Prior to the recent wildfires across Oregon and along the west coast, Oregon State University had already begun developing a new branch of its extension programming. The Forestry and Natural Resources Fire Extension Program aims to mitigate wildfires and educate communities across Oregon.
In an interview with The Advocate, Carrie Berger, OSU’s associate program leader and fire program manager for the Forestry and Natural Resources Fire Extension Program, discussed the creation of the program, its importance to the state of Oregon, and the steps it’s taken to educate and prepare Oregonians both pre- and post-fire season.
The Program’s Creation and Reach Across Oregon
OSU’s Extension Service was originally established in 1911. The new fire extension program, which falls under the umbrella of OSU’s Forestry and Natural Resources Extension, encompasses a number of positions, including a statewide fire specialist and six regional specialists. Regional specialists are placed in various sections of the state, and work to improve wildfire preparedness along with assisting in education and outreach to local communities.
The fire extension program originally planned to fill the positions and launch this summer, but the process was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, the program recently hired its state fire specialist, Daniel Leavell, along with four out of the six open regional specialist positions, according to Berger.
“We’re waiting on filling the other two positions because of the uncertainty around budgets due to COVID, so we’re being kind of fiscally responsible here, and seeing where things are come spring and summer of 2021 to hire on the other two positions, if possible,” she said.
Berger played a key role in the creation of the fire extension program, and now helps manage and facilitate large-scale projects for the program. Currently, she is working on a prescribed burn education program with partners across the state, including the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council.
Goals and Objectives of the Fire Extension Program
According to OSU’s Extension website, a key objective for the program includes creating fire-adapted infrastructure, communities, and landscapes across the state of Oregon through awareness, education, and outreach.
The program places a large focus on proactive measures, particularly educating communities, planning evacuation routes, and preparing homes and buildings for fire. Berger said the recent fires throughout the state did not shift the goals of the program, but rather highlighted the need for the type of work the program is already doing.
In a recent survey of fire-impacted communities, Berger said participants expressed interest in topics like fire ecology, fire prevention, fire preparedness, fire behavior, and fire management.
“Those were already part of the core of our education. We kind of pivot to what’s timely, and right now people really need resources on post-fire, so we’ll focus our efforts on that, at least for now,” Berger said. “Then, come winter and spring, we’ll transition again into being fire prepared, and talk about fire prevention.”
Educational Outreach, Pre- and Post-Fire
Recently, Berger helped hold a virtual listening session in response to wildfires that swept the state following Labor Day weekend. Berger, along with agency and organization partners, conducted the meeting via Zoom. The session included a question and answer portion, and a storytelling portion, where participants spoke about how the recent fires impacted them.
“It included 30 minutes of story time for people affected by the fire to just communicate their story, because I think that’s part of the healing process – them feeling supported,” Berger said. “We had 400 people on the line with us on a Zoom meeting, and then followed with questions and answers – so, Oregonians would ask questions, and myself, extension, and Oregon Department of Forestry, the Oregon Health Authority, folks like that on the line would answer questions.”
Moving forward, education and outreach will be specific to the fire extension program’s service areas, according to Berger. When the regional specialists officially come on board in October and November, they will conduct a needs assessment of their area to see what the educational needs of the community are.
“The needs on the west side might be different from the educational needs on the east side, or rangeland needs,” Berger said. “They’ll offer specific education towards specific needs.”
OSU’s Forestry and Natural Resources Extension has also developed a five-volume set of curriculum to teach fire science to constituents across the state, and is working closely with the Oregon Environmental Literacy Program to integrate fire science into K-12 education.
“We can lessen the fear of fire, and create an understanding of fire, not just for landowners or adult Oregonians, but for K-12 and beyond. This is a program for everybody,” Berger said.
Berger said recent fires on the west side of Oregon highlights the need for preparedness, since many Oregonians previously believed fires couldn’t happen there.
“Some wildfire is absolutely necessary for some of our forests in Oregon. Some forests are fire-adapted,” she said. “But when people have knowledge, and understanding, they can better prepare themselves to evacuate, to understand the situation and not panic.”
Common Misunderstandings Regarding Fire in Oregon
“I think a misconception is that people think just because they live in a subdivision like Corvallis that fire can’t happen here – that it only happens in the wildlands,” Berger said. “We’re seeing fires burn in subdivisions like running crown fires in a forest. In fact, in southwest Oregon, what burned wasn’t the forest – it was communities, burned to the ground. So, I think that’s a really big misconception, is that wildfire won’t happen in an urban space.”
Berger said another point of confusion among the public is whether the wildfires are the result of climate change or fire management. According to Berger, it is not solely climate or solely management, but rather the result of an entire web of change that includes both climate and management in addition to other factors: increased population and people building more into wildland areas, for example.
Berger also noted that the media tends to generalize issues and solutions regarding wildfire, which can mislead or confuse the public.
“I think that is what’s missing a lot in the media, when you have people interviewed. They talk generally, and I fell into this too when I was giving an interview. But it’s really confusing to the public when you just talk about management. You really have to specify – well, west side management versus east side management, or rangeland management, it’s all just very different,” Berger said. “But management, in general, should be a tool in the tool box, whether you thin or prescribe burn.”
The Importance of Proactive Steps
Berger stressed the importance of being prepared and taking steps to mitigate wildfires, noting that the more we are prepared, the better we are to make it through scenarios like what happened over Labor Day weekend.
“We spend millions of dollars on reaction. Putting out the fires, having airplanes fly over and drop the retardant – millions and millions of dollars,” Berger said. “We can spend a sliver of that money on proaction to protect our livelihood, our economies, our ecosystems. So why wouldn’t we do that?”
Forest management is a key part of mitigating fires. Berger said management is complicated and different throughout the state, since Oregon’s landscapes are so diverse.
“I think on the west side we can’t necessarily thin or prescribe burn our way out of what happened on Labor Day, but we can do some of that, of course,” Berger said. “Management is important. That’s a really complicated, layered question, because management is not one size fits all.”
OSU’s Fire Extension Program: Unique to Oregon, and the United States
Berger said to her knowledge, there isn’t another fire extension program elsewhere in the United States. Not only does it have significant capacity when the full extension team is in place, but it is also unique due to the extension framework itself, in which workers live in the communities that they serve.
“They live and work in communities, so they understand the issues and the needs of the people in those communities. We’re also connected to the university, to the College of Forestry, to the College of Agriculture. We understand the science, we have access to that science, and we’re able to take science-based information and apply that to the landscape and provide it to Oregonians in local areas,” Berger said. “That is just key. I could be in Salem, at a higher level, shouting all this information to people, but we’re unique because we live and work among our fellow Oregonians.”
Berger is passionate about fire and the work she does with OSU’s extension program because she wants to “be a part of the fire solution in Oregon,” and wants to help Oregonians avoid the loss and pain they’ve experienced over the past few weeks.
“A lot of our Forestry and Natural Resource Extension colleagues had to evaluate, and they went through what other Oregonians went through … they had some of those same thoughts, and went through the same process. They lost things,” Berger said. “So again, that’s part of the uniqueness [of the program], is that we’re with them. As I said in my listening session, we’re in this together. Because we truly are.”
More information on OSU’s Forestry and Natural Resources Fire Extension Program can be found on the OSU Extension website.
By Jada Krening