On the Front Lines of Fire

Forest Fire

The worst fire season in Washington state history has passed, but climate-related disasters—and the discussion of our warming planet—are here to stay. In her role as a wildfire communications manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Janet Pearce ’02 experiences both fire and climate change firsthand.

Pearce recalls delving into sustainability issues as early as 1999, when she enrolled at Evergreen as a transfer student.

Then 35 and an executive assistant for DNR, Pearce designed an Evergreen experience that centered on education and the environment, but gave her enough flexibility to rise within DNR. “I was focused on educating kids,” she noted, “but my counselor helped me keep my studies more general, to tie in the pieces I was missing.”

Pearce did rise within DNR. Upon graduation, she was hired as an environmental educator, where she said she “had a blast,” taking small children on field trips and helping high school students with senior projects. “I could not believe I was being paid for that kind of job,” she said.

Budget cuts eventually eliminated that position, but Pearce’s education, experience, and enthusiasm won her a place in communications with DNR, where she is now a leading expert on Washington wildfires, statewide and nationally.

She could not have predicted that move. “Fire pretty much fell in my lap,” she said. Figuratively, of course.

When Pearce talks about her work on the front lines of fires, she uses the phrase, “I get to...” She gets to escort media up to the fire lines. She gets to work in joint information centers, where she gets to talk with and calm evacuees. She gets to immerse herself in training each year, a big perk for this lifelong learner.

Her classes at Evergreen, which included ethnobotany and landscape and forest management, taught her that our forests are “extremely unhealthy and need to be managed,” she said. Without forest thinning, she explained, destructive insects will jump from tree to tree, creating dead, crispy fuel for fires.

Although her title is no longer educator, Pearce considers teaching a key responsibility. “In the off season, I go out and educate landowners to protect themselves from wildfires,” she said. “We talk about creating defensible space around homes. When a fire comes through, and there is wind and dead trees, you may barely get out alive.” As an example, she cites this past summer’s Carlton Complex fire, which burned more than 256,000 acres in eastern Washington’s Methow Valley.

Pearce’s time at Evergreen equipped her for difficult discussions with homeowners, evacuees, and the media. “The college was a varying community,” she said. “It helped me to work with people in a setting of discussing, if not agreeing.” Even when consensus was not reached among classmates, her program group still came together for homework and study, and on Friday nights they planted plants in Red Square. “I did not come across any ego at Evergreen; everyone was there to learn.”

Pearce is 50 years old and proud of it. “I love what I do,” she said. “I went from receptionist to executive assistant to environmental educator to communications manager.” She stresses that government work is a viable path for Evergreen grads. “I have a solid career and an exciting job with the state,” she said.

Particularly exciting to Pearce is her role in the climate change conversation, a critical topic with colleagues and media contacts. “The climate does change,” said Pearce. “It has changed throughout history. Many parts of Eastern Washington have been in a drought for years. Natural disasters are occurring more frequently. Fires will get worse. And humans are a factor,” she said. She hopes her openness with journalists, including the Los Angeles Times and CNN will help the public understand these delicate issues.

Sympathetic to young people, Pearce acknowledges another challenge facing future generations: the ability to pay for college. But she encourages Millennials to embrace higher learning. “I still think it’s harder to go back to college [later in life]” than to start after high school, she said.

Pearce has a final piece of advice for students of all ages, as well as for recent alumni: “Be open to various opportunities, regardless of your educational focus. You never know what will come up.”