s workshop. Click on the image above to learn about the “fishbowl conversation” technique (PDF, 593 KB). Credit: Brice Bennett, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

Amy Jirka, the newest division lead, is managing the programmatic environmental review project, and brings a new perspective to our team and our programs. We carve out more time for introductions and icebreakers after she makes her case. April Shackelford has a strong background in science and community organizing and suggests a few tweaks to make the workshop more engaging. John Pickett, a former certified public account with an eye for detail, helps us consider the risks and trade-offs of different approaches. The process reminds me of another concept FAC Net introduced me to — Community Based Asset Mapping — and how much more effective we become when we work together and leverage our strengths.

We realize that we could use the help of a facilitator, and we request some last-minute support from Susie Kocher, an extension forester at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, who helps push us through to the final elements of the agenda design process. In the end, the whiteboard is a beautiful mess, and I have everything I need to draft a facilitator’s agenda.

With an hour left on the clock, I rush back to my computer to make the budget corrections in the proposal and look for any other review comments or changes on the final draft. All appears ready to submit! I cross my fingers and click “Send.”

As tempting as it is to give it one final, after-the-fact-read, I’ve learned better than to read a grant proposal that I just submitted. Besides, I’m late for dinner with my brother, his wife and my nephew. After dinner, we’ll play music together, and maybe some board games. And we’ll probably talk a little bit about work, but not too much.

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One thought on “Fire in His Blood, Pace and Scale on His Mind: A Day in the Life with Forest Schafer”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Forest — great writing and message! It’s so important to make sure those lines between the personal (including personal mental/physical health) and work worlds don’t collide and are distinctly identified. Sometimes it’s so tempting to check that e-mail you’ve been waiting for all day because you are super excited about a collaborative project, but you are already home cooking dinner or playing the guitar or being with family. If it can wait, it can wait. Then there are other times where in this line of work, where project or grant proposal deadlines are extremely tight and the need to respond to that e-mail during your off time becomes all too real and necessary. Also looking forward to reading through Liberating Structures – seems incredibly useful.

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