Thinning project at Chimney Springs, Flagstaff, AZ, October 2018. Photo by Neil Chapman.

Fire First Responders and Forest Restoration, a Vital Connection: A Day in the Life of Neil Chapman

By: Neil Chapman

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Planning Watershed protection / management Wildfire

Type: Interview

Editor’s Note: In this week’s blog we get a chance to chat with Neil Chapman, Forest Health Supervisor for the Wildland Fire Management Program of the Flagstaff, Arizona Fire Department. Neil’s got the complimentary skill set of forest management and fire management and credits his experience in the prairies of Illinois and his upbringing in the forests of Massachusetts as a part of his unique path to fire. Neil’s enthusiasm for his work and his responsibility to the people of Flagstaff is wholly inspiring. We hope you enjoy getting to know Neil a bit more as we explore a Day in his Life! 

Author's head shot

Photo of Neil Chapman. Photo by/courtesy of Maria Bianco.

FAC Net: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, how you came to your current position and the work you do now.

Neil: I live a few miles northwest of Flagstaff with my wife Jennifer and son Joseph. I grew up in South Hadley, a small town in western Massachusetts. My connection to nature started early with backyard adventures in the woods, and grandparents with a home on the banks of the Connecticut River. The region also has 5 major colleges around it, so there was a neat mix of old New England rural simplicity with a culture of academic achievement. After high school I moved west and received a Bachelor of Science from the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.  In 2003, I moved in with some college friends who had a place in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. Being a Red Sox fan, there was no meaningful conflict of interest. In 2004, I took a seasonal stewardship job with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Illinois at the Nachusa Grasslands. It was our job to maintain high quality remnant areas and restore converted land. A healthy tallgrass prairie contains an extremely complicated web of life, and a lot of fire. This is where and when my passion for fire adapted landscapes began. Just about everyone who commits to work at the Nachusa Grasslands, as an employee or volunteer, has a transformational experience. Nachusa’s natural diversity and committed stewardship community has resulted in a truly beautiful and humbling landscape.

A field of flowers and rolling hillsides in Illinois

Photo of TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Photo by Bill Kleiman.

In 2006, the opportunity came up through TNC to move to Flagstaff, Arizona and serve as manager for the Hart Prairie Preserve. Over the next 13 years, my work in northern Arizona evolved beyond the Preserve to include collaborating on federal NEPA efforts, funding and managing fuels treatments on USFS lands, supporting TNC’s North America Fire Management Team, participating in prescribed fire training exchanges, and developing new strategies to better implement mechanical timber harvesting operations as part of a Master Stewardship Agreement.

Photo depicts mountains and outdoor scene with autumn colors

Photo of TNC’s Hart Prairie Preserve, October 2016. Photo by The Nature Conservancy © Neil Chapman.

In 2019, I came over to the Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD) to take on the newly created position of Forest Health Supervisor for the Wildland Fire Management Program. (See Program Overview Flyer, May 2020). Leading a forest health initiative within a municipal Fire Department that includes Flagstaff’s Sustainability and Water Services Departments is a unique opportunity. The City of Flagstaff understands that the environmental, social and economic health of the community depends on a healthy forest, and my job is the proof. I am responsible for the wildfire risk prevention and preparedness functions of the Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD) and Summit Fire and Medical District (SFMD.) The FFD and SFMD efforts are joined through an intergovernmental agreement. I also manage the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, a wildfire risk reduction initiative started with a $10M bond passed by voters in 2012. This project is unique in that the people of Flagstaff are investing in wildfire risk reduction treatments on City, State and Federal land.

Landscape Photo of hillsides

Outdoor landscape photo depicting mountains in the distance

Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project Site, Dry Lake Hills, Flagstaff, AZ. Photos by City of Flagstaff.

FAC Net: How do you think your previous experiences prepared you for this job?

Neil: Personally, I have been observing the forests and grasslands of northern Arizona for over 14 years with a focus on ecological restoration the entire time. Unfortunately, too many of these observations are heart wrenching. This landscape has been drastically altered and very little is intact as it once was for thousands of years. Aldo Leopold said it well: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” This “world of wounds” is what drives me. Ever since my experience at Nachusa Grasslands, I have been developing a personal land ethic that is based on a need to protect and restore nature’s fire adapted landscapes.

Organizationally, my education and work experience are well suited to my role. Having both forest management and fire management skills based in the science of ecological restoration, and a natural ability to communicate the importance of this work to others, helps me every single day. Understanding the USFS system of management and staff culture is another key skill for my position. There are people who have more fire management experience than me, and others who have more forest management training than me, but very few have this combination and commitment. I am just as comfortable in the “fire shop” working on broadcast burn prescriptions as I am in the “timber shop” working on silvicultural prescriptions.

FAC Net: Tell us about the partnerships you are developing in Flagstaff.

Neil: The Flagstaff Fire Dept has a long history of valuable partnerships with community-based organizations and Federal agencies. I am looking to increase our impact by integrating the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange Coaches Network into our program. I also hope to find a local partner who will connect with the great people of the Indigenous People’s Burning Network.

Internal partnerships are key to my position as well. In 2018 the City of Flagstaff approved the Climate Adaptation and Action Plan (CAAP). This plan outlines how the Flagstaff community should be interacting with wildfire and provides a framework for how City staff prioritize resources. I am working with Sustainability staff to implement smoke adaptation strategies as the CAAP acknowledges the need for increasing prescribed burning efforts. I am working with Water Services staff to implement a paired watershed study to help us better understand the long-term impacts of forest thinning and fire treatments on Flagstaff’s surface water supply.

Landscape photo of a forest

Thinning project at Chimney Springs, Flagstaff, AZ, October 2018. Photo by Neil Chapman.

FAC Net: What role do you feel fire departments have in creating more fire adapted communities?

Neil: As a first responder, we must recognize that we can greatly influence our response to wildfire. It is important that local firefighters are at the front line of wildfire adaptation. Who better than the actual firefighters to lead wildfire preparedness and risk reduction actions?

Being part of the FFD and SFMD team comes with significant responsibility. Our team often responds to structure fires and wildfires at the same time. Now they can include responding to medical calls during a global pandemic to their job duties. The opportunity to be part of, and work from within this community is an honor. Getting to know the people of the FFD and SFMD over the last year adds a personal sense of urgency to our forest restoration efforts. My hope is that someday when the station tones go off, the men and women of FFD and SFMD are responding to a wildfire that can be safely managed and the impacts will be a benefit to our community due to the fire adapted landscape.

FAC Net: What fire adaptation work are you most excited about in 2021?

Neil: I’m really excited to host the prescribed fire training exchange for the Flagstaff area. We had to modify and delay our 2020 plans due to dry weather and COVID-19, but we are 100% on board for 2021. The TREX program is a key component in the effort to build up the “good fire workforce” we so desperately need and northern Arizona is a perfect location for learning and burning opportunities.

Recently we have started to develop a local prescribed fire fund that mirrors the policy, funding and urgency that is in place for suppression resources. This prescribed fire fund will allow us to get more line staff involved in prescribed burning. Our line firefighters work a 48 hours on/96 hours off schedule. If we want to increase our capacity to support prescribed burn operations or send line staff to training or TREX events, we must increase our capacity to either pay overtime and/or backfill their shift.  This local program has the potential to demonstrate what we should have at the national level.

Lastly, this summer the Flagstaff City Council approved the Water Resource and Infrastructure Protection Fee. It is a small monthly fee on residents’ water bills ($0.52 per 1000 gallons of water used) that will fund the current level of service offered by the Wildland Fire Management program. It is very exciting for us as now we have a reliable and stable funding source that will allow us to constantly adapt and improve our ability to meet wildfire challenges.

FAC Net: Anything else you would like to share?

Neil: I look forward to working with the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. We have much to learn and share. Previously, I had participated in prescribed fire training exchanges in other states but getting the opportunity to manage our own training exchange and our own learning network is very exciting. Taking the tools and opportunities that the networks provide and turning those into learning opportunities for FFD and SFMD staff will improve our ability to rescue wildfire risks and restore the fire adapted landscape in and around Flagstaff.

I also am very excited about opportunities with the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. Northern Arizona’s forests and people were living with fire for thousands of years before the era of fire suppression. We need to revitalize that relationship.

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