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2015 Fire Season Motivates Upper Skagit Partners to Take Action

Written by Chief Cody Watson, Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade (Seattle City Light)

I had one thing to do. One simple thing. Take pictures. “Just get some before, during, and after pictures. We won’t even make you work if you don’t want to….even though you need it!” quipped David Claybo, Seattle City Light’s Right-of-Way Lead worker. Such a simple task and I failed at it.

Luckily, someone else snapped a few photos as I was at home taking flu medicine and trying to comfort a sick family.

As I listened to the whine of a one year old with a temperature, others were listening to the whine of chainsaws creating some defensible space at the Environmental Learning Center (ELC). This project has been in the works for a while, but the recent Upper Skagit Complex Fire created a greater sense of urgency. This is why Seattle City Light (SCL), North Cascades National Park Service (NPS), and North Cascades Institute (NCI) decided to team up and pooled their resources to get the job done.

Creating defensible space seems like a pretty simple exercise if you have the right tools and clear ownership. But what if the land is owned by one party (National Park Service), the buildings owned by another (Seattle City Light), and the facility operated by a third (North Cascades Institute)?! Now things can start getting more complicated. Issues can devolve into finger pointing on who is the responsible party and who should fix the problem. Fortunately, there had been some strong partnerships developed over the past few years which grew from simple introductions. Over time, through continued interaction and information sharing, the partnerships have yielded something tangible, like the cooperative environment capable of tackling a project like creating a wildfire defensible facility at the ELC!

I knew all parties were interested in prioritizing wildfire mitigation after last summer’s fire. I also knew that past talks around creating defensible space at the ELC was stalled from a lack of resources. Therefore, I organized a meeting amongst the groups at the ELC, and asked Jenny Coe with the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC) to attend because of her background in Firewise. We identified the scope of work, delegated tasks by expertise and ability, and set out to make a plan.

Seattle City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project’s Right-of-Way workers do all of the vegetation management under the powerlines and near our facilities. They are used to me asking for help with Firewise projects as they are very skilled with chainsaws and chippers and were crucial to protecting the Skagit Hydroelectric Project’s infrastructure during the fire. The National Park Service Fire Management team are experts in identifying what vegetation should stay or be removed as it pertains to fuel reduction work. Both SCL and NPS crews had a limited amount of time and personnel which is where the North Cascade Institute came in to help. While the SCL and NPS crews did the highly technical work such as tree falling and chipper operations, the NCI coordinated volunteers to burn piles of the debris left behind. NPS fuels crew will burn those piles at a more appropriate time. All these groups filled a need the other couldn’t provide, yet all of them benefited from the project.

Three agencies with different businesses, different work cultures, and different capabilities united to solve a common problem. A power company providing tree fallers in a National Park for educators. That almost sounds like fiction! If you asked anyone a few years ago whether 8000 acres on the west side of the state would burn, they would probably say no way. But we live in world that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and I’m okay with that. Especially since my community is safer, stronger, and more prepared than it has ever been!

Now to earn my photo taking privileges back…

“It is great to have the collaborative efforts with our neighbors to accomplish this valuable project. It reduces the risk to the ELC campus from the unwanted effects of wildfire, while at the same time providing a safer environment for firefighters and the public. I look forward to future projects with SCL to accomplish goals within the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.”

-Scott Ebel, Acting Fire Management Officer for North Cascades National Park

“The Joint venture for this project was amazing. We were so happy to be able to come up with a solution to address the issue of defensible space around the Learning Center. It is great to see the coming together of very different organizations to a common cause. This was a project that we have had in the works for years and we have made great forward momentum this spring with a bulk of the work being done now. The support of the North Cascades National Park and the great folks at Seattle City Light have made this project happen. I think there was a bit of fear around the different groups that defensible space means clear cutting and gravel. This is far from the truth, most of our visitors will not even notice the subtle but huge change that has happened. This place is still as spectacular as ever but I will be able to sleep soundly knowing that we are doing the right thing in creating defensible space around our campus. And yes, even the rain forests of the West side can and do burn!”

-John Harter, North Cascades Institute Facility Manager