A Fire Burns Through It: Building Community Defense Against Wildfires


Ronald Hodgeson, acting as a fire information officer and community support
task force leader, directs the work of residents and hand crews
preparing defensible space for structures during the Marre Fire outside
of Santa Barbara.
When he was a boy growing up in Kalispell, Montana, Ronald Hodgson, professor of Parks and Recreation, learned a lot about fire from his father, a park ranger and fire management specialist for Glacier National Park. During college, Hodgson himself worked as a fire guard for the National Park Service. He also read the famous Montana writer Norman MacLean, whose last book, Young Men and Fire, became a national best-seller. It tells the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire near Helena in which twelve young fire fighters lost their lives. It's a persuasive tale, but, and Hodgson would be the first to tell you this, Macleanís view of fire as a demonic foe to be fought until every last ember dies out is woefully one-sided.

As part of a team funded by the CSU, Chico Foundation Research Center, Hodgson and his colleagues are beginning to transform public attitude towards fire and, just as significantly, to transform communities themselves from potential tinderboxes into towns a fire can burn through with relative safety.

As radical as this sounds, Hodgson insists that it makes sense. "Because fire was a very common event in the forest for probably the last ten thousand years," he continued, "the forest adapted to fire to the point where, in order to have a stable ecosystem, it was as necessary as sunshine and water. Then, in the 1850s, we came in and began logging, which changed the structure of the forest. Loggers cut down the large trees." Shorter, smaller trees were left, and the distance between the forest floor and the lower limbs of trees was reduced from what it had been. "A lot of the slash was left lying on the ground, so the next time a fire burned through, it burned through much hotter than many of the species could tolerate."

The result? A different ecosystem, and one far more vulnerable to fire. This in turn engendered an extremely aggressive fire suppression philosophy. Explained Hodgson, "We put out all the fires and we prevented fires from starting. It was probably essential because at that time fires killed the small trees. Unfortunately, once the trees grew to such a height that they could survive a fire, so did the understory." Forests became crowded with species like white fir, cedar, and "ladder fuels"—vegetation that allows fire to climb from the forest floor to the crowns of trees. Meanwhile, the distance between tree crowns decreased. "Because they haven't been spaced out by periodic burning, fire can spread from crown to crown and you have fires like the Fountain Fire or the Forty-niner Fire. They're very difficult to stop, very expensive to fight."

Hodgson, whose graduate studies combined resource development and economics with communication theory and human ecology, is wonderfully suited to be a "good fire" ambassador. "I came from a land grant university which has a strong public service component as well as research," he said. "The approach we always used was to work with the community. We were there to provide assistance and help the people get what they wanted, rather than going in and imposing something. It turns out that's a good philosophy, but it's also the most effective way to get something done. Even in these wildland-urban mix communities where everybody's very independent, they're not independent of each other. They watch out for their neighbor and like working with their neighbor. One of our mottoes is `This is a local project supported by government, not a government project supported by locals.' Locals are always in charge."

Using community structures that are already in place (road associations, well-sharing groups, garden clubs, and, even in one case, a pizza club) Hodgson and his team meet with the locals in informal settings—living rooms, back yards, someone's deck—and begin by answering questions and giving a little bit of fire and forest history. If there is interest, the groups recruit others and a holistic strategy for transforming the community from a disaster waiting to happen into one that fits more defensibly into its environment is mapped out. "We try to relandscape the entire community, not just a house here and a house there. We take an approach that's both ecological and logical from a fire perspective: where would the fire burn naturally? "In every community, " he said, "there are certain topographic boundaries and vegetation changes. We'll draw a boundary around where a natural fire would be and that's the area we address." It can be tricky. "To do that, you have to work across all these land ownerships where everyone has different objectives and perspectives on what ought to be done, and if you've got commercial timber land in there along with residential land and federal land, that mix can make it difficult."

Difficult, yes, and time-consuming, but it works. The list of communities that Hodgson and his team are slowly transforming includes O'Brien Mountain, Victoria, Middle Creek, and Shingletown. "We're into our sixth year in Shingletown," Hodgson said. "Every spring, residents organize to do a hazard clean-up and though I'm not sure of the numbers, I'd guess 50 percent of the households there have participated at least once." The residents clean up their properties and haul trash and clippings out to the road, where it's chipped up by a vendor who then hauls it to Anderson where it's converted into electricity.

Now that the "easy work" has been done, Hodgson said, the more difficult properties are being tackled. The University Foundation has helped with putting together a crew that can assist older and disabled property owners with taxing physical labor. The residents also learn which species are native to their area, which are flammable, and how to prune them correctly. "We also talk about how to make buildings more fire-safe, how to safely use mechanical equipment, and how to survive a fire." Evacuation routes, the importance of house numbering, and identifying safe zones are likewise part of the learning process.

When looked at long-term, Hodgson's philosophy seems not only sensible but imperative. Forest health is decreasing as fire danger is increasing. Right now, he said, fire is the most serious threat to the ecological stability of the Sierra Nevada, but, he added, it also needs to be reintroduced into most of the western forests. Such a paradox translates into a lot of hard work ahead, and a lot of community meetings. But Hodgson seems undaunted by the scope of it all. You might even say he's fired up.

BAS


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