Think Out Loud

An Oregonian will assist parks nationwide in wildfire recovery as coordinator for National Park Service

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Dec. 19, 2022 7:18 p.m. Updated: Dec. 28, 2022 7:20 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Dec. 19

Jennifer Gibson is the new post-wildfire coordinator for the National Park Service.

Jennifer Gibson is the new post-wildfire coordinator for the National Park Service.

courtesy of Jennifer Gibson


Jennifer Gibson has been chosen as the post-wildfire coordinator for the National Park Service. She is no stranger to wildfire recovery. She was personally affected by the Carr Fire in 2018 while working at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California. The blaze burned more than 90% of the park.

She’s also worked as the chief of resources and fire at Crater Lake National Park. Now, she plans to assist other parks across the country as they manage the impact from wildfires. Gibson joins us with details of how the national agency collaborates with parks in the aftermath of fires.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Jennifer Gibson was recently named the post-wildfire coordinator for the National Park Service. That means she’ll assist people in park service land across the country as they manage the impact from wildfires. She is no stranger to wildfire recovery herself. She was personally affected by the 2018 Carr fire when she was working at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California. More recently, Gibson worked as the chief of resources and fire at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon’s only national park. Jennifer Gibson, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jennifer Gibson: Hi, great to be here.

Miller: How much has land in the National Park Service system been affected by wildfires over the last, say, 10 years?

Gibson: Definitely, fires have become larger, more severe, greater impacts to some of our favorite national parks. You could just use [the example of] Crater Lake National Park: it used to be a “sleepy fire park”, with lightning strikes, skulking around, usually pretty small, less than five acres. And then in the past 10 years there’s been a significant uptick where 40% of the Park has burned. And that’s not unusual. We’re seeing parks across the West experiencing larger and more severe wildfires due to climate change, and accumulation of fuels and all sorts of issues.

Just looking locally with the Klamath Network, Northern California, Southern Oregon, Whiskeytown burned 97% of the Park in three days. Then that was followed by Lava Beds. 70% of the park burned in 2020 and then in 2021 the remaining 30% of that park burned. And then after that came Lassen, where 70% of that park burned in the Dixie Fire. So we’re seeing a pattern of fires occurring more frequently on the landscape, higher severity and larger.

Miller: After a wildfire, the National Park Service sends in what’s known as a BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team. What do members of these teams do?

Gibson: It’s a group of experts that go [in], almost from when the fire is out. So definitely the danger is over to the BAER team, but they show up, and they’re hydrologists, archaeologists, botanists, whatever may be specific to the park. If the park has lots of prehistoric sites, then there would be archaeologists, definitely, and hydrologists, engineers. And they go in and they assess the post-fire impacts. They work with the park staff and park cooperators in determining immediate threats to life and property, and what they can do. So that could be mudslides, debris flow, loss of roads, historic structures that may be at the bottom of the watershed that burned really hot. They’ll do hydrologic modeling to determine what is the potential for a debris flow to take out that structure.

This group writes a plan, they work with the staff on developing the plan and writing prescriptions to protect life and property. Then, they start to look at the longer range impacts of fire which is burned area rehabilitation. The first phase is emergency stabilization, that’s what BAER is. A BAER is Burned Area Emergency Response. And that’s really focused on, again, threats to life and property. Then they start to look at the longer term effects. Some of these fires are high severity and they’re burning out of their natural fire regime, and they’re burning in plant communities that may not be able to recover on their own. So either invasive plants are starting to invade or there’s some other degradation of the resource where you need active management and that’s where burned area rehabilitation comes in, where you can actually treat invasive plants.

A good example is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where they’ve lost 20% of their large Monarch sequoias in the Castle Fire in 2020 and the KNP Complex Fire in 2021. So they’re actively looking at, and they’re getting funding to propagate sequoia trees and the replant. So that’s a really good example of how the Burn Area Rehabilitation Program can help parks recover.


Miller: Are there significant differences between post-fire recovery in National Park Service land - meaning recreation areas or actual national parks or monuments - compared to say BLM or Forest Service land which make up much more burned acreage overall but also have different needs?

I mean, there aren’t big timber sales in park service land. So does that mean that the post-fire response is different?

Gibson: No. All of the agencies, the bureaus, work closely together. I work almost every day with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation. We worked together a lot in policy, and we assemble the teams. Often the national BAER team is a Department of Interior BAER Team where we work together. So we pull together these different groups of individuals that are experts in their fields. We work closely with the Department of Interior.

We do have different land management goals. BLM would have very different land management goals. But that’s what the point of the BAER team does. They work with the unit that burned. You have to look at the goals of that unit, their management plan, their priorities and their resources at risk. And then that BAER team will tailor what those needs are to that agency and that unit.

The Forest Service has a very similar program. We work with them. We meet with them monthly, they have a very similar program. But it is like you said, they do have different management goals.

Miller: You’re tasked with safeguarding natural and cultural resources. What are examples of cultural resources that have been put at risk in National Park Service land by wildfires?

Gibson: A great example would be if a park has significant prehistoric sites. Prehistoric sites, cultural resources, are very valuable because they’re irreplaceable. You can’t replant a prehistoric site. So if you have a sensitive prehistoric site, like a burial ground or something like that, where there’s a high chance of erosion and debris flow taking out that prehistoric site. The BAER team can prescribe barriers or they can make prescriptions to protect that site, in the short-term for the immediate response, and in a long-term response. So that would be one good example.

Another good example is at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area – steep slopes, highly erosive soils, burned really hot in most of these steep watersheds. It gets a lot of rain there, close to 60 to 70 inches of rain a year, on an average year. So the models were predicting that there was a high probability of debris flow taking out the historic structure that was built in the 1800s and also the Whiskeytown Environmental School, which is like one of the longest running environmental schools in a National Park unit. And it’s very important to the community and it’s where kids from all around Northern California go and have this great campout in this environmental school. But unfortunately it was at the bottom of a very steep watershed that burned hot. So the BAER team was able to deploy these structures to protect the site and make suggestions [about] possibly moving the site out of the way of future fires.

Miller: My assumption is that a job like yours is only going to get more important and more complicated in the years and decades to follow. Is that a fair assumption?

Gibson: Yeah, I think I’m gonna be busy. I think that’s a great assumption.

Miller: Why did you want this job?

Gibson: I want to help. After the Carr Fire, I lost my house, I lost my community, my park burned. A third of the Park staff lost their homes. So many other parks came to help out. The National Post-Wildfire Program came and helped out. And I feel like it’s my turn to pay it forward. I want to be that person to help out. I learned from them. So I’m dedicated to paying it forward and helping national parks out, helping my Department of Interior bureaus out, and helping the Forest Service.

Miller: Jennifer Gibson, congratulations on your new position and thanks very much for your time.

Gibson: Thank you.

Miller: Jennifer Gibson is the new post-wildfire coordinator with the National Park Service.

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