Jill Ozarski MEM/MPP '01 Tackles the Gap Between Wildfire Management and Policy

November 22, 2013

Tawnee Milko

Confronting Western Wildfires jill ozarski story
(Photo: John Bosley)

By Tawnee Milko, Writer

Feel The Burn: Confronting Western Wildfires

In the past two years, Colorado has experienced the three most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.

Jill Ozarski has been on the ground at all of them.

Few are better positioned, or more determined, to address Colorado wildfire issues than Ozarski. As senior natural resources advisor to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, she has been on the front lines of every major wildfire in the state since joining his staff in early 2011.

While others are fighting fires with water, Ozarski is fighting them with policy, hoping to reduce the severity of future fires and to better advise at-risk communities. From the moment a  re ignites until long after it is contained, the Nicholas School grad spends many pre-dawn hours sending wildfire updates to Udall from incident command and visiting resident evacuation centers.

“There’s a huge emotional pull, seeing people who have lost everything,” she says. “But it energizes you to want to figure out how to solve these problems so we don’t keep having this happen. And people coming together to come up with solutions is the only way it’s ever going to work.”

In the last year alone, widespread wildfire devastation has occurred with all too regular frequency. In June 2012, the lightning-sparked Colorado High Park Fire grew to 87,284 acres—roughly twice the size of Washington, DC— and decimated 256 homes just west of Fort Collins. Just two weeks after, the human-caused Waldo Canyon Fire swept into the City of Colorado Springs, destroying 347 homes; and 2013’s Black Forest Fire, broke both of Colorado’s previous records when it leveled more than 500 residences. In the three fires, five lives were lost.

Following each fire, Ozarski visits the flame-scarred communities with teams of scientists to study the effects of the fire from a recovery perspective, asking such critical questions as, how did the fire burn? What were its effects? How effective had different mitigation and restoration treatments been in warding off flames?

The answers will feed her policy development. “The more we understand about fire,” she says, “the better we can make decisions about how to reduce future impacts.”

Ozarski, who studied forest ecology and management while at the Nicholas School, has seen the full—and devastating—effects that these fires have had on Colorado’s communities, its water sup- plies, and its forests and grasslands.

While the dramatic imagery—and, all too often, tragic loss of life—of a raging inferno frequently garner media attention, “what people often don’t see is what comes after fires,” says Ozarski. Severe flooding and erosion in ravaged soils that can no longer properly absorb water, the depletion and degradation of critical water supplies, and crippling impacts to local tourism and land value in  re-stricken areas are but a handful of the long-term repercussions. 

istock wildfires story
(Photo: Istock)


“Our fires are getting bigger and worse every year,” Ozarski says. “We’ve got to get better at this. We’ve got to find a way to get more resources to the table—to not so much prevent the fires, but to prevent them from being catastrophic in the first place.”

Why not prevent fires altogether? Because a natural fire regime is endemic to many western forest ecosystems, and historically, periodic blazes helped keep Colorado forests healthy. Human interference, drought, pine beetle infestations and former U.S. Forest Service fire suppression policies, however, collectively have created forests that are largely unhealthy, and many have excessive brush that doubles as extra fuel. Subsequent wildfires have burned much more intensely, leaving communities in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), the transition zone between urban areas and undeveloped, fireprone lands, particularly vulnerable.

Though the Colorado WUI is geo- graphically small, accounting for a little more than 3 percent of the state’s total land area, it is home to more than 40 percent of the state’s population. Colorado’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the WUI, so responsible public land and forest management of these areas is critical for wild re mitigation—actions that would lessen the impact of the fires before they burn.

“If we can have forest managers and homeowners doing things like thinning and reducing fuel close to communities, that helps alleviate the risk of catastrophic fire close to those communities,” Ozarski explains.

But steps like clearing defensible space, making evacuation zones, and thinning forests so that they don’t burn cataclysmically can be expensive. A single trimming treatment, Ozarski says, can cost $1,000 to $2,000 per acre. She deadpans: “Yeah, the state of Colorado has over 24 million acres of forests. It is not all going to come out of the federal budget!”

In fact, Ozarski adds, while nearly half the U.S. Forest Service budget goes toward wild fire suppression—the actual fighting of the  fires—very little has been allocated toward mitigation, even though studies nationwide have shown that for every dollar spent in mitigation, “you’re going to save anywhere from $4 to $10 in disaster costs later.”

 Confronting Western Wildfires jill ozarski story
(Photo: John Bosley)

Similarly, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, does not have a mitigation mandate for wildfires—a frustrating Congressional omission, she says, because the agency pro- vides mitigation funds for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, supporting programs that raise homes above the floodplain and relocating structures in other at-risk areas, for example.

In June, Ozarski helped draft a bill that would change that, proposing that an additional 15 percent of the money FEMA spends on Colorado wildfires be allocated toward mitigation efforts the following year. But until federal rules change, WUI locals well aware of their place in the danger zone have begun to come together to devise wildfire mitigation funding strategies for their own backyards.

One success story Ozarski is enthusiastic to relay is that of Pagosa Springs. Situated on Colorado’s Western Slope, the town is surrounded by overgrown National Forests, putting it at higher risk of catastrophic wildfires. The over- grown trees and brush needed to go, but how to pay for it?

A local businessman emerged as an unexpected protagonist: he proposed turning the trees to be removed into biomass energy, which would help cover the cost of the tree removal treatment itself.

Ozarski says he worked with the Mixed Conifer Working Group—a local forest collaborative comprised of locals, environmental groups, university researchers, and agency representatives—to develop a forest management plan and conduct a sample treatment to see what the managed forest would really look like.

Based on the initial treatment’s estimate—real, on-the-ground numbers— the man is building a small biomass power plant that will gasify the woody material and inject five megawatts of electricity into the local power grid, powering roughly 2,000 households per year.

The project, the first of its kind in Colorado, and anywhere in the West, as far as Ozarski knows, underscores the importance of collaboration in arriving at mutually beneficial, innovative solutions for living with wildfire in the WUI. Once the Pagosa Springs template is off and running, she expects that other small communities throughout the state will be able to replicate it.

“It’s significant, not just because of the renewable power generated, but because you’re making that community safer, and you’re making the forest healthier,” she explains. “You’re actually taking a problem and turning it into a pro t, and it’s cool.”

If you think organizing collaborative wildfire mitigation efforts requires someone with a heck of a lot of energy, you’d be right. The only member of Udall’s legislative staff in Colorado— most senators base their entire policy staff in Washington, DC—Ozarski frequently  fields between 300 and 500 emails per day, and meets with members of various interest groups involved in Colorado natural resource issues. If possible, she prefers to go to her constituents, and regularly travels throughout the state holding meetings over a cup of coffee in rural and WUI communities.

But that’s not all. Ozarski’s current portfolio also includes addressing forest health issues unrelated to wildfires and developing a series of public land con- servation bills involving new wilderness and new national monuments.

In her precious little free time, Ozarski is a triathlete and avid outdoor enthusiast, and when it comes to natural resources, she has worked toward wild- lands advocacy, policy development and mutual understanding for much of her career. Prior to joining Udall’s legislative team, she served as executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, which united 55 local government open space programs and nonprofit land trusts across the state.

“People are often not connected to how important the outdoors and nature are,” Ozarski reflects. “It’s where our water comes from; it’s where our food comes from. It’s the air we breathe. I feel fortunate on a daily basis that I actually get paid to try and leave our resources in good shape.”

In her federal role, Ozarski is able to influence the fate of those resources in ways she had never imagined. “This is my dream job. Instead of being an outside advocate, now I’m on the other side of the table. I get to hear from advocates and then work to make positive changes.”

She credits her Duke training—spread between forest ecology and quantitative science at the Nicholas School and policy analysis at the Sanford School of Public Policy—in preparing her for the position of translator between policy- makers, scientists and the community.

“I’m one of those really lucky people who gets to use my degrees every day,” she jokes.

Confronting Western Wildfires jill ozarski story
(Photo: John Bosley)

Many scientists know how public lands should be managed, she says. In an ideal world, they would know what such policies should look like and how to make them happen on the ground. Meanwhile, many policymakers are making decisions that are not always informed by science. “What I try to do,” Ozarski says, “is bridge those two worlds.”

When it comes to wildfires, Ozarski is up to her elbows bridging the management/policy gap. Right now, that also includes backing legislation that will help give the U.S. Forest Service adequate  re suppression ability, namely air tankers. In 2002, the U.S. Forest Service had 44 large air tankers, many left over from the Korean War era. After many of the planes were retired or crashed, today that number is down to nine under full- time contract—for the entire country.  

“The challenge with acquiring more air tankers is that they’re really expensive, but if you can use them early to stop a little fire from getting big, it helps alleviate a heck of a lot of fire suppression and recovery costs,” Ozarski says. Currently, initial attack by air and ground crews suppress 98 percent of wildfires with only 15 percent of the federal  firefighting budget. It’s the remaining 2 percent of wild res that “escape” and grow into catastrophic wildfires that consume 85 percent of federal  firefighting dollars.

Last year, Sen. Udall and his team supported a bill that would contract for seven “next-generation aircraft” to bolster the depleted air tanker fleet, at a cost of $60 million over the next  ve years. At  rst glance, that number may seem staggering, but Ozarski is quick to juxtapose the property damage costs from last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire and High Park Fire alone: more than half a billion dollars.

While the importance of fighting fires when lives, infrastructure, and property are at risk cannot be understated, Ozarski believes the ultimate answer to the challenge of wildfire exists in shifting how people think about forests and  re.

“Most of our Western forests are adapted to fire,” Ozarski says. “We’re not talking about trying to stop wildfire. We’re talking about trying to make our forest healthier so we can have fire in a way that doesn’t devastate communities.”

To do that, she’s looking to forest-related businesses like those in Pagosa Springs in order to get more profit—and loose tinder—out of the forests. Such forest management/business ventures pay off “in a way that make sense for the taxpayer”: judicious cuts (not clear cuts, Ozarski emphasizes), strategic thinning, and biomass-related business incentives can not only help to lower the risk of catastrophic  res but also support local businesses and create jobs.

“We need to learn to live with wildfire,” Ozarski says. “And we can do that.”

Tawnee Milko MEM '12 is The Nicholas School's Coordinator for the Nicholas Ambassador Initiative and an alumni blogger at blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/aggregating_authenticity/.