The Untapped Secret Society of Cooperative Extension
Author: FAC Network Participant
Written By: Kate Lighthall, Coordinator, Western Region, National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy &
Nick Goulette, Executive Director, The Watershed Center
Over 100 participants packed the ballroom March 10-12 in Tucson, Arizona for the Cooperative Extension Educators Workshop. Extension Agents and Associates, leaders in the wildland fire community and community leaders came together to hear how Extension efforts can and are making a difference in the prevention and preparation for unwanted wildfires.
The theme for the event was “Preparing for Wildfires: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity,” which provided the perfect platform for sharing information, science and on-
the-ground experiences that have shaped the successful prevention and preparation models across the West. The workshop supported the need for greater knowledge of these programs and how Extension Educators can provide both valuable research and a vital communication link to the public.
The presentations ranged from the basics of fire behavior and property preparation, to fire adapted communities and lessons learned before, during and after fires. The workshop highlighted successful Extension efforts such as the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension program and its nationally recognized Living With Fire initiative and the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Citizen Fire Academy; along with other successful efforts such as the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the Joint Fire Science Exchange Networks.
The workshop also included a special presentation by Bob Mutch, retired from a 38-year career with the US Forest Service and now a consultant on wildland fire issues across the world. He eloquently and movingly reminded us of the real faces of those lost in catastrophic fires. He shared a quote used by the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center, “a lesson is learned when we modify our behavior based on what we now know” to encourage us to develop all the opportunities for resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities and wildfire response so “we never go down that road again.”
The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, promotes the notion that through collaboration and strong communications these goals can, and need to be achieved if we are to make a difference in reducing risk to lives, natural resources and communities.
The high point of the workshop was a field trip to Mt. Lemmon, site of the catastrophic 2003 Aspen Fire that burned through the entire community of Summer Haven. Several survivors shared their stories and conveyed their enthusiasm for continued wildfire preparedness within the community, and collaboration with the adjacent land manager, the US Forest Service, to make their little slice of heaven more resilient to the next fire.
The “crisis” is clear, especially in the Southwest where climate, land management history, and present development patterns are fueling larger and more catastrophic wildfires,– and as Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney acknowledged during the workshop, the “opportunity” is “for all of us, as stakeholders, to work together to find solutions.”
Capitalizing on Cooperative Extension
Several themes emerged regarding the unique roles that Cooperative Extension agents can, should and do play in local wildfire mitigation. In some states and counties, extension specialists are integrally involved in leading statewide programs that assist communities and landowners, as in Nevada, Oregon, California and throughout much of the Southeast. In other areas, wildfire issues weighed lower on the long list of priorities or were just emerging as clear needs for Extension to service.
Regardless of history or current engagement, participants agreed that Cooperative Extension agents occupy a unique role within their networks and communities. Their ability to reach landowners, their connection to academia and the latest science and technology, and their being embedded in communities and institutions crossing the local and state levels, uniquely positions them to contribute to the complex challenges of building fire adapted communities before, during and after wildfires.
At the same time, they acknowledged the challenges they confront given declining budgets and staffing, coupled with steady demand from landowners for assistance across resource management issues including agriculture, forestry and range management. While wildfire can threaten all of these pursuits, landowners perceive it as just one issue among many.
Despite the challenges to attaining further engagement with and service from Cooperative Extension specialists, conference participants agreed that Extension represents an invaluable resource to building and sustaining fire adapted communities, and that there was huge value in their getting together in person to learn together and share their best practices and challenges across states and regions. Special THANKS to the Southwest Fire Science Consortium for providing an excellent venue and opportunity for participants to learn more about Cooperative Extension’s role in wildfire mitigation and preparation.