When the devastating westside wildfires swept across Oregon over Labor Day, the Oregon State University Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Fire Program was ready to respond. The program was created earlier this year to reduce wildfire risks and prepare and create fire-adapted infrastructure, communities and landscapes.
One of the program’s key objectives is education and outreach, and extension staff and regional fire specialists immediately provided resources and support to those affected by the Oregon fires.
One reason they were able to meet community needs quickly is because of the structure of the program. The program’s regional fire specialists live in the communities in which they work, which means they’re uniquely equipped to address and support the concerns of their communities and geographies. It also means they are invested in protecting the community’s resources.
Led by fire program manager Carrie Berger, there are currently four regional fire specialists located in different areas of Oregon, including the Southwest, Central, Willamette Valley and the Cascades, and the Southeast. The program also includes statewide fire specialist Dan Leavell. Since Oregon is ecologically diverse, representation across the state is needed to address the different risks and strategies to reduce catastrophic wildfire. The regional fire specialists intimately understand the specific geographies, fire regimes and climates of their assigned locations, in addition to the social and ecological dimensions. The program plans to add two regional fire specialists in the future, bringing the total areas covered to six.
Tremendous work went into the placement of these regional fire specialists to live and work in areas of strategic focus across the state. Multiple partners in Colleges across OSU utilized GIS to determine locations across Oregon that were at highest risk for catastrophic fire. The College of Forestry continues this GIS work to develop relative fire risk and situational assessments for each geographical area.
The Extension fire program focuses a significant amount of effort on proactive measures, including educating communities, planning, and supporting fire-adapted infrastructure. One component of its educational outreach is the development and integration of fire science into Oregon’s K-12 curriculum. After the recent wildfires, the program proved it also can inform Oregonians on fire ecology and behavior, explain the different types of fire and forest management, and provide an opportunity for people impacted by fires to connect.
The program, along with agency and organization partners, facilitated a virtual listening session to hear from those affected by the fires. Over 400 people attended the call to listen, learn and ask questions of staff and partners like the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon Health Authority. In addition to obtaining information and resources for next steps, the call acted as a space for people to share their experience and receive support.
After the listening session, the fire program hosted a series of post-fire recovery webinars, developed tools and educational materials for dealing with the effects of fire, and conducted site visits to assist homeowners and landowners.
The recent and extreme fires highlight how the Extension fire program can educate and prepare Oregonians and our diverse landscapes to be fire-adapted, resilient and support a safe and effective wildfire response.
“The fires that happened over Labor Day weekend were devastating. Many people lost everything in those fires,” says Carrie Berger, fire program manager. “We need to change the culture of fire and be more proactive, not reactive. The fire program will be part of Oregon’s wildfire solution.”
More information on OSU’s Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Fire Program is available online.