Photo by Allison Jolley, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

How would you characterize your role in helping communities become more fire adapted?

My current role with the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy’s (Cohesive Strategy) Western Region is one of facilitation. I primarily assist federal, state, local and tribal agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, position themselves so that they can work with their communities to become more fire adapted. In many cases, I act as part of the Western Regional Strategy committee (the Cohesive Strategy’s western arm for implementation) in actively engaging these groups. Together, we facilitate an increased understanding of what the Cohesive Strategy is and what progress looks like on the ground. Its goals are centered around fire adapted communities concepts, resilient landscapes, and safe, effective wildland fire response.

What do you like most about your job? Least?

That’s easy no two days are ever the same! Holding the Cohesive Strategy umbrella for 17 western states means that I travel to vastly different geographic locations to learn about specific wildland fire issues and their impacts on these communities. The best parts are the “aha” moments, when stakeholders come to understand that within the context of the Cohesive Strategy, they can achieve so much more together than they can as individual agencies or groups.

I was recently in Flagstaff, where we wrapped up the Arizona Wildland-Urban Interface Summit. We spoke about the Cohesive Strategy and its overall goal to live with wildland fire. Many audience members shared examples of how they are working together to reduce risks around homes and neighborhoods. One woman shared that she lives in a remote area, with one way in and one way out. It is overgrown with vegetation, and she asked how she is supposed to motivate her neighbors to do something about it. We pointed out that sometimes we cannot get our neighbors to take action, which leaves us with one question, which I asked: “In that case, what are you going to do now to live with fire?” She suddenly realized that she still had a responsibility and could take actions to improve the outcomes in the event of a fire. This is the Cohesive Strategy at its core. What are you going to do to reduce your risk of loss of life or property? When we reduced the situation to most basic of scenarios, the woman immediately replied, “I’m going to create defensible space and evacuate early.” We all have a stake in better fire outcomes. Even in the absence of collaboration, the work of one person can change the outcome.

Residents loading forest debris into a trailer

The Cohesive Strategy’s desired outcome is that residents take action at home and in their communities to reduce the threat of wildfire. Credit: Dave Ruben, Carson City Fire Department

Can you describe one of your favorite projects?

Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) remain one of my favorite fire adaptation projects. These small, community-driven efforts can provide the backbone and the platform for communities beginning their fire adaptation journey. When groups engage diverse community members, they develop a powerful springboard for action at multiple levels. Community risk assessments provide valuable information for the CWPP itself but also for local fire agencies and community members. Prioritizing projects based on these assessments insists on a collaborative effort, which lays the groundwork for larger, collaborative landscape-scale projects in the future. In my previous position as program director for Project Wildfire, I worked with seven communities within Deschutes County to develop CWPPs that reflected the individuality of those communities and their fire issues. By selecting a diverse group of stakeholders to develop each CWPP, we formed “mini-collaboratives,” which later shaped the backbone of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project and other local collaborative efforts.

Overall, the CWPP process gives a community much more than just a list of priorities for fuels reduction on federal and private lands; it develops collaboration capacity and identifies people with a passion for fire adaptation.

What advice do you have for people that are interested in furthering their fire adaptation work?

Almost daily, I interact with stakeholders across the West that are seeking new and creative ways to stimulate action in their communities. My advice to them is almost always the same  check out the FAC Net blog to read about and connect with communities that are in various stages of the fire adaptation journey and are willing to share their stories, including both their successes and failures.

Can you tell us about someone who has influenced your thinking regarding wildfire adaptation?

There are too many to recognize. I’ve noticed, though, that they all have something in common. They “leave their egos at the door” and bring a willingness to learn and share. These open attitudes have resulted in cultural transformations among stakeholders and in the breaking down of preconceived boundaries. We see this occurring at local levels between citizens and agencies, as they work together to assess and address risks. And, we see this at the state and federal levels, with the help of legislation such as the Good Neighbor Authority and the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004.

Peg Polichio (former director for State and Private Forestry for the USDA Forest Service, Region 6) once said, “the Cohesive Strategy is about working better together.” At the end of the day, this is the simplest statement about our work, and it also outlines how we can be successful.

Not all of our readers live in the West. Who should they contact?

At the beginning of the Cohesive Strategy effort, it was obvious that our nation is comprised of different fire needs, ecosystems and geographic settings. It made sense then, and now, that we engage stakeholders in terms of three regions: the West, the Southeast and Northeast. Each region has a coordinator like me, who acts as the lead “cat herder” and “connector” between stakeholders. We each are rooted in our respective regions and have regional experience and expertise around wildland fire.

Larry Mastic (gamlam1107[at]gmail[dot]com) is my counterpart in the Northeast. In the Southeast, Gary Wood (gwood[at]southernforests[dot]org) leads the Cohesive Strategy effort.

What are you most excited to work on next?

I am most excited about working with groups a little closer to the ground. We continue to see that the most visible evidence of Cohesive Strategy implementation is at the community level, in places where passionate people are making a difference and communities are taking steps toward becoming more fire adapted.

Katie Lighthall is the coordinator and communications director for the Cohesive Strategy’s Western Region. Serving 17 western states, she works with the Western Regional Strategy committee members and stakeholders to facilitate the implementation of the Cohesive Strategy.

Prior to joining the Cohesive Strategy in 2013, Katie spent eight years focusing on fire adaptation activities and programs as the program director for Project Wildfire — a wildland fire mitigation partnership in Deschutes County, Oregon. There, she facilitated and managed seven Community Wildfire Protection Plans, managed a county-wide fuels treatment program, secured millions in grant funding and served as a public information officer and communications director for a variety of fire-related programs.

Katie enjoyed a rewarding career as a consultant and grant writer for non-profit organizations and fire agencies before her position at Project Wildfire. Her passion for fire service began when she handled large fire and litigation claims for State Farm Insurance. From there, she took her interest and background to Redmond Fire and Rescue where she became a structural and wildland firefighter in 1995. Later, she became a fire inspector and prevention specialist. Katie holds Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and English from the University of Washington. She brings her vast experience as a consultant, project manager, large loss specialist, firefighter and grant writer to her current position with the Cohesive Strategy, where her knowledge and skills are used on a daily basis to help implement the Cohesive Strategy in the West. You may contact Katie by leaving a comment below or emailing her at westerncohesivestrategy[at]gmail[dot]com.

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