Activists work with DNR crew to reduce risks
While some people are enjoying the slower-paced pandemic life, others are taking the opportunity to accomplish some projects that benefit the Methow Valley community at large — such as the Fire Adapted Methow Valley (FAMV) efforts that Nancy Farr and Kathryn Heim are leading.
Farr and Heim are invested in the community becoming one that is well-adapted to wildfire, as opposed to being one that is “at high risk of intensely damaging wildfire,” said Farr, who took initiative about two years ago to get more active in wildfire preparedness efforts.
“No one was doing anything beyond what the Okanogan Conservation District (OCD) was doing,” Farr said, “so I got in touch with Kirsten Cook [of the OCD] and secured her help in coming up with a local plan.”
Next, Farr said, she contacted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) because the agency has an active landowner assistance program. “Over the past two years,” said Farr, “we have developed a wonderful and very effective working relationship with the DNR people, specifically Jake Hardt in Omak, who has been a tremendous resource.”
Through local and regional contacts and the informal sponsorship of the Town of Winthrop, as well as the approval of the mayor and the town council, Farr was able to access the DNR’s small grant program, which allocated funds to fuel reduction programs in the valley.
“Fire resiliency treatments are designed to approximate many of the effects of natural fire, which was the norm here before fire suppression became the standard practice regardless of landscape type,” said Farr. “We live in a fire-prone and fire-dependent landscape, so we need to become better adapted to that reality, which we can’t control.”
Farr said that “it’s important for people to see that making our lands more resilient to fire doesn’t mean taking out all or even most of the trees and shrubs.” Instead, she said, “We strive for a balance that creates a healthier landscape that’s good for us humans but also good for the vegetation and for wildlife.”
School district project
FAMV’s most prominent project is the area around the Methow Valley School District property. “We did a big reduction of Ponderosa pines last year,” Farr said. “If pine trees are limbed up, and we get the ladder fuels out of the way, it makes the trees healthier, as there is not as much material for them to feed and water, and helps protect trees and nearby buildings from fire. We did about two-thirds of the campus and we’re hoping to finish up in the next few weeks, but wildfire season is picking up. We might have to wait until next fall.”
Currently, a DNR crew of Wildland Fire and Forest Health Specialists is working at SaTeekhWa Park, at the north end of Winthrop. Typically, Farr said, wildfire resiliency projects are carried out by WA Conservation Corps (WCC) crews from across the state, but the SaTeekhWa project is staffed by Okanogan County-based DNR staff, chiefly because due to COVID19 restrictions the WCC crews are currently allowed to work only in their home communities.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have these DNR staff allocated to us now,” Farr said, “as they are in heavy demand across the county and will be pulled away from preparedness and fuels mitigation work when they are needed for firefighting.”
“Unfortunately it’s likely the project will be only partially completed until later in the year, due to COVID-19 and firefighting limitations on project staffing. However, we’re grateful to DNR for providing a small crew to get this project started now,” Farr said.
When FAMV has been able to secure DNR-funded work crews for Methow Valley preparedness projects, Farr said, they’ve chosen to “apply them to properties that are heavily used and valued by much of the public, such as the school campus, the SaTeekhWa Park, and the lowest edge of the Meadowlark Natural Area.”
There are two reasons for prioritizing these locations, said Farr. “We want to protect the trees and other vegetation on lands that are used and valued by lots of people in the community,” she said, “and these properties are so visible in the community that they serve as demonstrations that making our own properties and the overall landscape of the Methow more Firewise [consistent] improves the aesthetics while decreasing the likelihood that those lands will be devastated if an intense wildfire moves through them.”
FAMV’s hope, said Farr, is that “this project and our work on other sites, including the school campus, help people recognize and appreciate the effects of preparing for fire.”
Farr notes that two community organizations — Kiwanis and Methow At Home — are collaborating to provide Firewise assistance to elderly residents. Kiwanis has already completed one project and is just beginning a second. Additionally, Heim is coordinating an effort to leverage community volunteers to help other vulnerable residents, such as those who are disabled or unwell, make their properties more Firewise compliant.
Eventually, say Heim and Farr, FAMV would like to be more official. “We’d like to bring together a coalition of stakeholders,” said Farr, “the way towns like Leavenworth, Kittitas, and Wenatchee have done. They all have these very active community coalitions, which result in bigger, more capable efforts.”
While their proactive efforts have benefitted the Methow Valley with swift, decisive Firewise outcomes, both Firewise activists agree that an official designation, recognized by the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, would allow FAMV access to more fire adaptation resources. But more importantly, a coalition will promote community engagement, which is essential for long-term viability.
Even though an official coalition may make taking action more cumbersome, Heim noted that “the most expeditious way of getting something done is not necessarily the sustainable and sustaining way of getting something done.”
“The end result we’re seeking,” Heim said, “is all of us being able to live well in a fire-prone area. This means that to be fire resilient or fire-adapted, everyone in the community needs to learn how they can live with fire — and, we hope, more ‘good fire’ and ‘good smoke’ from planned burns than devastating fire and smoke from uncontrolled wildfire.”
It is slower to work collaboratively and collectively, Heim said, “but with the strength of many different perspectives and voices and experiences [that a coalition will provide], the end result will be so much more powerful and so much more sustainable.”
If you’re interested in learning more about FAMV or getting involved in community-based fire preparedness efforts, contact Nancy Farr at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509-846-5701); or Kathryn Heim at kat.heim.FAMV@gmail.com or (509-341-4113).