Living with Wildfire in the "Squeal Truck"

I believe it was Fall, 2017 and I was riding in the back seat of a USFS vehicle. We were touring Chelan County with a team of researchers studying wildfire risk and the network of organizations working to “solve the problem.” Unknown to me at the time, I was seated next a person who would later play a significant role in our wildfire prevention work here at District #1. Dr. Patricia Champ of the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station heads a team of social science researchers (the WiRē team). She casually peaked over my shoulder as I tirelessly fiddled with an iPad and asked what my eyes were so glued to. It was not bubble crush.


Our District had been working to develop a template using GIS software to take inventory of our built environment. We intended to survey individual homes from the sidewalk and make note of defensible space conditions, building construction, response needs, etc. so that we could pass this information along to teams who would be called in to manage a future wildland-urban interface (WUI) incident. I explained to Dr. Champ – Patti, as I’ve come to know her – the challenge of describing a home’s survivability, and the real headache of weighing one particular characteristic to another. She politely smiled as I rambled, thinking aloud on my technical grievances. The SUV came to a stop and we exited before Patti had a chance comment.


Previously, Patty and her team had conducted surveys of residents in several Colorado WUI communities asking questions about wildfire such as where residents get information, barriers to mitigation, and personal experiences. The process mailed surveys to a few hundred homes and analyzed the responses to identify themes. The idea was not just to hand out another trifold flyer telling landowners they are at risk, but really dive into the details of what might motivate someone to take action, listen to their needs, and identify gaps in a community’s perception of wildfire response.


Few months later I got a call from an unknown number in Colorado. While we had been deep, deep in the weeds of “is it light, is it moderate, how close is the woodpile,” the curious passenger in the back seat and her team secured funding for a Wenatchee project and was calling to see if we were interested. I guess I was in the right SUV at the right time. The plan was to compare observations made by firefighters to landowner feedback from mailed surveys and before we knew it Patty, Hannah, Colleen and Chris were on a flight to Pangborn.


We surveyed roughly 700 homes in the Squilchuck Drainage. Patty never could quite get that one right and we often laughed at her pronunciation of the “Squeal Truck” or “Squirrel Chuck” Drainage. Humor and friendship made the tedious work of data collection, licking envelopes and statistical analysis less burdensome. The effort lasting just over a year resulted in a deeper understanding of our community, and some new ideas about how to approach wildfire preparedness in our district. Moreover, some savvy folks from the research station solved all of our GIS and data collection problems and left us with a pretty slick tool we continue to use today.


This week a data report was published detailing the results of the study. In it are responses from 291 households in the Methow, Wenatchee Heights, Squilchuck, and Forest Ridge communities. You can read the results of the survey work here:


https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_series/rmrs/rn/rmrs_rn087.pdf


An article titled Actionable Social Data can Guide Sustainable Wildfire Solutions Across Heterogeneous Communities: An Illustration was submitted early this month to the Journal of Sustainability and will be made available following peer review.

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