2° Out West Podcast

Wildfire Resilience: Tackling the Growing Risk in the Interior West with Brendan Witt

From evacuation plans to preserving open spaces, this episode is packed with valuable information for anyone who lives in or loves the West. Tune in and learn how we can all be better prepared for wildfire season.

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Brendan is an avid hiker, fisherman and hunter with a deep love for Colorado.

Are you prepared for wildfire season? On this episode, we’re joined by Brendan Witt, former host of Two Degrees Out West and current Western Lands Policy Fellow at WRA, to help us better understand the increasing risk of wildfires in the Interior West. Brendan shares his unique journey from the world of craft beer to working on land use planning, prescribed fire, and wildfire mitigation. Discover how his personal experience with the East Troublesome Fire in Colorado shaped his perspective on wildfire resilience.

Join us as we dive deep into the factors contributing to the growing risk of wildfires, such as climate change, beetle kill pines, and the interconnectedness of our environment. Brendan also sheds light on the complex role of historical forest management and the ecological role of fires in shaping our western landscapes. Learn about the challenges and opportunities presented by prescribed burns as a tool for managing wildfire risk and how Indigenous fire practices can be incorporated into state and federal forest management.

Brendan began his journey at WRA as the host of 2 Degrees Out West but became passionate about our Western Lands work. In October 2020, his home, Grand Lake, Colorado, was impacted by the second-largest wildfire in Colorado history, the East Troublesome Fire. It grew over 100,000 acres overnight and was the first fire in modern Colorado fire history to race over 25 miles across forested land in less than eight hours. After experiencing the East Troublesome Fire, Brendan became even more determined to focus his life’s work on community resilience in the face of wildfires.

The burn scar left behind after the East Troublesome fire.
I had the emergency scanner on listening to all the different firefighters even when I was sleeping at night, and it really shifted my focus after that to think about what happened. Why did it happen the way that it did? Why was this so different from any wildfire that we had seen in recent history? What were the impacts going to be like? And really it changed where I wanted to go and where I wanted to work.
Brendan Witt, Western Lands Policy Fellow

The videos above are before and after footage filmed by Brendan of the East Troublesome fire area where he enjoyed hunting and camping for most of his life.

Brendan now works to find ways to help Western communities bolster resilience against the threat of catastrophic wildfire. In this role, he primarily supports state policy efforts to increase the use of prescribed fire and improve ecosystem restoration, encourage land use planning to reduce wildfire risk, and support funding for these and other wildfire mitigation policies.

A large part of Brendan’s focus is on looking at ways communities can encourage forest health so that they can reap the many economic benefits of the region’s beautiful landscapes and outdoor recreation, as well as the sustainable futures that come with healthy ecosystems. He also conducts research and advocates for policy solutions to expand equitable access to the outdoors.

Listen to our newest episode to learn how to protect your community from wildfire. Please consider leaving a review after listening so more folks can find our podcast. Also, please check out the further reading list below to check out all of the articles, books, maps and more that we mentioned throughout the episode.

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Thanks for listening. Let’s all work together to keep the West wild.

what i like about the west

We would love for you to contribute to the new “What I Like About the West” Segment. 

Create a 40-second voice memo telling us what you like about the West and email it to us at Jessi.Janusee@westernresources.org. We would love to feature you on our next podcast episode! Also, please take a minute to watch this 1950’s video of Tex Williams performing the song, “That’s What I Like About the West.” His song was the inspiration for this segment. 

That's What I Like About The West

Episode Guest: Brendan Witt works to find ways to help Western communities bolster resilience against the threat of catastrophic wildfire. In this role, he primarily supports state policy efforts to increase the use of prescribed fire and improve ecosystem restoration, encourage land use planning to reduce wildfire risk, and support funding for these and other wildfire mitigation policies.

Full Transcript


Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Life in the Western US has now become synonymous with wildfire, whether it’s smoke or actual fires near your home or one of your favorite places, we all deal with wildfires, and it’s not just in the summer anymore either. It’s a year-round problem. In today’s episode, we talked with Brendan Witt, Western Lands Policy Fellow here at WRA and the former host, as well as the creator of Two Degrees Out West. So, my predecessor, we’re talking all about wildfire in the west, which is a major reason why Brendan switched over from multimedia storyteller to working in the western land steam. We talk all about what makes a wildfire and what we can all do to mitigate them and be ready for them.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Higher wildfire risk is where any of this transition is as well, And so overall, no matter what time of year it is, no matter where you are, I think wildfires are risky. people should think about it.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: 
Welcome to Two Degrees Out West, a podcast from Western Resource Advocates, where we talk about all the things that we love and cherish about the western United States, as well as the impacts of climate change and the solutions that people around the US are implementing to create a better environment, one that is thriving and beautiful and resilient for years to come. I’m your host, Jessi Janusee, the multimedia storyteller, here at Two Degrees Out West and for Western Resource Advocates. Now let’s get started talking to Brendan. Today on the podcast we have Brendan Witt. He is a Western Lands Policy Fellow at WRA. Brendan works to find ways to help Western communities bolster resilience against the threat of catastrophic wildfire. In this role, he primarily supports state policy efforts to increase the use of prescribed fire and improve ecosystem restoration, encourage land use planning to reduce wildfire risk and support funding for these and other wildfire mitigation policies.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: 
And I will say also, Brendan used to be the host of Two Degrees Out West and he founded the podcast, so it’s pretty funny to have him on the show now. But now he’s all about mitigating wildfire, so this is the perfect person to have on the podcast to kick off wildfire season, which I guess doesn’t sound that great, but we got to talk about it. It’s happening, it’s out here, so what are we going to do about it? Welcome, Brendan. Welcome back to the podcast.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, Jessi, thanks for having me. Like you were saying earlier, it’s a little weird to be on this side of the mic, but really great to talk to you.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, so just going to say thank you so much for creating this, because you basically made this position for me and I really love it, so thank you.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: I’m just happy it’s still running. It started three years ago now as maybe this might work for us. things seems to be going really well and I think you’re doing a great job as hosts, so it’s been really fun seeing the direction you’ve taken.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been so cool to just kind of find my own path and start to develop this, so it’s been rad. It’s the perfect kind of intersection of creativity and conservation. I’m about it. So let’s just get started by talking a little bit about how you used to be the multimedia storyteller and how you switched to a Western lands policy fellow and kind of what spurred that change for you.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, I think you know, probably like many people, probably like many of us, I had a fun linear career path to where I am now and started in actually craft beer brewing in Colorado. So out of undergrad I started as a brewer and was in beer sales and eventually kind of took over marketing for the small brewery that I worked for. But I knew that I wasn’t feeling really fulfilled. I wanted to work in conservation and I’d always spent a lot of time outdoors.

I was big fly fishingmen, hiker and hunter and wanted to spend a lot of time figuring out how to take care of the things that I really cared about and what I thought about it.

Conservation was where I wanted to make a turn and invest my time and energy and so I kind of took that opportunity to take on a storytelling role with WRA and a marketing role when it started and transferred those skills there. But then through that work I always knew I wanted to be in conservation. I wasn’t 100% sure kind of what shape that would take and I started learning so much. You know, like we talked about the podcast, you get to talk to so many cool people And I think one of the best blessings of the multimedia storyteller role which I’m sure you’re finding too is that you get to just learn a little bit from everybody all over the organization, interact with all of the different areas of WRA And I learned so much from all that.

But what I really learned is that I loved the work our land team was doing. I was really interested in it and invested in it. So I started kind of diving into it more and from that I kind of decided it was the direction I wanted to go and went to go back to school and do the kind of night school thing. I got a master’s in environmental policy management from the University of Denver and loved every second of it and what we were working on and kind of tried to combine that with my work as much as I could, day in, day out. And then that kind of drove me more towards land use management issues and recreation issues, as well as forest health and fire issues. And then around the same time WRA was starting up its wildfire resilience program and I had some personal experiences with wildfires here in Colorado. That really kind of changed my perspective and I started to shift my focus more intently towards that.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, I definitely find myself being swayed by the different people I interview and being like maybe I’ll get into mining activism, maybe I’ll get into Western land stuff. And yeah, it’s funny because you’re just like, oh, there’s all these options and these things that I’m passionate about, so I feel that for sure. Yeah, can we talk a little bit more about the fire in Colorado and how that influenced you? It’s the East Troublesome Fire, right?

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, so the East Troublesome was a really interesting fire, personally, and then also just from kind of a fire history, fire science standpoint was. I think it’s the second largest fire now by Aigridge burned, and then in terms of destruction, it might be the third because we had a fire I’ll probably talk about later that burned through a suburban neighborhood in December 2021.

And, of course, caused much more damage. East Troublesome Fire was, by all means, a kind of normal fire for most of its time, ignited a large but kind of typical fire for what we see in Colorado these days. It was actually in an area that I had backpacked in on my birthday that year where it kind of started off and it spent the fall hunting in and around and it wasn’t really a huge fire for concern until the night of October 21st And we started getting these incredible people call them chinook winds or hurricane force winds in Colorado and the forecast really changed. The fire behavior and the predictions and modeling for the fire behavior went from something that is not as a large fire that people would pay attention to, but not something that would evacuate the largest towns in the area to an unpredictably catastrophic blaze and just the kind of what I think of as the true embodiment of the phrase inferno.

As those winds hit, the fire, which I think was up like 19,000 acres at that point, might have been a little bit larger.

It blew up overnight and eventually ended up burning 100,000 acres 109,000 acres, i think, in total, covering miles of land, and jumping the continental divide, which I believe it’s the first fire to have ever done that to send embers up and over the continental divide at 12,000 feet and then spark what’s called a spot fire or a new fire out ahead of it, on the other side of the continent. You know we talked about the continental divide is where water is flowing one way, on one side, out to the Pacific Ocean and out to the Atlantic on the other. We’re talking about the crown of the continent, and this fire was big enough and devastating enough to throw embers that could start fires all the way across those mountains and into another community in Estes Park.

And I spent a lot of time you know a lot of my life in a small town that was kind of right in the path of that fire, called Grand Lake, Colorado, and consider it a second home. And that night we started getting texts from friends and family who were up there I was down in Denver at the time and they were packing up and evacuating as fast as they could And I was thinking to myself you know, what is this 19,000 acre fire, how is this going to happen? And I knew because I had spent a lot of time hunting and hiking and fishing in the area between where the fire was that night and where it would ultimately end up, that everything was very dry, densely packed with beetle kill and kind of the perfect fuel for a fire like this. But it still didn’t make sense in my mind. And even you know one of my best friends is a smoke jumper or an airplane deployed wildland firefighter, kind of the Navy SEALs of wildland firefighting.

I was talking to him that night and I was like, hey, do you think there’s any chance that this gets to town? And he said it’s going to be a pretty consequential two or three next days. And then I actually woke up early the next morning before sunrise and went out, was doing some field research for my masters at the time and checked my phone if people are familiar with wildfire, check the website called INSA web that updates maps of fire boundaries and saw that not only had that area already been covered but that it was knocking on the door of the town that I consider a second home in Grand Lake. So it was extremely thankful that the town and fire officials knew to evacuate.

But we’d never really seen a fire like that before. So I spent the next three days just totally wrapped in trying to understand what had happened, what was happening.

I had the emergency scanner on listening to all the different firefighters even when I was sleeping at night, and it really shifted my focus after that to think about what happened. Why did it happen the way that it did? Why was this so different from any wildfire that we had seen in recent history? What were the impacts going to be like? And really it changed where I wanted to go and where I wanted to work, having seen a community that I could about so much be impacted so greatly by this massive, unpredictable, unprecedented fire. And it has really been kind of, I think, the foundation for me in this role as a policy fellow looking at how to increase community resilience against these kinds of Western mega-fires that we’re seeing, these massive fires driven by climate change that are becoming a year in year-round reality for Western communities.

Everybody’s experienced it, I’m sure you experienced wildfires where you are as well And many anybody who’s listened to this podcast has probably had some kind of similar personal experience with wildfires. At this point.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, absolutely. I just went to Frenchman Lake, which is like my favorite spot to go with the kids and just sit by the lake and camp, get on the water, and it had a huge fire two years ago and I haven’t been up there since. I just didn’t get up there last year And so much of the campgrounds and everything is just stacks and stacks of burnt trees that the Forestry Service is just like putting into these humongous piles to start clearing them out, cause they’re obviously like a hazard that can fall over into the campground and all that stuff. So it was crazy to be up there for the first time since that fire. And I know it’s not the only lake, like Lake Davis, like so many spots that we go and recreate at or like that now, and then we get fires down here in Reno all the time too.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, I think almost anybody who’s listening to podcast who lives in the Western United States, is within driving distance from a burn scar like this or has maybe not quite to the degree of the use trouble simmering. You know we had two or three massive fires that year that used troublesome the Cameron Peak And I think the grizzly and the pine gold fires were also Colorado’s biggest in history, all in one year. So it was a massive fire year for us. But people are anybody listening. This is so close. I feel like I kind of realized in the wake of that this is going to be the front line for Western communities for how they confront climate change Wildfire impacts, and wildfire resilience is kind of in the front of everybody’s mind, especially you know you think of this time of year.

We like to say that fire season isn’t a thing anymore because wildfire really is a year-round risk.

That fire we were talking about took off in October which would historically have probably been considered at the very end or out of Colorado’s wildfire season and just seen time over and time again in Colorado that it’s a year-round risk. now, as things get hotter in the summer, I think it starts to be right in front of everybody’s mind, and this is just such a tangible way that we all interact with the impacts of climate change now.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, and not even getting into the whole impact of the smoke, right, Like when I did my podcast with Jermareon about our air quality, you know, and asthma and all of that stuff, environmental equity with that. you know, the smoke is such a big problem for us. We have smoke days now where my kids have to stay home from school because it’s not safe, you know, and we don’t have air purifiers in our house. My son has asthma and it gets super smoky in here and we just like buy basically those furnace filters and we put them on box fans and like we put like a bunch of them in our home and we just run them all the time and change them out. We have to change them out every day or two days because they just get so full of all the smoke that’s in the air and stuff, all the particles. So yeah, I mean I think even if you’re not in a place where you’re close enough to see the fire, right, You see the impacts of the fire in the air for sure.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, it’s a great point too, because it’s a good reminder, I mean right now here in. Denver. We are currently and have been enveloped in the smoke from the wildfires in Alberta, Canada, for the past two weeks. You know we have some of the nations where stair quality it’s unhealthy to be outside, especially for sensitive groups. And it’s a national issue too, because I remember when the East Troublesome and the Cameron Peak were burning and my sisters who live across the country on the East Coast were getting our smoke two or three days later.

So even you know it’s a great point. It’s not just a regional or a local problem. although we can really relate to it here in the West as a regional and local impact, it really does impact the whole country.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, it’s crazy that you guys are getting that fire smoke from Canada. But yeah, I mean, that’s where we’re at now, you know, i know it’s wild.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  Actually, in a previous life I was a bartender and a fishing guide in Alaska and drove from where the fires are now back to Colorado to start my job as a multimedia storyteller. And I’m just thinking about how far that is from us and how the smoke is just making its way down here. It is like you said. absolutely crazy to say, I think it took me four days to get from where the fires are going right now to Colorado.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, it’s kind of this sad but important lesson about the interconnectedness, right? You know, like all the time I’m like, oh well, at least we’re not in a flood zone on the East Coast, like even though so many of my friends and family are, and I love them and I don’t want that to happen, but we don’t have to worry, Just thoughts like that. But all of that is not true. Like, the impacts of climate change, wherever they are, are going to have ripple effects, right?

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Oh, yeah, absolutely well said.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  I was just thinking about it when you’re talking about how for that fire, the big thing that caused that change was the winds And, if I remember correctly, I was reading something about the three things that cause the perfect storm for a fire, right, and it’s like oxygen fuel and then some sort of like something that ignites it, right? Is that what it is, those three pieces?

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, the three factors that cause fire. Yeah, you’ve got you know. So, basically, I think firefighters and fire suppression professionals think of it as kind of a trifecta. If you remove any one of those pieces.  You don’t have the elements you need to start fire. You need a spark or some kind of ignition. So you know heat can tip, could be it, but typically it’s. You know, historically in natural settings it’s been lightning or human-caused fire. It can be a spark from your campfire. It can be fireworks, It can be you know, any number of things, but you need something to burn in order for that spark to actually take hold and grow. So you need a combustible fuel And in the case of these troubles and fire, it was about 10 years’ worth of built-up beetle kill pines and super dry vegetation throughout the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest And it was something that you know I’d grown up dealing with. I remember in the early 2000s as beetle kills started to slowly march its way across the forest that I spent time in and its trees went from green to gray And there was so much standing to timber. And then as I started to grow older and start hiking off trail and start hunting elk in that area, I’d have to step over all of that deadfall and see how dense the forests were And then that was super dry. But then you need oxygen to really fuel that fire and help it take off.

And then, in addition to just providing that oxygen from the winds, those 100-mile-per-hour winds actually sent embers out in front of the fire. So take, yeah, burning canopy and sticks and tricks, pieces of trees that it could catch, and then blow them ahead of the fire’s path and start those small spot fires Like we’re talking about, those small spot fires turned out to be also massive fires. Colorado Public Radio has a really great map on this.

You can watch just over how quickly the fire spread in the boundary if you just Google, East Troublesome fire And then you can see this crazy island of fire out ahead of it where the spot fire was thrown up and over the Continental Divide and started careening down the mountains on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park into Estes Park, which is you know most people are listening have ever visited Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s probably been through the town of Estes Park, and so I actually texted a good friend this was all happening during a workday at WRA.

I was like slacking one of the old Western land steam colleagues. We were watching it. We were pulling up all these GIS maps, which started by interested GIS, and we’re talking about how and where is this going, and then I realized it was like in a neighborhood where one of an old friend of mine lived and I had to text him and be like hey, if you’re not ready yet, you got to get up and get out.

And he later told me that that was kind of the moment when he and his family realized they had to get moving And then they shortly after evacuated his whole neighborhood and area. But yeah, those three factors are the same, things that help a matching night or that on huge catastrophic scales like really, really dry tinder, a lot of flame and huge high winds can push a fire like that.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, and then as far as you were saying about lightning being like the OG way for wildfires, I also read a fact about that. Climate change has now increased the percentage of lightning fires and how often that happens has like risen exponentially since the early 2000s. I forget exactly what the status is, but it’s way more lightning fires now than ever before. But then, yeah, the main way really is people right, that’s like how it’s mostly going down.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yes, that’s very state-to-state and stats very kind of by resources as well. But somewhere between 70 and 80% of fires in most states are started by human ignition. Lightning is still a very common means of ignition, but human ignitions are arising in serious concerns. And then I think, that’s fascinating if climate change is driving more lightning. I’ve also I can’t remember the stat right. So I’m hesitant to cite it. But I’ve also seen where climate change is increasing, that the speed and force of winds it’s unquestionably altering the weather patterns in favor of continually growing and increasingly destructive, increasingly hot mega-fires in the West.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, I’ll look all this up and put it in the show notes so we’ll have some real data.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  Yeah, I can send you. I’ll send you some stuff for the show notes too. I’ve got that CPR article. I’m looking right now and I’m like watching this fire boundary as we talk.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, there was a fire really close to my house one year and it was caused by chains dangling from a trailer, so somebody, you know, they were just driving, they didn’t have their stuff fully secure And then that was it Just took that little spark, got into the cheat grass on the side of the highway and suddenly, yeah, a ton of people were evacuated. So it’s so important to really be mindful because you think that it’s not gonna be you and think about how awful you would feel. I always am like, oh God, please let me never start a wildfire by accident. I would be so mortified and feel terrible for the rest of my life.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: I know I always think about that with the East troublesome fire because I had it was hunting in that area, had backpacked in that area for my birthday. I’d gone on like a two-day solo backpack, basically right where they think the fire started And they’ve never, I think, been able to identify a confident cause. But they assume that it was started from human sources and most likely hunters in the area. So it always makes me think about that too, cause you know, I love the mid-morning cup of coffee when I’m out hanging out in the mountains and fire up a jet boil and, you know, have a cup of coffee and a little snack. And it’s always in the back of my mind too, you know, cause I would feel horrible if I was the person who accidentally started something like that. But it really is a, you know it’s a present concern, or the more we get out into the mountains and the more we recreate, the more potential there is for people to contribute to one of these disasters.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, so let’s get into a bunch more facts about wildfires and how they function and also how climate change is like contributing. I mean, we’ve gotten into it a little bit, but there are so many parts and I feel like we actually need like three hours to talk about all this. Yeah, but it’s okay, we can do multiple episodes one day. So, naturally, wildfires are actually part of the ecosystem, right, and so a section of this issue is all of the mitigation that was done, kind of leading up to where we are now, right, because we were really anti-any fires which has caused, all of this brush and stuff, right, all this fuel.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I would point people to one of my favorite books and I think a great resource on this, is The Big Burn by Tim Egan, which goes over a huge fire season in Montana at the turn of the century, the start of the forest service and kind of how the forest service one get into the business of fighting fires.

And two, how we started what’s called the 10 AM policy, which is the policy that forest service and other fire suppression professionals had and agencies had had for years, that any fire during fire season would be put out by 10 AM the next day. And historically, like you said, absolutely, fires are an ecologically natural piece of western, especially forested, ecosystems. Some of our ecosystems have developed to be fire dependent So, like logical pines, have what are called serotinous columns, and they need fire in order to open up and spread seeds and propagate. They depend on even larger fires than we might often think of, or it can depend on some of those larger fires, depending on the ecosystems. But small, low-intensity fires have traditionally been a really integral part of healthy forests, developing forest diversity, helping thin out weaker plants, encouraging regrowth, recycle nutrients and help make what we call a patchy forest canopy, where you have a wide diversity of different ant ages, plant types, open, grassy meadows with denser temper stands that are more resilient to these big fires when they come through. And one of the things that was a result of the change in our approach to wildfire as we expanded west and the forest service started managing the forest the way that they have historically was that by not allowing these smaller, lower intensity fires to occur and burn themselves out with regularity, we built up huge stocks of fuels both large timbers and other fuels that have accumulated in forests for over a hundred years, And as a part of that, we are now seeing widespread recognition that these fuel densities are unhealthy for our forests and that they’re unhealthy for our wildfire resilient communities, that this is how we build up that intense fuel load we were talking about is one of those big three pieces to make not only fires but mega-fires. And in the struggles of Fireburn and Scar we really saw that from, even though there was some more active logging in some of those areas. I had actually just hunted a logging clearcut in that area right before there’s a ton of other fuels that are left behind in that process, companies don’t always take all of that, And then so much of the standing timber in a lot of the West that’s affected by beetle kill and drought isn’t necessarily marketable. So we have huge fuel loads that haven’t been able to be naturally recycled through these common ecological processes of wildfire And then on top of that. There’s historical record that shows that indigenous communities have been setting intentional fires to help influence healthy forests for millennia.

At this point for at least our record of the past 1000 years, we have record of indigenous communities using fire to help improve wildlife habitat and forage or influence fires. And so, by removing a lot of the historic use of fire in our forests across the West, we’ve really built up these densely packed tinderboxes. And so we’ve built up these densely packed tinderboxes. Adding climate change to that mix means that the fuel loads are increasingly dry, increasingly combustible.

It just takes the right mix of factors, a couple of things in place to really create these massive mega-fires and send communities like mine and Grand Lake running out of town.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, it’s such a bummer, right, because our you know kind of mismanagement of forest, combined with climate change, has made this really terrible. I don’t even know, yeah, the tinderbox of things in our forest, if only we could go back in time. But that’s okay, we’re going to do things now to make it better. And also, I read a really beautiful article about Indigenous wildfire. Now they’re starting to incorporate more Indigenous firefighters and like practices And it seems like a really great path forward. So I’ll share that in the show notes too, because I was, like, really inspired by it. And the other thing that happens too right when you don’t do these traditional burns, is that then the traditional foods and plants needed for things like basket weaving and stuff like that don’t have the space to grow either. So there’s this other impact of like we’re then hurting like Indigenous communities kind of gathering practices, right, And the stuff that they need to continue with how they live with the world. So, yeah, I don’t know. I was thinking about that piece too.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think there’s Indigenous fire practices, I’m not an expert so I won’t speak to them to a huge degree, but I think a fascinating area that a lot of people are focusing on how to incorporate that into state and federal forest management, how to encourage, kind of the continued practice of that. But then also, looking at that, historically, like you said, these forest management practices have compounding impacts.

It’s not just that there’s a bunch of stuff that can burn them that’s still out there in the forest, that hasn’t been or that should be removed in one way or another. There are really layers of impacts that compound on each other, so it is a fire risk that has indigenous practices and Indigenous species and ecological impacts as well. There’s a lot of research on how dense forest stands, especially dense pine beetle stands in peed wildlife migration. It’s really hard for anything to walk under 10 feet, 12 feet of staff depth at all in a forest.

So there are certainly just so many layers to the impacts our historical forest management regimes have had to this point.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: What about using prescribed burns? now, I feel like people you know, just regular folks who might not know too much about it have a lot of different feels about it.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  Yeah, I think a lot of different feels is a good way to put it.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, we just had a prescribed burn in the Dixie Valley And the only reason I know about it is because it got smoky and I was like oh no, what’s happening? And I’m in this Eastern Sierra Facebook group, which is amazing. It’s like run by a firefighter’s wife and she always updates it and it’s so cool. But she put it in there. She’s like everyone don’t freak out. You know, it’s just this prescribed burn and it’s in the valley, which is cool because I camp there all the time, and I was like good, like I’m glad they’re doing that. But I know that in some cases prescribed burns have led to bigger fires, but personally, I don’t think that’s a reason to not do them, right? It’s just, yeah, it’s complicated, right, it’s really complicated.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  Yeah, absolutely complicated, and people have a lot of different feels. I think it’s a really good way to describe it. in general, I personally agree with you. I think WRA agrees with you that even though there is always some risk with fire. Fire is a wild element. There’s always risk associated with using fire as a tool that the science supports the increase to use, to prescribe fire as a tool to help replicate those smaller, more frequent, lower intensity fires that we saw naturally re-institute a natural fire regime reduce fuel loads to help us build more wildfire-island communities.

It’s interesting you talk about your experience because I think that’s one of the things that we’ve seen in research as well that there are communities that are more exposed to prescribed fire, who are typically more open to it.

It’s used and we’re comfortable with it’s use. So Central Oregon is kind of often held up as an example of communities that are really familiar with the benefits and consistent practice of the use of prescribed fire to help protect communities in that area from some of the massive fires that they also see coming in and out of their area. Areas across the country that are a little bit more familiar. And then, yes, i think a lot of people remember, last year in New Mexico two escape prescribed burns contributed to the state’s largest wildfire industry, which is actually two very large fires that burned into one, the Hermes Peak Canyon fire. I would say two things on that front, which is that one, 99 plus percent of prescribed burns that are conducted today are conducted safely. If you look at maps from the Forest Service, even just this spring in Colorado there’s so many prescribed fires are going on that we don’t know about, we’re not talking about, because they’re done and conducted in a safe manner by experts.

There’s always, like I said, a risk. I think there’s a movement away from the term control burn, which a lot of people sometimes use, to prescribed burn because it is a wild element. There’s not a presumption of controlling fire as an element, but there’s an intention going into a prescribed burn that you are controlling as many elements as you can and using that tool with safety precautions in place in a way that wouldn’t be if you had an unmanaged ignition So like somebody’s campfire got out of control right. The fires in New Mexico instituted a national review by the Forest Service of prescribed fire practices that have made the application of prescribed fire much more cautious and has created a new process out of that. I think many experts think is definitely a way to reexamine some of the historical oversites that might have contributed to the mistakes in New Mexico and the escapes in New Mexico.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, I mean, it totally makes sense to me, right? Because we basically stopped nature from doing what it was doing to support itself for 100 years. And now I feel like it’s kind of our duty to help to reinstate this process and do it in the safest way possible. Right, because nature is going to do it anyway with lightning and just because that’s what it does. But we have now created more unsafe conditions for nature, right? So we have to be there to make sure that this is going the right way and that, yeah, I don’t know, it just makes sense to me, right? I’m like we have to show up and do these burns And it’s going to happen anyway. Like, do you want a mega-fire to happen? Because if we don’t do the prescribed burns, fire is going to happen either way, right?

Yeah, we often say, You know, wildfire and especially these uncontrollable, catastrophic fires, these larger than natural fires that we are seeing increasingly, are something that you know, we have already talked about. It is a present threat for all of us. Prescribed fire allows you to choose when and where you want to fire and to ignite that fire under the watchful eye of trained professionals, with a plan in place And, ideally, with resources.

One of the things that we are working on at WRA is to help states and communities remove barriers so that they have the resources they need to train experts and to have all the funding and resources to conduct those fires under the safe and watchful eye of experts And one of the big benefits of prescribed fire is that it allows you to choose when and where you want fire on the landscape and who’s there when it happens.

Whereas a lightning ignition or a campfire that blows out of control is getting a head start on whoever your local wildfire professionals are who are going to respond to that, and it puts us behind the Able from the beginning.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, what are some other things that are helping to mitigate wildfires?

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  You know, I think, one of the things that we work on at WRA and I think that we think should be increasingly a consideration for communities across the country is land use planning and thinking about how we grow, how we grow in a wildfire smart way, from an individual perspective. I’m going out some great partners of ours at the Fire Adaptive Learning Network Fire Adaptive Colorado and Fire Adaptive Montana for what you can do to help mitigate your personal wildfire risk in terms of hardening your home, shielding your gutters, covering your vents, things like that for when a fire is knocking on your door.

You ideally don’t want a fire knocking on your door. You want to have your community decision-makers plan ahead to think about how do we make it the most resilient area that we can against the threat of wildfire? How do we expand defensive space and create smart growth patterns that allow our wildfire firefighters to get out ahead of fires and to fight wildfires in a safe way before they even come close to your door? So thinking about how communities are growing in the West, what areas we’re developing in.

We often talk about an area commonly referred to as the Wildland Urban Interface or Wooey. We like to call them areas of high wildfire risk, because Wooey is kind of yeah, it’s fun to say, but it also sounds a little ridiculous.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: I love it though.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, we tend to love to develop in really pretty areas. Right, we like to be close to trees, and oftentimes that means putting ourselves in areas of really high fuel density. That means expanding homes and communities into areas of high wildfire risk.

But across the West, the ability to use those areas for community open space to be more intentional in where we develop and how we develop in the Wildland Urban Interface or in those areas of high wildfire risk, is really still up to us. In Colorado, up to 80% of the area defined as the Wildland Urban Interface is still undeveloped, according to a report by Headwaters Economics. So that means we are really at a point where we can choose as communities how and where it’s best to develop, to grow, to increase housing that you know meets our needs, to kind of still have these flourishing, robust communities people want to live in. But that also prevents you from wildfire impacts or makes you more resilient to wildfire impacts in the future. OpenSpace is a great tool.

Intentionally designed, open space allows wild and firefighters to have a better area to engage fire with, and what’s called initial attack, when they’re going directly onto a fire and trying to protect you and the community from it.

It allows fires to hit areas that can be managed a little bit more effectively. For that forested receiver talking about where there’s not so much stuff on the forest floor the flames can decrease in intensity and burn at a little bit more natural rate. It’s easier to fight. It also creates awesome places for people to go out and enjoy. You know we work with communities to try and combine all of those benefits into their community planning so that overall the community as a whole can be more resilient against a wildfire, if and when it does come even if they’re in a more forested, more rural area of the West.

You know, think that the intentional growth, intentional land use planning management strategies are a key tool to help people be more resilient to the threat of these wildfires.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, especially when you’re thinking about, like, with the Campfire right, a huge part of why that was so bad was because there wasn’t a lot of planning right As far as, like, there’s only one route in and out of that area. And I think about that a lot because where I’m located at the back of my valley, I have two roads that go in and out And there’s a lot of people back here, you know, not a ton, but enough, and I’m always like, if a fire came from the back of the valley and we all had to get out, could we do it in time? That’s like, definitely on my mind all of the time.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow:  Yeah, it’s really interesting to bring up the Campfire and also the one road thing, because in Grand Lake that was a reality. I think they were extremely what I thought was overly cautious in evacuating the whole community at the time, back before I knew what I know now because, there’s really one road out of that community as well, and they were able to get everybody out in time.

The campfire burned over Paradise. I do have another show notes piece I worked on with our colleague, Jonathan Hayden, about some of the land use planning elements that came out of that experience, because some people in that fire, if I remember correctly, took shelter in one of the community open spaces And that experience has been shedding some light on the value of preserving some of these open spaces and open space buffers as a part of wildfire resilient land use planning.

Because even in a massive community wildfire that had historic impact like that fire. These areas, with water incorporated around them in a community park with a metal-shielded picnic structure, helped some people survive that experience. But yeah, those wildfire resilient planning elements are even a piece in some of those places where previously the road and history infrastructure for evacuation may not have been quite as well thought out.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, yeah, I always think about if the fire comes from the front of the valley, where the roads lead. You know these two roads. That’s it for us, like there’s nowhere to go. Well, I mean, we could just drive into the desert, which is my plan.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, and it’s crucial to have a plan like that, And I think everybody across the way should be thinking about you know what happens if I’m in this situation. We mentioned earlier that I might bring this up, but you know, when we talk about wildfire season, I think, in Colorado, we can really, in many ways, do away with that concept.

Certainly, there are times of the year where we might more typically think of high wildfire risk, but we had the Marshall fire in 2021, which, on New Year’s Eve, in a 1,000 acres of a subdivision, a suburban area, that’s really close to our organization headquarters in Boulder, so close that I texted John Goldblatt, CEO, just to say Hey, is everybody safe?

What is going on right now? And that happened in December, where we would typically never think of wildfire risk like that, And it was started in a grassland area on the foothills of Colorado and just took off with, again, really high winds in the right conditions. We hadn’t seen moisture at all that fall. It was an extremely historically dry period And we’ve seen these fires come up in different times of the year. Again, you know I mentioned the East Rattlesnake fire was in October, So I think it’s something that everybody in communities around the West, like you, were talking about.

You’ve got a plan. You know, if it comes in front of the valley, if it comes on either side of those two roads, what you’re going to do next. I think that’s something everybody should be thinking about because the reality is, as our region aridifies you know we’ve talked about this a bunch of the years but we talk about drought And often people think, oh, are we in drought, are we out of drought?

But there’s a great study from two experts, Brad Udall and Jonathan Overback, a couple years ago that showed our region is really just getting drier, what they call acidification, and we are becoming more and more a dry than we have been historically, in an irreversible trend, kind of a change of state for us, and that means higher wildfire risk is where I am this transition as well. And so overall, no matter what time of year it is, no matter where you are, I think wildfires are risk people should be thinking about planning for.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, aridification is real. And if you haven’t listened to all of the water podcasts I just put out I put out a bunch of them Definitely check out the hydrology podcast I did with Crystal Tule Kordova from the Navajo Nation. That’s a great place to start. Yeah, she’s amazing. Yeah, she’s so good. So what can we do? You know, like there’s a lot going on. We can do prescribed burns, we can be smart about our land years, but is there anything that we can do as individuals as far as protecting our homes, but also, you know, making our forests more resilient or making our between spaces more resilient or anything like that that we could like take action on?

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: How do we make communities more resilient on a whole? How do we keep the wildfire in a controllable spot further away from our communities? And then we think, like you mentioned, community smart land use planning decisions at this point are a way for us to to really kind of control, to the extent that we can, the wildfire risk that we have by protecting open space barriers around our communities that we can manage actively and help create healthier forest ecosystems in those areas. that helps expand our access to outdoor areas. But that takes community buy-in and community support, sometimes those community wildfire resilience practices can change the way a forest looks.

People might not always be a huge fan of some of those. So learning, you know, investing a little bit in some of those strategies and understanding them and supporting them to make a big difference. Like you mentioned, community support for prescribed fire, familiarity with it and understanding the bigger picture of why these little fires are being intentionally set by experts in order to help prevent the impacts of an uncontrolled catastrophic wildfire later is a major, a major benefit for experts who are looking to help use that as a tool.

The community buy-in is key and working with your community to be focused on some of these community resilience strategies is a great action that you can take.

And then, on top of all this, this all takes funding, and that’s a big part of what we do at Western Resource Advocates is work on what we call conservation finance getting the money to help people and experts, whether they’re state agencies or local community agencies, or some of our community practitioners around the west who help both our local communities and our states, accomplish these forest restoration goals.

And that takes money. And there’s a lot of awesome money available in the bipartisan infrastructure law or the inflation reduction act, some of which dedicated a ton of money for fuel mitigation strategies and prescribed fire. But oftentimes that funding requires local communities to come up with what’s called match. So most of the time federal dollars aren’t just given out without any strings attached. Sometimes you need to put up as much as 50% of what you get back, so what we call a one-to-one match, or you could have the requirement to provide 25% of what you’re getting back in your own funds, and in Colorado we’ve had success creating state grant programs that can help communities get that funding to match those federal dollars to make their projects even bigger and even more successful.

But in New Mexico, I think we probably just had the biggest forest restoration success on conservation finance with Senate Bill 9 or the Land of Enchanted Legacy Fund. Now that’s been signed into law. What you may have heard about this in previous podcasts with pretty Fallon, my boss you know, that provides a ton of money for forest restoration health in New Mexico that has never been available in this way before. That money can be used to help leverage those federal dollars.

So really $1 on the state level can be multiplied by accessing some of those federal requirements. And that takes local political will and support as well. I think our listeners are great advocates for some of these conservation policy solutions and they help us get stuff done across the West And we’ve seen, regardless of what’s happening at the federal level, of nothing moves through Congress. We’re getting stuff done at the state level And that comes in huge part because of people who understand the need for things like this in New Mexico, in Colorado, in their local communities.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, not to sound guilt trippy or anything, but you want to know, at the end of the day, that you did your part right, that you did the best that you could for your community and your ecosystem and the nature and the place that you love. So I always think about that. But I’m a mom, so that’s like how I think about everything, like I got to make sure I’m doing these things now.

Brendan Witt – Western Lands Policy Fellow: Yeah, and this might be a cheesy plug for us as nonprofit professionals, but I really do believe in this. I have a lot of friends who care about these things. They talk about them all the time. They ask me about them And they work in different areas and they’re like what do I do? How can I get involved? And I don’t necessarily have the time to do that. That’s why we’re here.

That’s why WRA exists is because we are here to listen to those concerns and to put in the time to help ensure that communities and states are making smart decisions and enacting smart policies.

And if you don’t have the time to do so yourself. We are making it easy for you to take action, to write to your local representatives to help figure out which local representatives are the right people to get to and to help engage on a policy front. You can know that we’re working on it, getting after it and supporting us helps us keep doing it. So, and it’s something that you care about, but you’re like man, I can’t show up to every city council meeting or I’m not going to go listen and sit into the state legislature and testify. That’s not something that’s on the menu for you,  it’s something that we do and we can help make happen. So your supporter really makes a difference for people like us who are thinking about this day and now.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:  Yeah, we’re literally Advocates of the West. You know that’s our job is to go show up and say something right, so we’re out here. Thanks so much, Brendan for being on the podcast and teaching us all the things about wildfires. It was really helpful. Also, I did look up some stats about lightning and climate change, and Lightning strikes have increased five-fold and, according to the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center, in the next century We will have 50% more lightning due to climate change. If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions which that’s wild We’re gonna have a more lightning future everybody. But don’t fret, we’re all out here working to reduce those emissions. I know you guys are doing your part too.

Okay, so now is the time when we like to give a shout-out to our sponsors. We have a lot more sponsors this year. We had so many people reach out and become a sponsor of this podcast and WRA and I just want to say Thank you, because it really means a lot and it allows us to do a lot more of this kind of work. And if you ever are thinking about that thinking, maybe that’s something that your org or your business might want to do please reach out and click the link in the show notes, because, you know, more collaboration is always better.

WRA’s impact sponsor First Bank is the largest locally-owned banking organization in Colorado, providing a full range of banking services. We are grateful for their commitment to banking for good, doing what’s right for customers, communities and employees. We’d also like to take a minute to thank our stellar 2023 sponsors, including our premier sponsors, Sol-Up and Vision Ridge Partners, our signature sponsors Scarpa North America and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and our supporting sponsors, Group14 Engineering and Jones and Co. Thanks to our sponsors. We really appreciate you all.

Alright, everybody, it’s time for my favorite segment, ‘What I Like About the West’ and, as you know, if you’ve listened before, you can always send us a voice memo about 40 seconds to a minute of what you like about the West and we will put you on the podcast. If you want more details about that, please go to the show notes. Send us an email. We would absolutely love to feature you. It’s so fun. It’s great. Today we’re hearing from my friend, Jamie Chapman. She is a local business owner here in Nevada. She runs the Pineapple Pedicabs. They are so cool. They’re little pineapple cabs that take you around town. She does cool brewery tours and all different kinds of special events. And a fun fact about Jamie, she actually has lived in Antarctica before, which is incredible, like at the science station there, so maybe I should have her on the podcast one day. It’s not really the West, but she’s got some great stories to tell. All right, let’s hear from Jamie and see what she likes about the West.

Jamie Chapman – Head Pineapple at Pineapple Pedicabs: Jamie Chapman head pineapple at Pineapple Pedicabs, and my favorite thing about the West is the fact that, well, the people, right, the state of mind. And I also love about the environment that you get the mountains and the desert and these giant skies. You see the pretty snow-capped mountains while we’re warm here in Reno. That’s my favorite thing about Reno. The West Coast in general is the whole vibe of the West. You know, I think we all have a collective, a collective mind. It seems like we all have like the same progressive ideas, like we’re moving towards the future.

Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Thanks so much Jamie. And if you’re ever in Reno, guys, make sure to get a Pineapple Pedicab tour because it is really the funnest way to get around the city. That was actually recorded at the Midtown Earth Day event We did here in Reno, which is where I met Soul Up, this amazing local solar company, and they became a sponsor, which is so cool. I just love that. They’re really great. Shout out to them and if you’re in Nevada, check them out. They’re a great option for solar. They’re really helpful and sweet. All right, guys, that is a wrap.

Two Degrees Out West is a production of Western Resource Advocates. If you don’t know much about us, I highly recommend going to our website link in our show notes. But basically, we just do advocacy in the West. We drive state action. We’re at your public utility commission. We’re at your state legislature. We are helping bills to get passed that promote things like wildlife crossings, drought, mitigation, all of those things. Healthy rivers, clean air, we’re doing it.  Okay, I’m your host,  Jessi Janusee. I’m the multimedia storyteller here at WRA and it’s been a pleasure to hang out with you. I hope you are all thinking about your plans for wildfire season and I hope you also are getting out there in nature and enjoying it. It’s almost summer. I can’t wait. Have a great day Y’all. See you next time.


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