The devastating Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge had been burning for weeks when I came upon a vehicle parked illegally within the fire-closure area. A middle-aged woman stood alone at the overlook’s railing.
As a wildland firefighter assigned to educate the public while keeping them out of the fire closure, I stopped to talk. I began the conversation by offering some general information: The 48,000-acre blaze was largely beneficial to the land, I said, leaving a healthy mosaic of low-intensity burn patterns. And though it had not been sparked naturally, the fire would improve the long-term health of the gorge.
I was optimistic, a veteran firefighter desensitized to ashfall and overblown news reports. So I smiled and waited. It was her turn to acknowledge that she was inside a closed area, apologize and drive away. Instead, she looked out at the blackened canyon and said: “I just never thought this could happen. It looks terrible.”
Only then did she tell me that it was her home we were looking at in the canyon below. Remarkably, the fire had spared it, but now it was surrounded by a monochrome moonscape. Her horses had been returned to their pasture, but on the first day of the fire, this woman had bravely loaded them into a trailer as embers drifted around them, the advancing flames threatening to block her escape.
Now, as she drove away from the overlook, it occurred to me that this conversation should never have happened. How was it that a homeowner in the urban interface had never considered wildfire a possibility?
This kind of naiveté is dangerous. It leads many homeowners to fail at undertaking responsible preventative maintenance. But I, too, had been thoughtless in my insistence on the inherent good of fire, which both ignored the human factor and obscured more accurate truths. Fire may be a sign of rebirth, but it is also a bringer of ruin. Wildfire throughout much of the West is overdue, but when it finally comes, its magnitude often exceeds the adaptive limits of an ecosystem. Species depend on fire, but they also go extinct because of it.
What if this homeowner and I had discussed fire in her neighborhood before the inevitable happened? Educational efforts like the Firewise Communities Program effectively help people build safer neighborhoods in vulnerable areas by developing community action plans and providing free online tools. But they can’t reach everybody. This puts the onus of education on neighborhood locals who have the knowledge and tools to help make a community fire-wise. That means wildland firefighters themselves — people like me.
Most wildland firefighters don’t engage with the public that often, and we tend to be tight-lipped about our jobs. We see communities burn, policies and tactics fall short, and we wrestle with our own guilty love of wildfire. We are either criticized for lack of success or action, or placed on pedestals as heroes. This kind of attention is overwhelming for thousands of folks who’d rather just disappear into the woods and do their jobs.
We must resist our desire to blend into the trees, however, and take responsibility to help the family whose cedar shake roof is matted with pine litter, or to clear brush around the elderly couple’s porch. You could even argue that firefighters are morally obligated to take such voluntary actions.
Perhaps more important than physically helping our neighbors, we firefighters must talk about fire and even begin a community discussion (like this one). The agencies that employ us will never reach an audience oblivious to the risk of wildfire, and Firewise Communities Programs still don’t exist in many places. But when a neighboring firefighter clearly explains to the resident whose beautiful home is tucked deep inside a forested canyon that fire will find him sooner or later, that homeowner is more likely to respond and create defensible space.
A friendly discussion at a neighborhood picnic might have better prepared that woman in Oregon for the possibility of a devastating wildfire. Not every neighborhood or even town can be spared, as we recently witnessed in California’s tragic wildfires, yet we can improve our odds through action.
Firefighters need not become champions of the Firewise Communities Program or get embroiled in their friends’ defensible space issues in order to make a difference. Simply providing the web link to the “Firewise Tips Checklist for Homeowners” can give your neighbors a starting point. Explaining the dangers of stacking a woodpile against the house or allowing gutters to fill with debris just might be enough to save someone’s home.
In turn, homeowners living in the forest must consider fire a probability, much the way folks building houses on the seaside have to reckon with hurricanes. Wildland-urban interface dwellers don’t have the luxury of assuming that a natural disaster will not affect them. Forests evolved with fire; now, homeowners must make an effort to do the same.
Lorena Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and wildland firefighter based out of Durango, Colorado.