Only you can prevent forest fires, as the old television ad said, but the nation’s top forester wants to let a few burn.
A raging fire tends to be seen as a disaster, even a failure of forest management. But
—the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who spent 26 years as a wildland firefighter—says that fire is an essential part of many landscapes’ natural ecosystems. Not only would it be impossible to suppress every blaze, she wouldn’t do it if she could. Forest fire, she says, is something the nation has to live with.
“We don’t ask the National Weather Service to prevent and stop all hurricanes,” she says. “We ask communities and others to be prepared to receive a hurricane.”
‘We don’t ask the National Weather Service to prevent and stop all hurricanes.’
Seated in a conference room at the Olympic National Forest’s headquarters in Olympia, Wash., Ms. Christiansen can point to a nearby forest where she interned with the timber giant
and the nearby Capitol State Forest, which she used to manage for Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Her life in forests started 60 miles away. Ms. Christiansen was raised on 10 wooded acres in the small community of Olalla, Wash., on the Kitsap Peninsula—down the highway from Olympia, along the oyster beds of the Hood Canal, through the once-bustling logging town of Shelton. Her father worked in heavy construction, and her mother was a bookkeeper. In Olalla, she and her sister rode horses through the woods and built forts in old-growth tree stumps that had burned in the early 1900s.
Before Ms. Christiansen’s father would clear land to build a home, she recalls, she insisted on having a say on what would happen to trees that were at risk. “When it came time to finally prepare the site for the building of the house,” she recalls, “I put my hands on my hips, and I negotiated [with my father] every single tree that was going to be harvested and which ones were going to be left.” She was 9. It was then, she says, that she declared that she would be both a forester and a conservationist.
“I saw those as interchangeable,” she says, “and I still do to this day.”
As the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Ms. Christiansen oversees an agency that manages 193 million acres on 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 43 states, plus Puerto Rico. The agency’s mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity” of U.S. forests and grasslands, “to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Sometimes, Ms. Christiansen says, part of managing forests is cutting some down.
The agency’s founding chief,
wanted it to “provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.” That means hosting visitors, explorers and anglers, as well as logging companies that harvest, thin and replant trees. It also involves researching new uses for forest waste, advocating for the use of wood as a green building material and collaborating with states, tribes, corporations and private land owners to tackle insects, disease, fire and other challenges that don’t respect property lines.
Ms. Christiansen, 60, was born shy—a “hide-behind-my-mother’s-leg kind of little girl.” She and her sister would lose themselves for hours, roaming the woods on horseback and motorbikes. A neighbor gave the girls access to his 500-acre farm, which she calls “one of the biggest gifts ever: our own learning laboratory.”
“We were his little forest rangers,” she says. “We’d report any garbage dumping; we’d always check on the gates.”
After graduating from the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources in 1983—part of the first generation in her family to get a college degree—Ms. Christiansen began a 26-year career with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, eventually becoming Washington state forester. Later, she held the equivalent position in Arizona. In 2010, she joined the U.S. Forest Service as its deputy director of fire and aviation management. She was named its leader last year. She tells staffers that she has been serving the agency’s mission for the past 36 years, even if it’s “just the last nine years I’ve actually worked at the Forest Service.”
Much has changed for logging communities and forest-management practices since Ms. Christiansen’s childhood days making the trek between Olalla and the Olympic National Forest with her family. Ms. Christiansen says that the old Forest Service policy of extinguishing all wildfires by the morning after they were reported, for example, has been shelved to allow some fires to do their natural job of burning up excess fuel, such as the dead vegetation on the forest floor. And during harvest time, she says, more trees are left along river banks and more debris left in rivers and streams to create shade, pools and natural habitats for fish.
When she repeats that childhood drive out to Olalla today, the biggest difference she sees is fewer forests and more people. “We have a great propensity to want to live in our forests,” she says.
‘We have a great propensity to want to live in our forests.’
For the nation’s top forester, that means more homes built among beautiful landscapes that rely on fire as a natural part of their ecosystems. This intersection came to a head in Paradise, Calif., last November in one of the deadliest forest fires in U.S. history, leaving 85 people dead just a few weeks after Ms. Christiansen was sworn in as chief.
Some critics, including President
blamed forest management for the blaze’s intensity and devastation. Ms. Christiansen says that the reasons why the Camp Fire—which California fire officials have concluded was sparked by
Pacific Gas & Electric
power lines—proved to be so disastrous are more complicated.
She notes that the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy—a wide-ranging interagency effort that Ms. Christiansen helped to establish 10 years ago when she was state forester in Arizona—calls for managing landscapes and communities to prepare for fire, such as suppressing blazes in populated areas and directing them away from homes. But even meeting all those goals won’t prevent all forest fires.
Ms. Christiansen doesn’t call the response to the Camp Fire, the management of the land or the preparation by local communities perfect—but even if they had been, she says, “there was nothing we could do to stop that fire” in its devastating first 24 hours.
“Some fires, yes, we can stop,” she says. “But there are some that are hurricane fires.”
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