Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future -Panel Discussion

Bioneers hosted a screening of Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests, and the Future in September 2019 at the Smith Rafael Center in San Rafael, CA. This compelling one-hour documentary reveals how fire suppression and climate change have exposed our forests and wildland-urban landscapes to large, high intensity wildfires – and explores strategies to mitigate the impact of these fires. In 2020, as multiple wildfires torch large areas of California, once again forcing tens of thousands to evacuate their homes and millions to breathe air thick with smoke, Wilder than Wild offers an invaluable overview. In addition to being broadcast on PBS stations across the country, the film can be purchased for educational and community screenings and will soon be online for video on demand. See the film’s website for details.

The screening was followed by a panel with the following guests: 

Elizabeth Azzuz is a member of the Yurok Tribe, the largest in California. She gathers traditional foods, medicines, and basketry materials. Elizabeth is on the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council, and she is a communications and logistics trainer during prescribed fire training exchanges when Klamath River tribes and non-Indian communities work with the Nature Conservancy’s fire learning network. 

Quinn Gardner is the Emergency Manager for the City of San Rafael. He is in charge of the city’s emergency preparedness and disaster response

Tamra Peters is Executive Director of Resilient Neighborhoods. She has worked with the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation organizations. A board member of Sustainable Marin for seven years, Tamara has worked with hundreds of Marin families who are reducing their carbon footprints and building more sustainable communities.

Mike Shuken, firefighter and paramedic for the City of Berkeley Fire Department, was a first responder to the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa in 2017. In the film we witness his experience of the wine country wildfires via footage he shot through the windows of his fire engine.

Kay White is the originator and coordinator of Pacheco Valle FireWise community in Novato. She and her neighbors work together on community improvements as well as on fire prevention. Their work provides a model for similar initiatives elsewhere in Marin County.

The film’s director Kevin White also attended, along with writer/producer Stephen Most, who moderated the panel. 

KEVIN WHITE: When Stephen and I started this film, we had no idea that we would be sitting here in the middle of 2019 with this legacy of catastrophic fire behind us, and probably arguably in front of us. One of the things that really struck me as we made this film was that the fires and the wildland urban interfaces (WUI) were getting bigger. In fact we had a rough cut on October 8th, and then on October 9th we woke up and smelled smoke. We rushed up to the wine country to film. Fortunately, we connected with Mike Shuken and were able to get some of the footage that he amazingly captured while he was fighting the fires. It was clear that something fundamental has changed, and we witnessed it in the last five to six years.

Since then we’ve had more than 250 community screenings. We have really seen how wildfire has impacted communities up front and personal. It is really clear that the solution lives in communities working together. 

Kevin White, Director of Wilder Than Wild

The Rim fire devastated communities and really undermined so much of the ecological surrounding areas. We saw an environmentalist and a logger come together to create consensus, which is a great lesson. It’s really inspiring to see the amazing work of the Yurok tribe, Elizabeth and Margo and everyone. It’s clear that community is key.

STEPHEN MOST: Mike Shuken, you say in the film that we learn something from every fire and you talk about how fire departments adapt. You point out that for urban fire departments, it’s not just someone dropping a cigarette in a home or the wiring going bad, but that it’s important to address how fires come from the outside and consume entire neighborhoods. How does that affect an urban fire department like your own?

MIKE SHUKEN: In the early 1990s we had a fire in the Oakland/Berkeley hills, and we lost about 3,000 structures. In that particular fire, a number of fire departments came in to help us fight it. But they couldn’t connect their firehoses to our fire hydrants because all fire departments select their own hoses and have different threads. That presented a big challenge. So in 1994, a law was passed that standardized hose fittings. 

Fast forward to the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. With very few exceptions, hundreds of fire agencies from around California and the Western United States had matching hose couplings. In that fire, about 6,000 structures burned down with a loss of 22 lives. This was tragic, but it was a smaller number than we were anticipating. That fire was early in the morning, and there’s a large senior citizen population there. So for us as firefighters, that was pretty remarkable. 

Mike Shuken, firefighter and paramedic for the City of Berkeley Fire Department

Early on in that fire, the decision was made by the fire department to try to not defend any of the structures that were burning, but to focus purely on evacuating the citizens of the community. They worked in conjunction with the sheriff’s department to do that. 

But when we actually looked at what saved the lives of most people who lived there, it was their neighbors. It was the fact that the people came out of their house, saw their community was burning, and immediately alerted their neighbors’. They helped disabled people, senior citizens, families with children. So we need to recognize that everyone basically becomes a first responder in that kind of situation.

So as an urban fire department, one of the things we focused on is giving the community the tools to be able to respond. 

STEPHEN MOST: That’s a great point, Mike. Often those of us who live in cities might not know our neighbors at all. But when we realize that a fire can sweep in from the hills outside our neighborhoods and affect all of us, all of a sudden people are not strangers. We have a shared fate. Understanding our neighbors’ situations, knowing who is handicapped, who’s a senior, who can’t get out in time becomes a very vital thing for us to do for all of our sakes. 

Elizabeth Azzuz, many people see fire in negative terms. But your colleague, Margo Robbins, says in the film that your community saw fire as the number one important thing to have. What are the benefits of fire for your community, and what is the traditional ecological knowledge of the Klamath River tribes on how to use cultural fire safely and productively?

ELIZABETH AZZUZ: Our community is extremely rural. The sign says there are 250 people, which is incorrect, because it’s said that since I was a child. However, we’re a very culturally oriented people. We spend a lot of time hunting, gathering, fishing, and a lot of time on the land. We gather our foods, our medicines. We spend time in nature. We pay attention to our environment, the times of the day that the wind travels. How our environment interacts with us, we need to interact with it. 

For our community to come together and say that fire was the most important thing, you have to realize our aunties run our communities. When our basketweavers don’t have hazel sticks, the younger generation jumps because they say so. We have been able to go from not having hazel for our weavers – and some of our women are some of the best weavers, I believe, in the world – to now having young women and girls as young as 5 years-old making baby baskets, food baskets and medicinal baskets, and being able to gather in large groups rather than hiding your family’s gathering spot because it’s the only one around. 

It’s very important for us to be able to stand out in the forest and look as far as we can see in either direction. We’ve seen animals come back that people haven’t seen in their lifetime. The hunters are extremely happy. The weavers are extremely happy. And those of us who gather medicinal medicines are very happy also. 

Elizabeth Azzuz, Yurok Tribe Cultural Fire Management Councilmember

It’s really, really important for me to know that communities get together and communicate with one another. Take care of your neighbors. Take care of your environment, because when we’re clearing our land, when we’re burning, it helps the water, our environment, the fish, it helps all of the things that we live with.

I’m speaking to an audience that probably doesn’t even know what most of this means because you see buildings for miles. All I see in my home are trees. I live directly above the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity River, so I’m a little jealous that you have all of these wonderful things at your hands, but on the other hand, I’m really happy to be where I’m at in the woods. 

STEPHEN MOST: Tamra Peters, would you tell us about Resilient Neighborhoods? I understand you’re focused on climate change and improving the carbon footprint of the neighborhoods you work with, but how do you view wildfires in this context of climate change?

TAMRA PETERS: Let me start answering your question with a quote that I really like from President Obama. He said we’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we’re the last generation that can do something about it. So that’s what led me to create Resilient Neighborhoods nine years ago. I wanted it to be a community-based organization that would help people reduce their family’s carbon footprint, their own carbon footprint, but also do something about the effects that climate change was going to bring our way, the adaptation that we were going to need. I had no idea nine years ago that we would be living it right now, and wildfires is a big part of that.

We have about eight to 10 families who get together to form a climate action team. They calculate their household carbon footprint from the beginning, where they are right now as a baseline, and then we have actions that they can take to reduce that. We also have a section on emergency preparedness and adaptation: what can you do for your family? Do you have a household emergency plan? Do you have supplies? Do you have adequate insurance? Then it goes to what you can do in your neighborhood. Do you know your neighbors? Can you exchange a key and look out for one person on your street and build it that way? Could you create a neighborhood response group, and a fire safe Marin community?

Tamra Peters, Executive Director of Resilient Neighborhoods

So we are building a climate movement in Marin, and a climate movement of safety. What we’re going to need is to connect with our neighbors and start it from there. Also, as we have heard, we need to get back to understanding that we are a part of nature and nature’s systems. I love that about the film. 

We’ve had over 1300 people go through the program and reduce 7.5 million pounds of carbon here in Marin. It’s really exciting to connect with their neighbors, and we’re working with everybody here to build a more resilient future. 

STEPHEN MOST: Kay White, what can individuals do to protect themselves from possible wildfires in the wildland urban interface – the WUI – where we live?

KAY WHITE: How many people here live in Marin? About 80 percent of you or maybe 100 percent of you live in a wildland urban interface. This was not clear to me until 2015, when I saw the community wildfire prevention plan through our Novato Fire District. They showed a wonderful presentation mapping the 16 high-risk WUI neighborhoods in Novato. That’s just one little community up in the north end of the county. What I saw there was my valley, Pacheco Valley, my road and my house and all of the wonderful combinations for a WUI fireplace. I thought, we need to do something about this. I asked the Novato fire chief to come to our neighborhood and show the rest of our neighbors, a little over 1,000 people. We are a development, but we are in an area that’s beautiful. 

When we first moved there, I thought, this is like walking in the valley of Yosemite. I mean, we have lots of oak trees, bay trees, and grassy woodlands, and lots of underbrush, and we’re surrounded by the county open space district. And guess what? There’s a lot of understory fuel load there. 

Our biggest neighbor is the county open space district. We got together with the help of the Novato fire district, and the chief informed what’s called a FireWise community. That’s a pretty easy process, and we work one-on-one, neighbor to neighbor, looking at how our houses are constructed, what’s growing around them, and working on that one on one. It’s very slow, let me tell you. It’s beyond my patience at times. But thanks to a film like this, I think it brings it back again.

Kay White, originator and coordinator of Pacheco Valley FireWise community

I would recommend if you are not yet familiar with FireWise, please look online at FireSafeMarin.org. It’s not a hard process. It’s a long process, and it’s a good process, because it’s building community to reduce the potential of fire in your neighborhood. You have to collaborate with all sorts of people, not just your neighbor, but with the Marin County district, with the cities, with the water district, you name it. You get to know them all. So I would highly recommend it. 

STEPHEN MOST: Quinn Gardner, we’d all like to believe that it won’t happen here, but I don’t think we can afford that illusion anymore. Let’s assume that a catastrophic wildfire strikes the WUI near San Rafael. What transportation and communications infrastructures are in place for such an event? Please advise us on how best to respond, for our own safety, but also how to protect our families and community members.

QUINN GARDNER: Yes, I’ll touch on some other things. Registering for emergency alerts is one way. We know that communication systems might not work, especially if we look at power outages and widespread usage, and that’s why that neighbor-to-neighbor piece like we’ve seen with these other fires is so essential. But getting signed up for emergency alerts through AlertMarin.org, and Nixle, which is as simple as texting your zip code to 888777. 

We have a lot of infrastructure in place and a lot of mutual aid agreements. Just yesterday, we had a fire right in Novato, but because of the systems that are in place, our communication systems, our mutual aid agreements, our relationships amongst our fire departments, we were able to get that under control quickly. 

In terms of transportation, there are cameras that you can access that have 24/7 monitoring, so there’s live monitoring happening of all of our higher risk fire areas all the time. Different communities are using different types of alerting tools. Mill Valley just tested their long-range acoustic device system (LRAD). But fundamentally, Marin is a peninsula, and when you take away our bridges and you take away one highway, we become an island very quickly. 

Quinn Gardner, Emergency Manager for the City of San Rafael

Again, so much of it becomes neighbor helping neighbor, knowing your evacuation routes. One of the things that struck me with the film was when they were doing some of the aerials over the North Bay fires. You could see the parking lots, and within those parking lots, those trees weren’t burned. Those could be safe areas if you can’t get anywhere else. Right? You have places near you, whether it’s large ball fields, places that are void of fuel, where there is a lot of work we need to be doing in terms of fuel management, but there are places that already exist that might be safe, at least in that short term as we move through more of an evacuation process and everything else.

What you can be doing in addition to knowing your neighbors, becoming a FireWise community, reducing your carbon footprint to limit impacts overall? There are really three things I always talk about: the alerting; having your plan and knowing your evacuation routes, knowing where you’re going to meet, knowing who to talk to; and then supplies, having your go backpack ready, having long sleeves, masks, water and food are a big one. I can spend hours talking about this stuff, but the big three – alerts, plans, and have some supplies ready so you can be ready to keep you and your family safe.

KEVIN WHITE: Quinn, what would you like to see in terms of fuel reduction, and what is the plan for that? 

QUINN GARDNER: Just yesterday I attended a seminar called Living with Fire. One of the big things is taking responsibility on your own property, and really that 0 to 5, and then when you get into that 30-foot zone. What you can do there is scientifically what we’re seeing can make the most impact because of the way those embers are flying and landing. The question you need to ask yourself when you look at your own home is that if an ember landed here, at the driest, windiest, worst fire weather day we had, what would happen to that ember? If the answer is: it would catch this bush, which would catch my house, then you probably need to adjust. If the answer is: I’ve done my fuel mitigation and I’ve spread things out, or maybe it’s just your cardboard boxes by your recycling bin. Are they in your bin with the lid closed where an ember could land on the plastic and be fine? Or is your lid open and you’ve got a huge fuel source right there?

In terms of the overall efforts, one of the biggest things we’re seeing with fuel mitigation work – and this is certainly because of the heavy urban area we’re in – we don’t necessarily have the same type of ability to do the burning that can really benefit and work well in other areas. We have to look more toward manual fuel reduction, which has high costs and its own carbon issues. 

One thing the film really covers is the benefit of burning to reduce the understory. We might not have that ability to burn here in Marin and San Rafael, but we do have the ability to clear the understories. A lot of people think vegetation management means removing everything, and it’s not about that. It’s about reducing latter fuels, it’s about reducing density, and in most cases, we want to see our mature trees survive and thrive. We’re not talking about removing those mature trees. It’s really reducing those understories for the same benefits you’re seeing with burning, we just have to do it in a much more intense, manual process. 

TAMRA PETERS: Kay White, what motivated you to volunteer to do this for your neighborhood? And did you do it alone? How did you get other people to start working with you?

KAY WHITE: Really the story presented itself by seeing the wildfire plan for Marin County and for Novato in particular. We have a valley, one way out, and it’s very clear that there’s a lot of fire risk in our neighborhood. It’s self-interest, fright, property interest, and environmental interest. We love where we live. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, so it was a natural confluence of interests among our neighbors. 

The way it worked in Pacheco Valley is I got together people who I knew were in some way leaders of different interests. We had the former mayor living in our area, and she knew a lot of people, which helped. We have six different homeowners associations, so I made sure we got someone from each of those associations, and it just bonded. It’s a collaboration, not just among our residents, it’s with all of the other jurisdictions that influence our environment in Pacheco Valley.

It’s surprising how many people there are, how many different organizations we have to work across, but that’s okay.

QUINN GARDNER: There are areas like that across Marin where it’s one road in, one road out, and there tends to be a mindset that evacuation means get to Highway 101. Evacuation means to get somewhere safe. Those places are probably a lot closer than most people think. And it is scary. It is intense. 

One of the other things to take away from the film and the visuals is you saw all these firefighters very close to extreme flames. I’m not saying I want you to be in that situation, but that is something that is survivable. So the goal when you’re talking about a really mass evacuation like we saw in North Bay is not necessarily to get to Highway 101, to San Francisco or over a bridge, it’s to get to somewhere you can survive that immediate threat.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, generally speaking, once something has burned, the fuel is gone. When we think about evacuation – and again I can’t speak to every situation – don’t go uphill, stay in your vehicle, and stay on pavement as much as absolutely possible. In the campfire in Butte County last year, we saw the visuals of the cars burned out on the side of the road. Nobody died in their car on the pavement. Those cars burnt out after the fact. People did die leaving their car, going into wooded areas and into brush. 

The intensity of wildfire that we’re seeing means citizens need to think like firefighters. It’s not about putting people into the middle of the forest to fight fires, but they have a safety plan. They have somewhere they can evacuate to be safe should that fire come in their direction or escalate. So we’re really trying to figure out how to get that message out where people can feel comfortable taking on that mindset.

KAY WHITE: Another thing I learned is that blackened soil is safer than unburned soil. So go back into the place that’s been burned rather than go forward and try to get out of it, which is counterintuitive. In our neighborhood, some of our neighbors have said, well, I’m just going to get out and hike up the trail, because we’re in the valley and they’re going to get up on the ridge. No, please, don’t do that! The fire moves uphill. There may be a fire truck barreling down the fire road. Stay on the pavement.

Most of all, prevent it. Get those leaves out of there. Get the fire prone vegetation out. You don’t have to wait for your city council to vote for it. You can do it on your own right now. I understand it’s a long, expensive process for most homeowners. It is for me. I’ve been working on things for three years and I’ve got 10 more years to go on my house.

KEVIN WHITE: Ask a really important question, which is: How did it start? And certainly that plays a role. What I always want to ask is: How did it spread? The starting in the Rim Fire, for example, was a hunter who was hunting out of season. We all know these conditions: Barometric pressure, low humidity, high heat, a lot of wind. We all know now up here, certainly in Northern California when we have those conditions. If you don’t know it, you should learn about it, because that’s critical, that’s when you need to be alert. 

One of the challenges is  you can have five homes, four people do a great job of defensible space, one house doesn’t. What do we do?

TAMRA PETERS: I think that question is coming up before some town councils, because people are saying—How can we be safe? We’re all doing this, and yet this person’s inaction could be threatening the whole neighborhood. Is that about personal rights? Where does it negate the responsibility to look out for the rest of the community? That’s an issue that’s being debated in councils in Marin right now.

QUINN GARDNER: Certainly. There are a lot of discussions going on about what codes can be put in place to help with that. But there’s really three ways fires spread: 1) direct flame contact; 2) radiant heat, you’re close enough to something that’s hot long enough, you start to get burned, that eventually will start a fire; 3) and embers. 

When you’re looking at your property, there are things you could be doing to defend against all of those. Certainly in some situations, your properties are so close that if your neighbor’s house catches on fire, even as a structure fire, that radiant heat has the potential to ignite yours. But there are a lot of fire-resistant materials. And, again, things we learn from every fire, all of these structures being rebuilt in Sonoma are being rebuilt to a very different standard than many of them were to begin with to prevent things like that. If you’ve done everything right, and there’s a reasonable amount of space between you and your neighbor, that hopefully is going to be enough. Now, there are conditions that no matter what it’s tough to fight.

Both of those alerting tools that I mentioned – Nixle and Alert Marin – are both opt-in systems, which means you need to register in order to receive those emergency alerts. Alert Marin is a tool that gets used in other jurisdictions, but the software used to run that also has the capability to do some other messaging that generally people equate more with Amber alerts, which is not an opt-in. You get Amber alerts whether you want them or not. The challenge with that is as we move up the pyramid of ability to force people to receive a message, we lose geographic control and it gets shorter. 

One of the things that we are really excited about in the county and in Northern California is a pretty recent headway we’ve made with NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, basically the weather service. There are what they call “NOAA weather radios”, which have been used in the Midwest, South, and East Coast for decades. Basically they’re on all the time and they’re silent unless there’s an emergency weather alert, like a flash flood, a tornado, or some other severe type of take-action-now. They will also do that with wildfire, which is a great redundancy to have and something we can use, especially for folks that don’t sleep with their phones by their beds; I turn it off at night; it wouldn’t wake me up when I take out my hearing aid, whatever the case may be. 

So we have the ability to message through NOAA weather radios. The problem is people have to get them. You can get them in the $20-40 range online, depending on which version you want, and certainly we’re going to be socializing that concept more, because it adds an additional redundancy to the Alert Marin, and it’s not cell phone tower based, it’s radio waves which helps as well.

But, again, like we’ve seen with so many of these things, it comes down to neighbors. One of the things with FireWise communities and neighborhood response groups and Resilient Neighbors is that knowing your neighbors and the people around you, you can have agreements. It can be as simple as: If you hear me blaring the horn in the middle of the night, I’m not just like having a party. I’m committing that if I get an emergency alert, I’m going to lay on my horn on the way out; or I’m going to walk over and pound on your door until you answer, and then you do the same thing one house down. As you build those relationships, you can have those conversations to help everybody communicate.

The other big piece of this alerting system is staying aware, and self-aware. If you smell smoke and something feels wrong, tuning into whatever makes sense, whether it’s the emergency alerting, whether it’s social media, the news of course, which picks up basically every Tweet that goes out from an official entity as it relates to something like a wildfire. So you can be informed and you can make those decisions. When in doubt, leave early, whether that’s a mobility issue, young kids, older folks, you’ve got a bunch of pets to wrangle. I use this joke all the time, but if the only time you ever put your cat in the carrier is to go to the vet, if there’s a fire or something crazy happening, you’re not going to find your cat. Right? And so find them when you can, put them in the carrier, worst case they’re mad at you at the end of the night because they just spent a couple of hours cooped up, but it’s what we can do to move before to evacuate as soon as we can so if or when we get that warning, that we can be ready.

TAMRA PETERS: Another thing we do in Resilient Neighborhoods is to get our participants to fill out a household emergency plan that asks questions like: What would you do if you have five minutes to leave? What would you take with you? Where’s your gas shut-off valve? It’s the things we don’t know when we’re panicked. They will cost time. We forget them. Put a little sign in your go bag that says don’t forget your pills and glasses. It’s the really practical things that are so important. 

MIKE SHUKEN: How many people remember the drills for the Soviet missiles that were supposed to come in? [LAUGHTER] So we do have a tradition for practicing for disaster in our communities, but we realized that we really hadn’t done any of these things we’re talking about as a drill.

So last month in Berkeley, we actually ran three drills where we did everything from activating the Nixle system to having volunteers take our evacuation paths. The police department has a trailer they tow around with a loud speaker that penetrates through walls and broadcasts evacuation plans. We actually didn’t know if it worked or not. So for three days we did these drills that were announced to the community, and they took place at 10:00 in the morning on Sunday with no wind, with really nice weather.

It’s important to help organize and arrange these sorts of drills in your communities. We certainly found a lot of flaws in ours in Berkeley when we did it that we’re working on. 

QUINN GARDNER: Yes, there are evacuation drills that happen around the county. And do your own drills, right? Set your microwave timer for 10 minutes, and see how much you can get out of your house. If you don’t have a grab-and-go list, start making one. There are drills you can do at home with your family to help create muscle memory and identify challenges.

KAY WHITE: We have wonderful National Weather Service information through the NOAA. Pay attention, especially in September, October, November, for red flag days. Those are the times you can get all your gear together, get your pet together. You may be ready to leave before any kind of evacuation is ordered. 

ELIZABETH AZZUZ: I would say that reaching out to all of the agencies – NOAA, CalFire, Forest Service, any of the fire departments, any local agencies that deal with this are going to have all the information you need to be able to survive anything that’s coming.

Another piece that none of us have talked about is children. We work very closely with our Head Start and our elementary students to teach these things. So they go home and nag their parents and grandparents about why their stuff isn’t ready. Where’s their go bag? How am I going to survive this? So it’s not just the adults. It’s not just the pets. It’s the children, and if you get them involved, they’ll keep you active in everything you need to know to survive.

Reach out to your legislators. We’re very, very rural. There is one way into the reservation where I live and one way out. We had a severe few years of arson. At one point, there were 80 arsons in this corridor. And after doing our prescribed burning and working with all these different agencies, we brought them down to I think one last year. So it’s definitely about communication. We actually created a Facebook page that’s called the Weitchpec/Down River Community. That’s for all of us that live off-grid – because I live totally off-grid. I can get in my window, turn my generator on, and send a message, or they’ll be messages going: Elizabeth, where’s the fire? Who needs to be evacuated? Who needs what? It is communication. Reach out to the people in charge and nag them if you have to. Just don’t let up. Keep working.

For more information and to get involved in making your community safer from fire, visit the California Safe Fire Council and FireWise USA.

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