The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) recently interviewed Pam Leschak, the national WUI/FAC program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. She has over 35 years of experience in media, business, management and wildfire. Her previous experience includes working as Press Secretary for Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich, Public Relations Administrator for Potlatch Corp., public radio station general manager, award winning writer/editor, volunteer fire department member, and many interagency positions in wildland fire at the local, regional, and national level. She is winner of the Amos Tuck Award from Dartmouth College School of Business and the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Excellence. Her first job in wildfire was as an initial attack dispatcher and aerial observer. Her first job for the Forest Service was as public affairs officer in the Office of the Chief. She has been a qualified red card holder for over 25 years. She was tasked by the Forest Service with creating and promoting fire adapted communities concepts in 2009.
FAC Net: How would you characterize your agency’s role in helping communities become more fire adapted?
PL: The Forest Service is taking an active lead in helping communities adapt to wildfire. It began with support of programs to help residents create defensible space. But we’ve learned that defensible space isn’t enough to protect the whole community but must be partnered with an active local coalition, hazardous fuels treatments, home hardening, CWPPs/FAC SAT, good wildfire risk assessments, codes and ordinances, and an informed and active fire department. The Forest Service funds programs like the FAC Learning Network and the Ready, Set, Go! program, among others, and provides funding for various jurisdictions, including states, to help communities adapt to wildfire.
What should we know about your agency’s programs and/or technical services available to assist communities with their fire adaptation efforts?
Most of the funding and support for mitigation projects comes through the states or the local national forest. If you haven’t already, reach out to them and start working together.
Can you describe some of your favorite, or the most interesting, fire adaptation projects you’ve encountered in your career?
I visited Fargo, Georgia and Taylor, Florida many years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see that they were doing the work to protect themselves. Those communities were adapting to wildfire before there was even the term “fire adapted communities.” Local residents, the fire departments, local forest products industry, state forestry organizations and the Forest Service partnered to create defensible space, do hazardous fuels treatments, create fuel breaks around the communities, harden homes, and educate residents about the risk and the reward. AND they did it without much money. They all put their heads together and made it happen because it was important to them. And they continue to maintain that work many years later.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in engaging with your agency as part of their fire adaptation work?
Learn all you can about wildfire risk to your community and fire adaptation, reach out to other people and organizations who have a stake in reducing wildfire risk to communities, and call your nearest state and national Forest Service office to find out what they’ve got going. And if it’s not already happening, get it started yourself. Create that local coalition. Don’t think only of messaging (that’s the easy part), think of mitigation on the ground because that’s what reduces risk.
Can you share something important you’ve learned about working on wildfire issues in your career?
You’ll never be a hero or get rich doing mitigation work. You’ve got to do it because you believe in it and you want to help. But ultimately your work may be what saves a home, a community or a life and that’s what counts.
What advice would you give to other employees of your agency who are interested in working with communities on fire adaptation projects?
Don’t rely on handing out literature. Go out and shake hands, meet people face-to-face, explain why mitigation is a win for the land management agency and for the property owner/community. Create a local coalition. Use the FAC SAT to help determine next steps. Don’t do the mitigation for the local community, that’s their job. Move beyond messaging to mitigation on the ground.
Can you tell us about someone who has influenced your thinking or shaped your views on some aspect of wildfire adaptation?
Jack Cohen, Stephen Pyne and Peter Leschak. They are all experts on wildfire, they are strategic thinkers, they have spoken and written extensively about the challenges, and they are pragmatic about the solutions. Google them for more information.
What are you most excited about working on related to wildfire resilience in 2016?
There’s no silver bullet to community fire adaptation. It takes a lot of work, a lot of ideas and a lot of determination. But the most gratifying and exciting component is the people who put their hearts into it and keep pluggin’ away, often on a shoestring. They are Sisyphus, the Energizer Bunny, and Super Man/Woman all rolled into one.
Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you’d like our readers to know?
Wildfire risk awareness and messaging is important, but to be valuable it has to result in mitigation. We must move from awareness to action, messaging to mitigation, words to work.
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