A fire danger rating sign. Photo courtesy of Canva Creative Commons.

From the Bottom Up: Oregon’s Investment in Fire Adaptation (An Interview with Carrie Berger)

By: Carrie Berger

Topic: Communications / Outreach Local workforce capacity Preparedness Resilience

Type: Interview

Editor’s Note:  FAC Net’s Annie Schmidt had the opportunity to interview Carrie Berger, Fire Program Manager for the new Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Fire Program at Oregon State University. Carrie’s new program will be adding essential capacity to communities throughout Oregon.  The Fire Program will put six regional fire specialists on the ground in communities throughout Oregon to help move fire adaptation and landscape resilience forward. Funded through Oregon’s legislature, the Fire Program will directly impact every Oregonian. Carrie has been instrumental to the process from the beginning so we sat down to learn more about Carrie, her work and the future of the new Fire Program.

Annie: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do.

Headshot of Carrie Berger

Carrie Berger, Program Manager for the new Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Fire Program at Oregon State University. Photo Courtesy of Carrie Berger.

Carrie: My name is Carrie Berger and I am the Fire Program Manager for the new Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Fire Program at Oregon State University. When the program is fully up and running, I will manage a team of seven people including a state fire specialist and six regional fire specialists. We actually just finished the interview process and had lots of great candidates!

The goals and objectives of the Fire Program include facilitating the development of cross-boundary partnerships and landscape-scale management opportunities, as well as, providing all Oregonians fire education. Broadly speaking, the Fire Program supports and contributes to the implementation of the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Strategy.

Prior to becoming the Fire Program Manager, I worked as the coordinator for the Northwest Fire Science Consortium (NWFSC) disseminating regionally relevant fire information to stakeholders in both WA and OR. The NWFSC is one of 15 Fire Science Exchange Networks that are funded by the Joint Fire Science Program. Through my work with the Consortium I’ve developed relationships with both managers and scientists in the PNW region. I see a lot of opportunity for the Fire Program and the Consortium to work together!

Annie: How did the Fire Program in Oregon evolve?

Carrie: It has been a labor of love for sure! As every good Extension program does, the Fire Program started with a needs assessment! As part of the Forestry & Natural Resources (FNR) Extension Program’s annual planning process, we conduct a needs assessment of the audience groups that we serve. For five consecutive years, the need for fire and forest health education always came out on top. Based on that established need, the FNR team made fire its priority project. One of the first products FNR created was a foundational Fire Science Core Curriculum. After that, we turned our attention to the Fire Program. The Fire Program was developed through listening sessions with stakeholders and with our own FNR agents, specialists, and program coordinators. For anyone who doesn’t know about Extension – field agents are embedded in the communities they serve so they really have a pulse on the needs of their people at a very local level. We consider the Fire Program to be a true bottom-up effort.

As we are now in the hiring process, we are working on making sure the Fire Program team can meet the needs of the communities it serves.  We want a diversity of backgrounds on the team so it is possible that we will have specialists in fire operations, prescribed fire, human dimensions, community engagement and more. By creating a team with diverse strengths we will be better able to meet the needs of the state. While each regional fire specialist will serve a specific geographic service area, we will all work together as a team and bring individual areas of expertise to benefit the whole.

Annie: What do you think contributed to Oregon’s willingness to add capacity for fire adaptation (AKA create staff positions!)?

Carrie: Given the wildfire situation in the West and Oregon, Governor Kate Brown recognized the urgency for mitigating Oregon’s catastrophic wildfire risk. In 2019, Governor Brown signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. The Council was tasked to review Oregon’s current model for wildfire prevention, preparedness and response. The timing for an Extension Fire Program was right but I think the tipping point for the legislation to invest in the Fire Program was our ability to show proof of concept. We could clearly demonstrate how the Fire Program could and would work based on the work done through the Klamath Lake Forest Health Partnership (KLFHP).  We were able to show a step-by-step process for planning and implementing cross-boundary, landscape-scale restoration and wildfire risk reduction projects AND clearly demonstrate the impact of that work through various metrics (like acres treated and Firewise communities created). Daniel Leavell, who is now the Fire Program’s state specialist, was a key partner in that effort as the Klamath and Lake County forestry agent. Having capacity at a local level has had tremendous impacts – ecological, social, and economic – on Oregon’s communities.

Annie: Many people see legislation and working with state legislators as a barrier.  How did you work with the legislature to get this program off the ground?

Carrie: I am going to turn to author Brené Brown for this answer!  One of the things Brené Brown talks about is the importance of putting yourself in the arena and fighting the hard fight.  I am totally introverted!  Talking to Senators and legislators is hard.  But we had to put ourselves in the arena.  We created a fact sheet —a simple 1 pager (front and back)—and then we told our story.  It helped tremendously that we had proof of concept.  Daniel Leavell and I talked to a lot of Senators and legislators.  We talked to anyone we could and we talked about our impact. I should also point out that we definitely didn’t act alone! We had support from the College of Forestry and our Government Relations staff. Working with the legislature can be intimidating, but if you don’t try you will never have a chance.  It is incredibly important to just walk through those doors.

A group of people gathered in a field after a fire.

Proof of concept: collaboration in action in Oregon. Photo Courtesy of Carrie Berger.

Annie: As you move forward developing this program, what do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities?

Carrie: I see lots of opportunity! We are adding so much capacity!  The way the Fire Program is setup, and the way Extension has operated for over 100 years, is that we have field specialists working and living within service areas that cover the state of Oregon. We also have a state specialist on campus, along with me as the Fire Program manager.

On campus, we have the opportunity to work with researchers, across Colleges, on the co-production of science and the connection of that science to resource managers, fire managers, and landowners. In the field, we have the opportunity to provide facilitation to get more cross-boundary, landscape-scale resiliency projects initiated, completed, and monitored. Our regional specialists can add value to projects already happening, as well as, identify gaps or needs across the local landscape that could use some focused attention.

The opportunity to educate across an entire spectrum from K-12 to 100+ years old is exciting! The Fire Program team will focus on education and outreach efforts that meet local needs for all Oregonians. One of my top priorities is creating communities who are smoke ready in all counties in Oregon. Our smoke problems are not going away anytime soon, so having people prepared for when smoke comes is really important. Also important is increasing people’s knowledge of why prescribed fire (and it’s associated smoke) is a good management tool and how a little smoke from today’s controlled burn can go a long way toward mitigating negative impacts from tomorrow’s wildfire.

The list of opportunities is endless, really. Partnership building with agencies, non-profits, tribal groups, landowners, and organizations is a tremendous opportunity and will be key to the Fire Program’s success! No one single entity can accomplish all the work that needs to be done.

I’m sure the Program will encounter its fair share of challenges as well. We are currently facing a major challenge right now with COVID-19 and the effect COVID-19 has had on (everyone’s) budgets. We are missing opportunities to meet with people face-to-face in workshops, meetings, field tours, etc. However, COVID-19 has forced us to re-envision how we connect with people. As a result, we have pivoted learning opportunities to an online platform. In May we offered three fire prevention and preparedness webinars and had an impact on over 800 people! I could not reach that number of people in a single workshop or in-person.

Other challenges will be navigating different agency rules and regulations. Land ownership in Oregon is quite a checkerboard! However, this challenge goes back to partnerships and trust building – once you’ve established that, you can always find a way to move forward.

Firefighter using tools to battle a prescribed fire in a forest

Lighting a prescribed fire in Oregon. Photo Courtesy of Carrie Berger.

Annie: What advice would you give to someone wishing to build capacity for fire adaptation in their own place?

Carrie: Definitely create partnerships! But, the biggest piece of advice I have is to communicate your success stories. Be able to show proof of concepts and impact. Don’t just think about the number of events conducted – think about and communicate the impact those events had on people, the environment, and the economy.  Also, in this era of smartphones and gadgets it is important to take the time to meet people face-to-face (when it’s safe to do so, of course)!

Annie: Is there anything you would have done differently?

Carrie: I feel like I have communicated with a lot of people (about the Fire Program), but if I were to go back and give myself any advice, it would have been to communicate more. There is always room for more communication!

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4 thoughts on “From the Bottom Up: Oregon’s Investment in Fire Adaptation (An Interview with Carrie Berger)”

  1. Mike Zupko says:

    Great stuff, and congrats Carrie!

  2. Carrie Berger says:

    Thank you Mike! I look forward to working with you through the Western Region National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy group.

  3. Marjie Brown says:

    Way to go Carrie! Congrats! It will be so fun to watch you make great things happen.

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