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. 

As skies turned red and large scale fires tore through Oregon’s forests and communities, Oregon State University College of Forestry researchers stood ready to share research and answer questions from reporters. They also sprung into action to support the state’s response, developing research proposals to help inform future policy decisions.

The College of Forestry produces fire-related research that expands knowledge about fire history and ecology, fuels treatment (thinning and prescribed fire), and risk analyses to help inform future decisions. The College also explores some of the important social dimensions present in fire research, like work in governance, social justice and equity, and how to improve livelihoods.

Researchers are active nationally and internationally, tracking and contributing to science and understanding. They bring this knowledge to their undergraduate and graduate students in the classroom and labs. Meanwhile, OSU’s world-class Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Program is the final, critical link, distributing information beyond the campus and helping communities become more fire-adapted.

Some of the ways the College of Forestry’s fire research work aides Oregonians includes:

The research helps guide the way towards a more fire-adapted future and contributes to a more collaborative and productive science-informed conversation about how we co-exist with fire.

In March 2018, Oregon State hosted the inaugural Fire Summit in Portland. This event aimed to identify viable forest management practices that could help mitigate the risks and impacts of high-severity fire events in the West.

About 30 scientists, land managers and forest policy experts were in attendance. They came from five states and British Columbia, and represented six universities, seven federal land management agency offices, departments or research units, four private forestland management entities, and two cities.

The summit closed with a call to action from Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

“It has been a great opportunity for us to reflect on the challenges our region has faced and the challenges to come, to share best practices, exchange data and research and discuss insights we learn from fighting wildfires,”

Brown said. She went on to discuss the prevalence of wildfire in the West and the risk to communities, economies and livelihoods. Brown said that collaborations – like the Fire Summit – will be key in preventing devastating wildfires.

“By taking an ‘all-lands, all-hands’ approach and committing to work together across jurisdictional boundaries, we can sustain robust rural economies and preserve our natural resources for future generations,” Brown said.

Anthony S. Davis, interim dean of the College of Forestry agrees, “The Western USA is home to the world’s leading scientists who focus on fire on our landscapes. The Fire Summit was a unique opportunity for those scientists to interact with the policymakers who are asking for guidance in addressing this phenomenal challenge.”

The collective remarks of the panelists and speakers offered a big-picture perspective of the intertwined views of fire in the West, from the variety of jurisdictions, landscapes and vegetation types, and cultural experiences and expectations.

The experts compiled their feedback and made specific recommendations:

• Expand strategic use of commercial thinning, prescribed fires, and managed wildfire as forest management tools.

• Improve coordination across jurisdictions and ownership boundaries.

• Develop and implement cross-boundary ‘pre-fire response’ plans and strategies.

• Address inequities associated with liability for cross-boundary fires.

• Invest in data mapping, risk assessment, and applied research that directly supports cross-boundary management and suppression.

Oregon State officials recognize discussions like this are critical for encouraging stakeholder engagement when it comes to wildfire issues.

Work is also underway to identify opportunities to directly and regularly inform federal elected officials and staff in Washington, D.C., about summit outcomes and subsequent efforts. Direct dialogue and discussion of the opportunities for real progress is an important goal of Summit participants seeking to inform policies designed to help mitigate the risks and impacts of high-severity fire events in the West.

“The scale of our fire problem is likely measured in decades and centuries, not a handful of years, and across millions of acres, not localized forests and landscapes,” says Davis. “To address this serious challenge, we have to step out of our own way and not go back to the false promise of landscape stability maintained through unsustainable practices. The Fire Summit served to bring the widest range of partners to the table for a first conversation in this direction.”

Residents of the Western United States are living in a time of change. The forest is stressed from high tree densities, drought, and insect and disease outbreaks. The forest landscape neither looks nor functions as it did before fire suppression efforts began more than a century ago.

In 2017, Oregon experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record with more than 700,000 acres burned across the State resulting in ecological, social and economic damage. These damages cost the state of Oregon millions of dollars each year and billions across the nation.

Our forests need help

Oregon State researchers and extension agents have emphasized the need for viable forest management practices to help mitigate the risks and impacts of high-intensity and high-severity fire events.

Enter Daniel Leavell, Klamath and Lake County extension agent and Carrier Berger, extension associate and program coordinator for the Northwest Fire Science Consortium.

Their goal is to affect change when it comes to the unique and complicated nature of wildfire.

The pair are planning a comprehensive way to address fire in Oregon. It’s called the Fire Program. The team believes a sound fire program uses science as a foundation to provide education and outreach to the public, leading to the promotion and strategic use of cross-boundary, landscape-scale restoration and wildfire riskreduction projects.

Getting the work done

A successful fire program works to achieve the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which encourages resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, and safe and effective wildfire response.

Local partnerships are key, including one with the nonprofit group, Klamath-Lake Forest Health Partnership (KLFHP). KLFHP is working with the fire program to implement sound, science-based management across ownership boundaries in Klamath and Lake Counties.

“We collaborated across ownership boundaries to implement forest health treatments,” Leavell says.

“This creates seamless, healthy forest landscapes resilient to disturbance while working with partners to implement work on the ground across private and public lands to achieve objectives.”

Leavell hopes other individuals and communities use this as a model and modify it to meet the needs of their local circumstances.

What’s next?

Leavell and Berger are seeking funding to support the statewide Fire Program. “People are really grabbing onto the concept of this program and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Berger says. “Funding would bolster the program and help us get work done on the ground through our landscape efforts.”

Leavell agrees and believes that partnerships are key in successfully bringing the program to life.

“Oregon State University’s work in this area is critical,” Leavell says. “Together with homeowners, landowners, and land managers (public and private), we can make a real difference and affect management changes that impact the health of our forests and communities.”

burned trees

Klamath County Forestry Extension Agent Daniel Leavell began his forestry and fire career in early 1973 at the Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside, California, and continued later that year at the Oregon State campus. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1977 from OSU, and has been working and continuing his education in both industries ever since.

Leavell, who also holds a master’s degree from OSU and a doctoral degree from the University of Montana, started his current extension position with the Oregon State College of Forestry in 2014 and hit the ground running in Klamath and Lake Counties.

“We’re all working together to reach a common goal,” Leavell says. “It’s been extremely satisfying for me to play a role in these efforts – especially to see results happening on the ground.”

 

Klamath Community College Partnership

In 2014, the main fire district in Klamath Falls and Klamath Community College (KCC) began talking about the possibility of developing a formal program and facility that could support the training and education of first responders in the fields of fire, emergency medical services, law enforcement and more.

“We all agreed it was a community need and wanted to pursue it, and I offered assistance,” Leavell says.

Leavell was involved in wildland firefighting from 1978 to 2012 and with volunteer structure fire departments from 2006 to 2016. This experience allowed him to bring together other partners including the Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Air National Guard Fire Department at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls.

Leavell says it is important for first responders to attain national, state and local certifications. Many in emergency services also desire academic credit, but these are not required to obtain certified skills needed for the job. However, academic credit and degrees provide a competitive edge for job searches. Skills and experience count.

“Many first responders want certifications and academic credit,” Leavell says. “So we set up an organization to do that.”

The Klamath Basin Public Safety Training Center began with the goal of offering participants a two-year degree with options in structure and wildland fire, emergency medical and law enforcement.

Oregon State and KCC signed an agreement to test the concept and designed a curriculum for a two-year program focused on the basic academies of medical and fire sufficient to obtain certificates and credits. As proof of the concept, the program organized, created and implemented a structure fire academy during winter and spring terms in 2015 and 2016. The 14-week program involved 30 future professional, structure firefighters.

“They went through live fire training, ladder training and other exercises,” Leavell says. “Practical skills, scientific education and leadership training were also implemented, and at the end of the program they earned 12 academic credits and state certificates for structural firefighting.”

Leavell says the next step is to formalize the transfer program between KCC and Oregon State.

“This was needed,” Leavell stresses. “It will really benefit small communities with busy fire stations.”

Managing landscapes

One reason Leavell came to work in Klamath County was because he knew there were forward thinking forest managers working in and near the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

“The community here really works together,” Leavell says. “And when I got here, a group of private landowners and public land managers had been meeting and agreed to start work on a very large but successful project.”

Together, Leavell and the other managers were able to create maps and make risk assessments for 30,000 acres of private forest and 110,000 acres of National Forest.

“Within a year of completing the mapping, we were awarded $4 million in grants to begin implementing the projects we found were necessary during the mapping process.”

Throughout the process, Leavell worked one-on-one with landowners to help them create and implement management plans and pick projects that would benefit each forest.

Leavell says public and private land managers were able to work together to conserve resources during thinning efforts.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” he says. “If a landowner can get grant money it’s easier for everyone to get a project done, and our reward is better management for the health and safety of the forests, communities and those responding to disturbances.”

Leavell and his team hope to publish the results of the project so their strategies can be implemented statewide.

 

Making a difference

These projects and more make working for the Oregon State Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Service in Klamath and Lake Counties a fulfilling experience for Leavell. He hopes to see even more results in the future by bringing people together to make our forests and communities healthier.

“I love to sit down at the table and talk to people to see how we can overcome barriers, capitalize on our strengths, shore up our weaknesses and see how we can come together for a common goal that really gets results,” Leavell says. “Extension is in a unique position to facilitate, coordinate and bring partners together to fulfill our mission, which has no underlying agenda other than to benefit the community.”