A Conversation with Annie Schmidt of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

In February, Annie Schmidt, Program Specialist with the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net), featured a conversation she had with Travis Dotson, Analyst with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LCC), on FAC Net’s blog. A few days later, we shared that conversation on this LLC blog site: https://wildfirelessons.wordpress.com/2020/02/18/understanding-complexity-and-risk-in-the-wildland-fire-environment-an-interview-with-travis-dotson.

In her conversation with Travis, Annie wanted to learn more about the LLC, how the LLC approaches learning, and explore why the shared values between the FAC Net and the LLC are important.

This blog is the companion interview and an opportunity to learn more about FAC Net and why investments in resilience and learning are important to us all!

Travis: Tell us who you are, what you do, and why fire?

Annie: I am a Program Specialist for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. And I’m also a Public Information Officer for Chelan County Fire District #3 in Leavenworth, Washington, where I serve as a Volunteer Firefighter and EMT. Though I should probably note that if you see me on the end of a hose, something’s gone really wrong. That’s generally not my role with them.

With the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, my job is to help make connections between people who are working to build wildfire resilience capacity in their communities. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get to connect with them personally or connect them to research. Most of the time, I’m trying to connect them to each other.

As for why fire, I started with the U.S. Forest Service when I was 18. I feel like it was an inescapable path for me. My dad worked for the Forest Service at the Regional Office in Portland before I was born. My mom worked for the Forest Service while I was growing up. There are stories about my grandpa being “conscripted” to fight fire back in the days when they scooped people off the sidewalk and handed them shovels. Fire was just something that I was exposed to when I was young.


Annie with her parents at a Chelan County Fire District 3 ceremony.

Then in 1994, my town was impacted by the Rat and Hatchery Creek fires. They were—and still are—really the fire of record here in Chelan County. It’s one of my most vivid memories standing on my front lawn and watching fire run up the side of the mountain. You could hear it and you could see it spot in front of itself and run back into the main body of the fire. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. And I think that really set my course, that night.

Travis: Explain the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.

Annie: The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network is a nationwide network of people who are working to prepare their communities and build resilience capacity before, during, and after a fire. It is the product of a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Watershed Research and Training Center, and the U.S. Forest Service.

It’s about creating opportunity to see fire on our landscape and re-envision what fire can be. Adaptation and resilience are the core goals that we’re all striving toward. FAC Net members show us what’s possible in communities working to better deal with fire. They are innovators and thought leaders and they inspire me every day!

Oregon’s Ashland Fire and Rescue is a great example. I was on a call just the other day listening to them talk about smoke preparedness efforts with their community and it’s just fascinating to see those efforts then feeding the engine of adaptation in other places. Folks in Bend, Oregon or Austin, Texas or even wildfire practitioners in New Jersey hear from Ashland, Oregon about their work and change or adapt an approach. Every member of the network is learning and sharing with others and it creates a culture of innovation, sharing, and learning.

FAC Net is a space where we get to try some things and sometimes fail pretty spectacularly. But in doing so we learn and share so that others don’t have to repeat those same mistakes. Check out the Fantastic Failures series on our blog to read more about what fantastic and learning-filled failure can look like. When we have a great success, we can spark that success in other places. Even outside of the network. FAC Net is really an opportunity to see what’s possible and hopefully shift the fire management paradigm away from a “suppress at all costs” model to a model that uses other tools in the toolbox.

Travis: They’re just taking Gandhi’s advice: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Annie: That’s exactly right. Creation of fire adapted communities is one core tenet of the Cohesive Strategy (the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/about.shtml). We are trying to create that adaptive capacity in our wildfire world. However, in doing so, I think what our practitioners and what folks who are actively working on fire adaptation realize is that the lines between the Cohesive Strategy goals of safe and effective response, fire adapted communities, and resilient landscapes are very blurry.

There’s no silo that says: “Well, you’re working only in preparedness.” We can’t draw a hard line there because that preparedness work is making it better when we do respond with suppression. And the recovery work is making the response and the preparedness better. Those that do home assessments and look at a landscape and see what needs to happen to make it more resilient end up being pretty good firefighters.

The lines are very fuzzy. I think that’s a major strength in the fire adapted communities’ world. We see and are actively seeking the connections between the different elements of the Cohesive Strategy and between each other.

Travis: We’re seeing this in all sorts of different venues. That we need to erase the lines we have drawn for ourselves between groups. We need to erase the lines of separation and redraw them as lines of connection. I guess we all need to be giant pencils erasing and redrawing lines.

A.Schmidt and her son Erik

Annie with her son, Erik.

Annie: It’s true. The issue of wildfire is complicated and messy. And so the natural reaction to that is: “Well, I’ll just draw some lines to make it less messy.” It’s a standard approach to separate the wildfire world out into the three Cohesive Strategy buckets so that we can all understand it and break it apart further so we can start to manage this issue.

It’s effective from a span of control standpoint and the chain-of-command gets more clear. There’s a lot of reasons why breaking the problem apart by drawing those lines is a smart thing. But we must start to challenge ourselves when those lines become sharpie and not pencil.

When those lines start to constrain us as opposed to help, it’s problematic. I actually think it’s one of the hardest things we do—erasing the sharpie and the constraints that we’ve built for ourselves. Making more effective connections between practitioners and partners requires dissolving the imagined barriers.

We are trying to erase the mentality that the investments in preparedness are secondary or that they are intangible or that they are not worthy of our time or money. That’s just not accurate and it is a huge challenge for us. We are still having to justify why this work matters and it how it matters to those on the ground. It does matter and it’s worth our investment and comparatively, scale-wise, what we’re talking about here in terms of investment in resilience and adaptation is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

And maybe it shouldn’t be. So that’s the other thing that’s super hard about this.

Travis: It’s hard when the system is set up to support a suppression response.

Annie: I know. And there’s always going to be room for suppression. There has to be. There are assets that need protection for as far as we can see. Ideally, those assets are prepared and resilient so they need less protection. But there’s no future where they’re going to need none. And so it’s not to totally de-emphasize or eliminate the necessary investments in that work either. We just need to make room for each other. And that comes back to those lines.

There just needs to be a little bit of room for each other’s work inside of our boundaries.

Travis: You’ve described the hardest part of your job, what’s the most rewarding part?

Annie: The people are the most rewarding. I mean, in the community resilience world you often feel like you’re just continually rolling rocks uphill.

It’s like digging line that never ends. And you often feel like it’s not going anywhere. But the people in the community that you get to interact with, the people throughout the network that I’m privileged enough to get to interact with, they inspire me, they make me laugh, and they make a difference. And they make me realize that even though it feels like we keep rolling that rock up the hill and it keeps rolling back on us—that’s not always true.

Sometimes, it’s only through the eyes of other people that we can see our collective work reflected back at us. Other perspectives help me see that the work is making more of a change than I thought. It turns out that it is really hard to see progress when your vision is limited by an armful of rocks! Having a network of smart, inspiring people to push rocks uphill with and who can provide perspective is the best part by far.

It’s no different than working on a crew, digging line or working a night shift. It’s not really the work that is enjoyable, it’s the people next to you that make it rewarding.

Travis: That’s another kind of universal truth. I wish we could reflect that in our investments.

Annie: It’s so true. And I mean even learning—which is at the core of both of our organizations—comes back to the people. It comes back to learning from one another and interacting with one another and making connections to one another. Anyone who knows me well knows that it’s not uncommon for me to say: “Hey, have you read this xxx? Because I did and I learned…”

I love learning. But even that comes back to the people—the people you’re learning from and you’re interacting with and sharing with. So when we boil it all down, people matter.

Travis: Reading is crucial to learning. But transfer of knowledge can be improved and has a much higher likelihood with interaction—person to person.

Annie: Exactly. That’s what we’re learning about learning. And that’s really what this whole concept of a network is based upon.

FAC Networks to make these connections between practitioners by designing opportunities for places such as Austin, Texas and Boise, Idaho and Santa Fe, New Mexico, can talk with each other and know each other by name and really interact.

They know each other. And they can make those phone calls to ask for help or information or encouragement. The learning and the sharing and the innovation is fundamentally based upon those connections. That’s really what FAC Net has based a lot of its work on. And what I’ve experienced to be true is that the connections are what facilitates knowledge acquisition.

Travis: Yes and people reading this should be part of that magic and subscribe to the FAC Net blog (https://fireadaptednetwork.org/blog/). Get involved!

Annie: And strengthening those connections ultimately strengthens change. On the ground.

So the end goal is ultimately resilience in our communities. It’s ultimately action on the ground. And one of our tools is weaving communities together as the fabric of the network.

Travis: So it’s you knowing something like “Boise’s really strong in this and Santa Fe has a real emphasis in this, and it would be mutually beneficial if they got together, so let’s put them in contact!”

Annie: Yes, exactly.

Travis: Do you have a funny story about facilitating networks and learning?

Annie: Most of my funny stories have to do with catastrophes of a variety. In 2018 we had all of the Fire Learning Networks in one spot for a conference. They came to my area. So there’s 160 people and the governor’s coming and we are going to show off Washington.

We had an amazing plan. And like most amazing plans, it did not pan out quite the way that we had envisioned. It was the Friday before the whole workshop. The field day with 160 people is going to occur on Wednesday. I was running last-minute errands. I stopped to get takeout and I got a fortune cookie. I crack it open and, no joke, it says: “Wednesday is your lucky day.”

But I ripped the fortune when I pulled it out of the cookie and I thought: I think this is a bad omen. I took a picture and texted it to a friend. She was like “No, you’re going to be fine. There’s been so much planning. It’ll be amazing.”

a.schmidt_lucky wednesday

Annie’s lucky Wednesday fortune.

And so on Wednesday with 160 people sitting in this room, the buses for the field tour are supposed to arrive at 8:15 a.m. I had an email in my inbox sent the day prior confirming all of this from the bus company.

We had congressional staffers sitting in the room. At 8:15 I give this whole big briefing and we are ready to go.

I say we’re going to give you 15 minutes to fill your water bottles and then we’ll be ready to go. But the buses hadn’t arrived yet. For weeks and weeks I had been going to bed thinking that was my biggest nightmare.

At 8:30 I’m calling and there are no buses. The bus company said there was a problem with their dispatch system and they just aren’t coming.

The buses aren’t coming. I am sunk. So now all I can think about is that stupid little fortune that ripped in half saying that Wednesday was my lucky day.

And now it’s falling to pieces. So I’m going to make an announcement that we’re moving on to our alternative plan and it’s going to be fun. We’re just going to have you hold tight for five minutes and we’ll be all right. And a friend of mine came running to me and said: “Annie, what do you need?”

I sort of jokingly said to him: “I need three buses. That would be lovely.” He just kind of smiled at me, nodded, and walked off.

And what I kind of forgot is that he is a Type 1 Plans Chief with a few connections. And so within 30 minutes of catastrophe, I had three buses.

Travis: Wow.

Annie: Yeah, he just started making phone calls and made the buses appear! He saved everything because that was his world. I wasn’t even serious when I asked him to pull some buses out of his back pocket. But that’s what he did. And the whole day ended up being great.

Travis: It’s perfect because it illustrates the power of having a network.

Annie: Yes! The resilience of networks. It was crazy. I had no buses. I didn’t have them and I couldn’t get them. But because we had a network we had connections. And we were able to display some resilience. And that’s what we heard from people later. The big “take home” for them was that day was all about resilience. Ironically enough, in the afternoon session, the presentation just happened to be all about recovery and resilience. Fun day.

Travis: There you have it folks. Invest in networks. It makes you resilient.

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Annie Schmidt of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

  1. Don’t forget that DOI agencies are also partners in the FAC Learning Networks. Many statewide networks are funded strongly by BLM especially through the Community Assistance program.WA State is an example of that with Spokane District’s funding and support to become what it is today.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.