‘We need to be more of a partner with fire’

‘Wildfire: Front Lines’ author speaks Thursday

Fire season is back in Oregon. Too soon, it seems, for residents still recovering from last year’s devastating Eagle Creek fire. That fire, first reported Sept. 2, 2017, after a teen set off fireworks during a burn-ban, burned 50,000 acres in the 90 days it ran loose and though it has been fully contained, has yet to be completely extinguished.


Heather Hansen

In the aftermath, many residents have banded together to work on helping the Gorge heal and shown how deeply the community is affected by the wellbeing of its landscape — just like Colorado, said environmental journalist Heather Hansen in a recent interview.

She will speak on her new book Thursday in Hood River.

“(Oregon) is a place really close to my heart, just like Colorado, because the people really value these landscapes,” she said.

“With the fires that we experience throughout the Gorge, this author discussion is certain to be meaningful,” CCA stated a press release.

Released by Mountaineers Books in March of this year, “Wildfire” details the 18-months Hansen spent with the City of Boulder Wildland Fire Division, Station 8, working with the firefighters and learning about wildland fire in 2016. The book culminates in a walkthrough of Station 8’s experience battling the 2016 Cold Springs fire that ultimately destroyed 528 acres and eight homes. Hansen called the experience one of most immersive she’s had in her 19 years as a journalist.

“Since Cascade Locks was ‘ground zero’ for the devastating Eagle Creek fire last September, we are pleased we could have her in the Gorge to talk to the community about issues that have directly impacted them,” said Julie Briselden, a senior publicist with Mountaineers Books.

A reporter recently had the chance to sit down with Hansen to talk about “Wildfire” and her experience with wildland firefighting.

What motivated you to embark on this project with City of Boulder Wildland Fire Division, Station 8?

“The day that I moved there (Boulder, Colo.), a large wildfire started very close to where my apartment was,” Hansen said, describing the “megafires” that devastated the West in the summer of 2002. “I naively stopped by the lake and watched the firefighters and the helicopter come in to do their work,” which was scooping up lake water with a 100-gallon bucket and dropping into the inferno. “I wondered what it was like to walk toward that fire, to be one of those firefighter dots I could see picking their way across the hillside,” Hansen writes in the book’s prologue.

At the time, she had been working on another book about park service and grew more and more interested in wildfire.

She approached the City of Boulder about working with the local fire stations, since Boulder had the only full-time municipal firefighting agency in the area. “It was a unique way to tell the story and I’m just lucky I was able to do it in my hometown,” she said.

“When I first approached Chief Greg Toll about writing this book, I expected resistance to a reporter hanging out and asking questions, but instead I experienced candor and patience from the crew,” she writes in the book’s prologue.

Hansen spent 18 months on the ground with Station 8, doing everything from workouts and trainings to planned and spontaneous fires. “I ate a lot of meals with them that generally revolved around bacon,” she said.

“This was a different experience for me to spend a lot of time evolving character. With the book, I wanted to give a greater sense of what it means to be a firefighter. This really gave me the chance to go into what their challenges were, their hopes, what they’re afraid of,” she said. “They’re not heroes, but they’re better than us, just doing what they’re doing.”

What were your main personal takeaways from that experience?

“I think I had kind of a revelation early on,” she said, “I wanted to present a fuller picture, not the ‘heroes’ they’re often portrayed as, but I have to admit that I has some sort of creeping hero worship of them.”

Hansen describes her admiration of the crew in the book’s prologue: “I grew to admire their chemistry, camaraderie, and purpose-driven spirit. They taught me a new language and helped me understand the phenomenon of wildfire in an entirely new way, not as an enemy to be defeated but as an enduring mystery, and a formidable force of nature we must learn to live with.”

The biggest revelation she had during the experience, however, came from the 2016 fire — described in great detail in the second part of the book — she said. “(The fire) really was kind of a revelation to how fine of a line they (the Station 8 crew) walk, especially when they’re engaged in a situation close to home. It’s extremely compelling to know that your house is in a burn zone, or your neighbor’s house is in a burn zone,” she said.

Coming away from the experience, she said she now has a better understanding of what it takes to live in a wildfire zone. “(I) was never callous about people losing their homes … but leaning towards not understanding why people would want to live there with all the dangers. I think that comes across in the book as well. I hope it highlights how difficult it is to balance needs and responsibilities, the urgency of balancing them.”

As a side-note, she mentioned one more takeaway from her two years in Station 8: “I’m not as fit as I thought I was … (I’m) not wimpy in any sense, but it was a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated.”

As you may already know, the Columbia River Gorge suffered a major wildfire last year — how do these major fires happen and, in your opinion, what needs to be done moving forward to prevent something like this from happening again?

“There’s a lot we can do, both people who live in those areas and people who don’t,” Hansen said, quoting a recent study out of University of Colorado that examined the 2017 fire season and showed 89 percent of wildfires in the U.S. that year were started by people. According to that same study, people started 48 percent of Oregon wildfires in 2017.

“(We) need to change and (I’m) optimistic that we can, it’s more about — ‘okay, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction’ and we definitely understand what we need to do,” she said.

The most practical thing any homeowner can do, Hansen said, is to secure the “home ignition zone,” a 30-foot diameter circle around all the structures on their property. She wants to dispel the idea that securing a property doesn’t mean “getting rid of all your trees and living in a barren landscape,” she said. “It just means making your home more defensible” and making it safe for firefighters, who aren’t supposed to be near houses when fighting a wildfire for their own safety, Hansen said.

On a larger scale, Hansen spoke of the need for land stewardship and described the controlled burns she attended with Station 8 as an example, where firefighters carefully start a fire to reduce fuel buildup, decreasing the chance of an intense wildfire starting in the area.

“Fire is a really necessary element in the landscape, people now have a better understanding of that than they used to,” she said. “(We) need more of the right types of fire, it’s a really important part of changing our minds. We need to be more of a partner with fire, we have been historically and we need to be again.”

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