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From Pulaski to Planning

As a former wildland fire fighter for the U.S Forest Service and National Park Service, I was called to many wildland-urban interface (WUI) fires across the country, including some of the largest wildfires in Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington State history. One of my most memorable fires was the 2012 Little Bear fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico. Initially contained to a small area by local units, winds carried embers across containment lines, igniting spot fires and eventually growing to 44,000 acres. When my crew arrived, we immediately found ourselves fighting wildland fire in an urban environment. Not equipped to suppress structure fire, my crew concentrated on building fire line and preventing the transition of wildfire to the structures. Despite enormous suppression efforts, 242 structures were destroyed, many of which burned in the first 24 hours.

While not realizing it at the time, my experience on the Little Bear Fire was a catalyst for me to becoming a planner. As a young fireman for the federal government, our training did not focus on community resilience or mitigation, and for the first time on that fire, I started to think critically about what could and should be done to assist fireman in saving homes and prevent these disasters in the first place.

When I finally made the decision to attend the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Colorado Denver in 2014, I had reservations on how effective my fire experiences and knowledge would be in the planning field. In school, I predictably focused on resiliency planning topics, providing myself with a larger background in natural hazards mitigation, but my desire to focus on wildfire issues remained. I was fortunate enough to find Molly Mowery, Owner of Wildfire Planning International (WPI), to serve as an advisor early in my graduate career. WPI was engaged in a national wildfire planning program, Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW). Through my capstone project, I focused on developing a set of CPAW recommendations to the City of Chelan, Washington, who had just recently experienced devastating effects from the Chelan Complex Fire. This experience solidified my desire to help create wildfire resilient communities and provided an opportunity to utilize my previous skill set.

Reflecting on my career as a planner, the knowledge and experience I gained as a fireman has been incredibly valuable, including the limitations of suppression capabilities. Communities will always need a well-prepared fire department, but in extreme wildfire conditions, even the most equipped departments can quickly be overwhelmed. In this era of extreme fire events, Colorado communities continue to expand into WUI areas to accommodate the state’s growing population. Careful planning, proper land use, and informed building decisions in these areas are the most effective actions communities can take to mitigate against wildfire impacts. Colorado’s planning professionals have an opportunity to create wildfire resilient communities by familiarizing themselves with the basics of wildfire behavior and implementing mitigation tactics to properly prepare our communities in a fire prone environment.
 

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