Friday, November 20, 2015

Living with Wildfire

One of the most defining elements in my life has been wildfire. It started at 18 months old, when my family’s home up the Entiat Valley was one of thirty five destroyed by the Tyee Fire. While I have no memory of that actual day, the scars from that fire are still very real. Growing up, it meant that my first phrase was “burnt trees” and playing outside always ended with charcoal covered clothes. Now, it means not having access to my parent’s record collection, my dad’s climbing gear, old family photo albums. While frustrating- I can quite easily live without those things. What I really struggle with now, are the more frequent, higher intensity fires, and the advances the fires have made into more populated areas and the Glacier Peak Wilderness- my favorite playground. The thought of backpacking into places that were once a wonderland but are now turned to a crisp, puts knots in my stomach. It is a destruction that I have a really hard timing coming to terms with, because it is so personal to me.

One really powerful thing that growing up in an area that has been so harshly affected by a natural disaster did to me, was allowing me to witness and appreciate the rebirth. Looking across the valley outside my parent’s front window (of the house they rebuilt a few years after the fire) one person might only see the hundreds of blackened trees- but I see an equal amount, if not more, 10-15 foot tall trees that have grown since. I literally got to grow up at the same time as the plants in my valley- and that is pretty special.
Living in an environment where natural disaster is so prevalent can definitely make someone want to give up- and usually around July of every summer when the air is thick with smoke and plumes dot the horizon, I do want to. However, I do believe it is a fight worth fighting- I am far too connected to these landscapes to give up and walk away. In college, I fought the fight by working for the Forest Service- my base job was working as a member of the Recreation Crew- but in my second season I earned the certifications needed to work at dispatch. That season and the next I worked 75 hours a week, with nearly zero days off, managing the equipment, crews, supplies, and overhead personnel needed to fight the 500,000 plus acres of Central Washington land that was on fire.

In my current position as an AmeriCorps doing environmental education, I am fighting the fight by teaching future generations how to understand and respect the fine balance needed to live in peace in a wildfire ecosystem. Through the Wenatchee Valley Museum’s exhibit ‘Wildfires & Us’ and their educational program they have designed to go along with it, I have the opportunity to teach 3rd-10th graders about wildfire ecology and history in our area. An especially poignant moment each time that I teach this lesson is when I hold up a section of a tree that was killed in the Tyee fire and use it to explain the history of fire in our country. On this tree cookie (a 4 inch thick section of a tree), you can clearly see the Pith of the tree- when it was born in 1810- and all the subsequent tree lines that show it survived eight fires between 1810 and 1929, and then was eventually killed in 1994 by the Tyee fire. I explain to the students that because there were semi-frequent, low-intensity fires in the first 119 years of its life, the tree was able to survive. But due to the exclusion of fire in the later 65 years of its life, because of policies developed following the 1910 Big Burn- like the 10 AM policy developed in 1935- ground and ladder fuels were allowed to build up leading to the subsequent death of the tree in 1994. This is usually an “ah-ha!” moment for many students and allows me to bring the lesson of wildfire ecology full circle. We are teaching them that wildfire management is still being developed- we thought we had the answer for the last century, but have now realized that we were doing it wrong, and it is time to look for new solutions. I strive to inspire the students to think about solutions to the epidemic of overcrowded, weak, dying, and thus flammable trees. We talk about Department of Ecology policy regarding controlled burns, Mountain Pine Beetle infestations, and tactics to reduce fuels. My hope is that the students come away with an understanding of the recipe for a firestorm, what a healthy forest should look like, and a spark to the question of “what’s next?”
I believe there is power in developing policy at a high level in an effort to incentivize actions that would reduce risk of loss from wildfire. But, I also strongly believe in the power of educating future generations so that they grow up with an understanding of the issues and are that much more motivated and prepared to work towards a solution when they enter the workforce. It is apparent that the Wenatchee Valley realizes there is a problem- and I look forward to seeing solutions arise in upcoming years!
If you hadn’t had a chance to check out the Wildfires & Us exhibit at the Wenatchee Valley Museum- today is the last day it is being shown, and I strongly urge you to check it out. It combines the talented photography of John Marshall and the extensive knowledge of Paul Hessburg and is extremely informative about wildfire ecology historically and looking into the future. Additionally, check out these amazing videos made by North 40 Productions that were shown at the Wildfires & Us Summit last week. They detail last summer’s fires and the educational program at Squilchuck:
I would love to read your thoughts on the summit or exhibit if you were able to attend, or attempt to answer any questions you might have regarding life in a wildfire ecosystem. As always, thanks for stopping by!

P.S. If you were affected by last summer's fires and are wondering what steps you should be taking now, on Tuesday, November 24th, at the Chelan Fire Station from 6:30-8:30, there will be an After the Fires Community Meeting. Representatives from local agencies as well as experts on post fire recovery will be present to answer questions. We hope to see you there!

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