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Project Wildfire hosted the first in a series of three learning exchanges that FAC Net members in the Pacific Northwest have planned this spring. Participants from Central Washington’s Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and their partners from the Cascadia Conservation District, along with Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative and Jackson County Fire District personnel traveled to Deschutes County, Oregon to learn about the nearly two decades of fire adaptation work Project Wildfire has been leading in central Oregon.

A learning what? Why?

After working to co-design a learning agenda—with topics of interest to all of the participants and a well-rounded field component—last week’s exchange was a great example of both the process and content design required for a successful learning exchange. “The way we designed the exchange—where in advance we heard from people about what they wanted to learn—allowed us to structure the exchange around those needs. It was helpful to tailor the exchange as an open dialogue. We built in a lot of flexibility to accommodate in-depth conversations,” said Ed Keith, Deschutes County Forester. Unlike a conventional field tour, a learning exchange includes the express purpose to exchange ideas rather than just present the host’s approach. Because of this, all of the exchange participants have an active role to play. Alison Green, Project Wildfire coordinator, described the exchange

“the storytelling. We can be interactive—and interactive discussion helps make that learning real.”

Some of the benefits of utilizing a learning exchange format to spread ideas were articulated by the participants. Hilary Lundgren, director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, likes “the intimate nature of the exchange

. It gives us time to connect and build rapport. It also lets us dig into all of the details—the how and why–and the values that drive people and their partners.” Amanda Levesque from Cascadia Conservation District described the exchange as an opportunity “to interact one-on-one with folks doing similar work,” and further commented that “at big seminars, I am hesitant to ask questions or for details. This small group lets us really connect.” Her colleague Patrick Haggerty described the value of the exchange as “building relationships that I can take home–new phone numbers I can call with specific questions.”

The second exchange will be held in Leavenworth, Washington in mid-April, and in June the group will visit Jackson and Josephine Counties in southern Oregon.

Deschutes County, Oregon March 2016

Riding in the back of the Suburban, packed in with other learning exchange participants, I feel like I am on a school field trip: excited and ready to learn! Lively conversations and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere fill the truck. After a short drive to an irrigation district-owned property within the city limits of Bend, we pile out into the crisp, clear March morning. As we walk through the juniper and bitterbrush we learn how the irrigation district got engaged here after a fire was started on their property. A storm begins rolling in, and before we leave snow is falling. That doesn’t stop us from seeing a perimeter fuel treatment or discussing the benefits of field tours when working with partners to determine treatment prescriptions.

Check out this selection of images from the Learning Exchange in a slideshow here. Credit: Michelle Medley Daniel

From the irrigation district site, we drive to a development just outside the city limits with nearly 2,400 lots. Deschutes River Woods is a mix of older and newer construction with poorly maintained private roads that pose a challenge to safe evacuation. Several years ago Project Wildfire and their partners secured some secondary evacuation routes for this subdivision, but it remains an area of concern due to population density and egress issues. This gives us a chance to talk about evacuation planning and signage—information that Ashley Lara, Jackson County Fire District 3, says “is something that I have a direct opportunity to utilize at home.”

We turn the Suburban south toward Sunriver. By now, the snow is beginning to accumulate, but that doesn’t stop us from getting out to look at some well-built piles in a high-end neighborhood. Homeowners in this area have trained their neighbors to build their piles correctly (for easy handling), and many of the homes along this street already have their limbs stacked and awaiting the chipper.

Sunriver is a resort community—in a lodgepole pine forest. The common spaces along the roads and between people’s small lots are like a communal yard, and taking care of that space is critical to making life here more fire safe. When building began in the late 1960s, Sunriver required residences to have wood shake-shingled roofs. While that code has long since been changed, this fact is a useful conversation point for our group, and we launch into a discussion about the strong effect that local codes and covenants conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) have on a community’s fire resilience.

At the edge of the community, we pull up to a gate blocking access to Sunriver’s waste disposal site. A testament to their good partner relationships, Alison has the gate code. Once inside, we greet the site managers and they show us around their composting operation. It starts with the bio-solids from Sunriver’s sewage and the vegetation from people’s yards and the common areas. Together, processed by half a million dollars’ worth of equipment, that is turned into compost, which is then sold back to Sunriver residents.

It is muddy, and long rows of green plastic full of the composting mixture are flanked by piles of raw material and finished compost. Because their vegetation drop-off event hasn’t happened yet this season, they are left with a relatively small pile, but it is easy to imagine how huge the mounds of trimmings will grow to be in a few months. George McKinley, director of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, tells the group that he’s impressed with how this community is creating an economic return from restoration and fuels reduction work.

We head back to Bend and the warmth of a nice conference room at Knott Landfill. They have aerial photos of each of the county waste disposal sites along the wall, and our group checks out the variation across the county while we wait for Project Wildfire’s partners who work at the landfill to join us. In Deschutes County, the landfill operates in the black and is able to contribute to other county projects, like Project Wildfire. They are one of the most critical partners involved in the FireFree vegetation drop-off events.

In Bend, you cannot burn, period. So people who live within the city limits have to dispose of their yard debris by bringing it to the landfill. FireFree offers residents an opportunity to do that at no cost to them. It does cost the county though—in the form of foregone revenues–so the partnership between the landfill and Project Wildfire is really important to the success of this effort.

Before we can go out to see the landfill in action a contractor pops his head into the conference room. Our landfill partner has to duck out to talk about next month’s blasting operation (who knew landfills were such exciting places!?), but promises to take us to a spot where we can look into the landfill to see how it works.

I’ve never seen wheels that big. The metal crushers are working down in the bottom of the landfill, smashing the bags of trash that have been brought in today. There is a composting program co-located at Knott, but the volume of vegetation generated by the FireFree events overwhelms their capacity. So the landfill has figured out other ways to use the material. Every day the landfill is required to cover the garbage that has been layered there with 6 inches of material, called daily cover. One of the approved daily cover materials is ground-up vegetation debris. We watch as another machine broadcasts daily cover over the area where they had been compacting. The weather has cleared again, and from our vantage point at the landfill, we have a panoramic view of the Cascades.

The restaurant is busy. At least a dozen people are seated at a long table; these are the founders of Project Wildfire. They are here to have breakfast with the learning exchange participants and talk about the evolution of their efforts. Someone hands me a folded newspaper. It is a multi-page insert detailing the 1990 Awbrey Hall Fire that burned 22 homes in the WUI on the west side of Bend. And then again, in 1996 the Skeleton Fire burned 30 homes and outbuildings. That is the reason these people originally got together: to address the fact that their community was not ready for those fires. Gary Marshall, the former Fire Marshal for Bend Fire, recounts the story of how, following the Skeleton Fire, a local insurance company had offered to buy Bend Fire a new fire engine. Instead, Gary requested that they utilize the funds to get at the root problem–their community was not fire-ready and another fire truck wouldn’t change that–but a comprehensive education and engagement program could. So they assembled a large coalition—including a professional marketing firm and the County Commissioners—and the need and demand for their work have been steadily increasing ever since.

Headed south on Highway 97 after the exchange wraps up, I reflect on the fact that population growth for Deschutes County is estimated to grow from the current 170,000 residents to 250,000 by 2035. The population has been growing by 3 percent a year since the mid-1990s—the fastest growth in the state by percentage–so growth isn’t new, but it is still a major challenge. In a county growing that fast, and where 80 percent is public land, your WUI is bound to get even bigger. Fortunately, the relationships forged among Project Wildfire’s local partners, and with communities across the country engaged in this work, are a big asset in confronting that challenge.