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As wildfires blazed across the American West this summer, Conn alumni from Connecticut to Southern California helped contain and manage the risks of an increasingly damaging fire season.
By Daniel F. Le Ray
s more than 45,000 fires scorched 8 million acres of land across the American West this summer and fall, national news stories were accompanied by stark images: orange-red skies over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, smoke obscuring Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, and evacuated towns across Oregon. In late July, Emily Shafer ’18 and nine other East Coast firefighters drove across the country as part of the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew to help tackle some of the blazes in northeastern California.
“We were assigned to an area called the Modoc Lightning Complex,” said Shafer, who works for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Shafer arrived in Modoc County—which was at the center of a series of fires caused by lightning strikes—as part of a 10-person “initial attack crew.”
“Our job was to patrol and, when any new start would pop up, jump on it and immediately put the fire out or get it contained,” she explained.
There are two ways to battle wildfire. A direct attack on a smaller fire involves digging a fire line around the blaze, so “it runs out of brush and anything in the soil that could possibly keep it smoldering.” For larger fires, Shafer’s team employed indirect attacks, digging fire lines miles away from the wildfire’s edge. Her role is as a certified sawyer.
“We were going to areas that were really thick and that were expecting thunderstorms that night, then cutting out a ton of fuel,” she said. “Our sawyers would cut down trees and brush and we would pile it away from everything else, so if lightning did strike that area, it would be much easier to dig a line there.”
Working fire lines, there is always a risk of spread.
“If an ember blows over and catches a bush on fire, that may start an entirely new fire that could be even bigger than the original,” she said. “If there’s a spot fire, we definitely would get right on that, but you don’t go into an area that’s burning, because having fire on all sides of you is definitely not the situation you want to be in.”
The Californians Shafer encountered seemed accustomed to the dangers; however, “the more experienced people were telling me that this has been one of the worst years they’ve seen, and it’s getting worse and worse.”
In San Francisco, Natalie Calhoun ’16 saw the effects of the fires firsthand. After being under lockdown orders for more than six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “the fire season adds a whole layer of danger and difficulty to safely evacuating people.”
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Calhoun has always thought of late summer and early fall as “earthquake season,” but over the past several years it has become the time of wildfires.
“A lot of people have extra water and food ready in case of earthquake damage, but now we’re ready for another kind of emergency: one where you’re not sheltering in place due to an earthquake, but you’re potentially fleeing your home from wildfire,” she said.
“Even though we’re pushed to the brink, I think people have responded well. We’ve done it before, and we see now that we’re going to be doing it more and more frequently.”
Calhoun has just begun a dual MBA–MS in environmental management at the University of San Francisco. Before that, she worked as environment and safety manager for Delaware North, a hospitality company that runs several facilities within the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
“It was a dream job,” she recalled. Alongside sustainability and environmental impact projects, including reducing energy use and installing charging stations for electric cars, Calhoun took on some more unusual issues—like bear containment.
“I thought we might be able to have an outdoor compost pile off-site and make it an educational, interactive thing. Then the park service came and said, “Absolutely not. That will attract bears,’” Calhoun laughed.
A side benefit was spending time immersed in some of the country’s grandest landscapes.
“Every day was a reminder of why we are doing this—to preserve nature, to take care of our planet and to spend time with some of the largest trees on the planet,” like the General Sherman tree in Sequoia, which has been designated the largest living organism on Earth, at 275 feet tall and 25 feet around.
“There’s a spot where you can see people as they come around the corner and see it for the first time,” she said. “Their eyes get really big and their jaws drop. It’s stupidly big.”
Both Sequoia and Kings Canyon were affected by wildfires in September, while drought takes its toll every summer.
“The trees just get weaker and weaker, and then the weaker trees are more susceptible to bark beetles or other pests and blight,” said Calhoun. Pests like bark beetles decay the trees, which compounds fire danger because these desiccated trees become fuel to burn.
Climate change and, counterintuitively, a history of fire suppression have led to increasingly damaging wildfire seasons. Lightning-sparked fires—a natural part of the ecosystem—and Native American fire use actually kept the forest canopy open and burned out the biomass that now produces more severe fires during fire season.
On top of these issues, California has recently suffered from hundreds of wildfires linked to electricity grid infrastructure. As an environmental scientist for the California Public Utilities Commission’s new Wildfire Safety Division, Colin Lang ’14 reviews power companies’ wildfire mitigation plans. The goal is to reduce ignition risk from things such as downed power lines, transformer explosions or blown fuses.
Lang, based in Sacramento, California, also stressed the importance of “vegetation management—how the different utility companies approach these areas of mitigation and how we can keep them accountable for actually doing the work they present in their plans.”
Lang’s work also focuses on reducing the risk of infrastructure failure. Here, age is a concern.
“This is a huge state, and a lot of these lines were put in a hundred years ago and no one’s really touched them since,” he said. “We’re working with a utility right now that still has several tree attachments—instead of putting up a pole, they just stuck the wires to a tree.”
In rural areas, which are more affected by fire, “you’ll also find uncovered conductors that are just bare lines with no insulation around them, so if anything falls on them and touches two wires, there’s an instant spark.”
Lang recently earned his master’s degree in environmental policy and management at the University of California, Davis. He first became interested in wildfire management when the 2018 Ferguson Fire, which burned in the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, forced him to evacuate.
“I had to leave my home for a month while the fire almost burned down the town,” he recalled. “But that got me interested in fire ecology, and through that experience, I realized how broken wildfire policy was in the United States and California.”
Like Lang, Calhoun hopes that her dual graduate program will better equip her to contribute to wildfire management—but from a different angle.
Working for Delaware North, “I had been extremely focused on the environmental and ecological aspects, but I really loved being in the corporate environment. However, I had none of the language I needed,” she explained.
In the corporate world, sustainability is intrinsically bound to a company’s finances.
“If you don’t have the financial resources to support your environmental objectives, they’re not going to happen,” said Calhoun, adding, “Your general manager is not going to approve your low-flow toilets unless you can explain to them how much money that will save you in the long run.”
Her ultimate goal is to be “environmental plus.” She explained, “Environmental, plus engineering, plus marketing manager, plus human resources professional. As consumers become more environmentally conscious and want to support companies with environmental goals, I think more of these jobs will appear.”
Despite this year’s red skies and hazardous air, Lang also remains optimistic.
“The bright side is that people understand this problem and they want to see it solved. California is putting the money and the resources toward preemptively solving wildfire issues instead of just suppressing fire.” But, he added, “this is not just a California problem anymore.”
Shafer, who returned to Madison, Connecticut, in mid-August after 14-hour days in California, echoed Lang’s sentiments.
“When even Connecticut is dry enough that we’re getting nonstop fires and all burn permits are suspended, I think that really opens people’s eyes,” she said.
In her day-to-day role with DEEP, Shafer uses her skills as a sawyer to create the healthiest forest possible. This involves cutting down saplings that will not survive or removing trees affected by emerald ash borers, gypsy moths and other pests.
“It’s seen as such a negative thing to cut down a tree right now, but a lot of people don’t understand that sometimes the only way to create a healthy forest is to cut down a lot of trees so that better native, more self-sustaining trees can grow in their place,” she explained.
People must also understand the invaluable role that fire plays in the ecosystem.
“A lot of trees actually depend on fire to reproduce, like the pitch pine—the heat actually causes the cones to open and that’s how they drop their seeds,” Shafer said. And historically, indigenous peoples burned Connecticut’s oak forests, but long-standing policies of fire suppression mean that “the forests are getting so overpopulated with invasive or nonnative species that a lot of the oak trees are dying.”
On the other side of the country, the same is true. Lang, for instance, worked at Yosemite National Park, helping thin overgrown areas—“not only to reduce fuels for potential prescribed burns, but also to diversify the plant life and open up the ground so that a multitude of different species could flourish under the canopy instead of just a single species of pine or cedar,” he explained.
Calhoun, too, recognizes that working with the landscape is necessary.
As Californians continue to move closer and closer to the forest, the state and its residents need to be prepared, she said. “But maybe we would be better off letting some of these fires that happen in nature happen, while protecting the wildland-urban interface.”