Oregon’s new wildfire czar explains his job – Q&A

“That is that challenge, fire is not going to go away. It is getting more complex,” said Doug Grafe

By: - October 25, 2021 6:00 am

Last week, Doug Grafe wrapped up orientation at his new job as state wildfire programs director.

He takes on his new job after 17 years at the Oregon Department of Forestry, appointed by Gov. Kate Brown. He will advise her on preventing wildfires and carrying out the mandates of Senate Bill 762. 

That legislation, passed earlier this year, is a sort of roadmap, with $220 million for projects to prevent, adapt and respond to more frequent and large-scale wildfires in the state.

Many know Grafe as a calm presence on camera during the last few years, talking the public through some of the worst wildfire days in state history with a steady cadence and lilting Boston accent. 

After growing up in Boston, Grafe left for Florida, where he studied forestry and went on to work as a forest technician with the U.S. Forest Service in the Lake Tahoe Basin in California and Nevada. He came to Oregon in 1998.

He sat down with the Capital Chronicle to discuss what’s ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you got into forestry, did you think that it would be to fight fires?

Yes, because fire conditions in the South are significant. So you really come out of school as a firefighter, and are employable in wildland fire and prescribed fire management. And when I moved out West, certainly being part of the fire crews and on the fire line drew my interest.

What was your first wildfire? Not a prescribed burn, but your first uncontrolled fire.

My first wildfires were out of California and Nevada, where I worked on crews, 20-person hand crews. Very much like at the Department of Forestry, everyone who works for U.S. Forest Service has the option to be part of the fire crews. You know, when the fire bell rings, we’re trained in that fashion. And that really opened my eyes to the challenges that we face on the West Coast – understanding fire behavior, and how to manage it and respond to it.

What, as far as you know now, is the job? What are your new duties?

This job is newly created in the governor’s office and the clear expectation is to support the implementation of Senate Bill 762. Senate Bill 762 came out of the governor’s wildfire council, which was 100 volunteers from all walks of life in Oregon. So we really had good context and perspective on how we want to evolve our wildland fire protection systems in Oregon to prepare for the challenges facing us. 

And my job was created from that bill so that we have an individual waking up everyday and thinking about the successful implementation of 762. And then also working very closely with the advisory council that was established. 

So I’m certainly not standing alone. And that’s one of the more exciting parts of this job. There’s a 19-member advisory committee that was appointed, so that’ll be a continuation of broad perspectives from Oregonians. And the second part of the job is setting the state up for the future, ensuring durability in the programs that are established.

How do you work with all of the sort of overlapping stakeholders like the Forest Service,  the loggers, tribes and private home and landowners? Where do you fit in?

Wildfire knows no boundary. Working in wildfire policy, management and program development, it’s the same concept. It does absolutely take all walks of life in Oregon to understand how we’re going to live with fire moving forward. 

And that is that challenge. Fire is not going to go away. It is getting more complex, as we’ve experienced particularly in the last couple of years. But the data shows us that every decade in the last three decades they’ve been getting more complex; every year more than doubling in acres burned. So I absolutely cannot and will not stand alone. 

Doug Grafe has been appointed Oregon’s wildfire programs director after 17 years with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

How much of your job will have to do with planning financially for a future where wildfires are bigger and more frequent?

The bill itself really expanded fire protection in three places. One is adequate response. Significant investments were made in aviation assets, ground resources, community fire protection, fire engines, statewide mobilization, local fire departments. 

The second area is fire-adapted communities. The third, which is the foundation of the bill, is resilient landscapes. How do we take the landscapes that we all love and enjoy in Oregon, and manage accordingly to reduce the catastrophic risk of wildfire? So fuel treatments, in particular, targeted around our communities, and then extending out deeper into the woods, where we can take fires that are running across our canopies at the top of the trees and get the fire down on the ground.

The labor force – do we need more firefighters? How would you get more people on the job?

Yeah, that’s a challenge in terms of keeping pace, right? The Higher Education [Coordinating Commission] has established the Oregon Conservation Corps, so we’re looking to really build a pipeline for training firefighters through this program.  

What about wages?

The federal government took action relative to wage disparities and I don’t have those specific details. I think it’s important to recognize that much of the wildland firefighting force does come from the private sector. So that certainly regulates itself in terms of competition across private markets. But there are definitely challenges with the labor force. 

One reader question that came in was around whether or not controlled burns are a scalable solution to wildfire prevention. So the reader wrote that they seem to be working, but the amount of acreage treated seems much smaller compared to the size of areas that need to be treated.

We do have challenges meeting the scale. I would emphasize, however, in Oregon we are fortunate that we do have prescribed burns on about 200,000 acres on an annual basis. And compared to other western states, that’s aggressive. 

Is it where we need it to be? No. And scalability is a critical question. We’re doing prescribed burns now that are 100 acres or 1,000 acres. Really, to have significant impact across jurisdictions, private lands and federal lands, it’d be great if we can push those out to 5,000 acres, 10,000 acres in the future. 

The balance that we have to reach is public health and smoke with prescribed fire. How we can manage the time and the conditions in which we ignite prescribed fires so that we have more opportunity to reach that balance than, say, in a wildfire where the winds and the timing are not dictated by our efforts. 

Are you sad about leaving your old job?

Yes. ODF was a great place to work, and I was there for 17 years. But to me this was a higher calling to service, to the governor’s office, to the legislature and to all Oregonians.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.