On June 21, at 6 p.m., environmental journalist Heather Hansen will speak about her new book, “Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8,” at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River.
Over the course of the last few years, Hansen has been researching wildland firefighting science, technique, and policy in the West. The Enterprise had the opportunity to ask Hansen a few questions about her book and her experiences via email.
The Enterprise (TE): What prompted you to begin researching and writing about wildfires and their impacts on the environment and communities?
Heather Hansen (HH): On the day I moved to Boulder, Colo., in 2002, a wildfire ignited in the foothills northwest of downtown. I watched across a lake as a helicopter dipped a huge bucket and then dumped it on the flaming hillside. I could see firefighters picking their way over the terrain, and I wondered who they were and why they chose that work. Over the past 15 years, I’ve watched the landscape of the American West shift as blazes have become more destructive, deadly, costly and complex to fight. Finally, I got the chance to bring those two elements together.
TE: Do you have a background in firefighting?
HH: While working on the book I became a certified wildland firefighter. I wanted to understand what it felt like, at least for a short time, to do the job. I also wondered what baseline knowledge firefighters had walking into their first fires. It was physically one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I also got a sense of the mental challenges of the work which include long, often back-breaking hours on little sleep while trying to maintain a near-constant awareness of your surroundings. Not easy.
TE: The book covers your time with one of the busiest fire departments in the country, Station 8 in Boulder, Colo.; could you provide a teaser/synopsis of what you learned from that experience?
HH: The crew I followed is an elite group of nine firefighters who have fought fire from the Alaskan tundra to the Florida Everglades. They are focused on fire suppression but also on mitigation and education. During nearly two years I spent reporting, I worked out, ate, and went on emergency calls and planned burns with them. I learned what scares them, makes them laugh, motivates them, what they’re proud of, and that helped me give readers a more complete picture of firefighters and fire than is often offered in the mainstream media.
After talking about her background and her book, we talked to Hansen about the Eagle Creek Fire that devasted our area. We discussed the recent news and debate regarding the sentence handed out to the teenager who started the fire by throwing a firecracker into the brush while hiking; as well as what citizens and property owners can do to help firefighters, especially when many departments in the Columbia Gorge area are primarily volunteer.
TE: The Columbia River Gorge area was ravaged by fire last summer due to the acts of an unsupervised teenager. The teen will be serving 2,000 service hours with the United States Forest Service and will owe the state of Oregon $36 million in damages. Do you believe the punishment fits the crime?
HH: The restitution amount seems precedent-setting, particularly for a juvenile. That said, it’s unlikely he’ll pay that amount over the next 10 years, after which time the debt may be forgiven if he stays clean. Ultimately, the many hours of community service with the USFS may be more effective; maybe he’ll spend some of that time doing wildfire mitigation and help secure communities like the ones he endangered last year.
Emotions run high around fire and I’ve often seen fear turn into anger. It’s understandable since hundreds of people had to flee their homes and dozens of hikers were stranded during the Eagle Creek Fire. Livelihoods were impacted, tourism dollars were lost, and there were adverse health effects from poor air quality. The danger to firefighters and other first responders was also real, particularly in a fast-moving blaze in variable terrain.
TE: Many of the fire departments in the Gorge are volunteer departments, based on your experience what can citizens and property owners do to help those firefighters protect their homes from a wildfire?
HH: There’s a lot we can do to make our properties defensible while also reducing risks to firefighters. In my book I talked to the world expert in structure protection, I also talk in the book about how to treat homes and landscapes. Ultimately, it’s not a firefighter’s job to save a house from burning down. They’re not even supposed to be anywhere near it if the conditions are too dangerous. But what’s too dangerous? How do they decide? I realized during my reporting that it’s never black and white.
Finally, we asked Hansen about what people can expect to learn from her event in Hood River.
“I’ll talk about why we’re seeing such a profound change in wildfire, particularly in the West, and what we can do about it. I also look at what we can expect this wildfire season, and beyond. And, maybe most importantly regarding my time with firefighters, I answer the burning (sorry, couldn’t help myself) question: what’s the deal with all the bacon?!” said Hansen.