A match made for a better future - the Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module

In 2017, Dave Lasky, an ex-wilderness expedition leader and restoration forester met Eytan Krasilovsky, the Guild’s Southwest Region Director and the foundation was laid for what has become an inspirational partnership. This is the story of the Guild’s Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module (GPWFM) – what it is, how it started, and what it means for forests and communities.

Meet Dave Lasky

Dave grew up on the east coast. His career falls into three broad phases:

A. From 1989 – 1995 Dave lived out of a truck in Colorado and guided 50-day, multi-element wilderness expeditions for adolescents. Later, he founded a non-profit with friends to make outdoor education more accessible to diverse youth populations. When this endeavor ran into fundraising problems Dave was still fully invested in the vision of what this non-profit could achieve.

B. Next, Dave moved to Boulder, Colorado to work in restoration forestry. His days were spent simulating with a chainsaw what fire used to do naturally. He had draft horses to skid out logs after harvests of ponderosa pine. Dave loved the horses, the work, and the “light on the land” culture of the area was a good fit. Yet he couldn’t shake the reality that at three or ten acres at a time he wasn’t having a meaningful impact on a landscape scale from either a fire behavior or ecological perspective. Dave got into forestry because he thought it was a great way to have ecological impact.

C. He then partnered with local fire department districts west of Boulder who were interested in doing forest restoration. He was part of a small hand crew creating defensible space around homes. Federal money meant summer and winter crews could get large scale grants and landscape-scale work. Eventually, this work turned more and more to firefighting to back up volunteers in the districts.

In his next role, working for the Whiteriver (NF) Wildland Fire Module in Rifle, CO, he was introduced to a different way to deal with fire. A wildland fire module is a specific resource. The FS supported these because they wanted to encompass tons of skills and abilities of forest ecologists and firefighters.

“Managed fire” is the way of the future. It’s natural fire that happens in the right place at the right time. We corral that fire and keep it from going into homes and water infrastructures, etc. This is a great way to balance human needs and natural fire,” Dave opined.

The Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module is born

For Dave, the combination of TREX and module experience and his background of expeditions had many parallels. Fire work provides the educational benefits of outdoor education (leadership skill building, etc.). Fire crews build family, structure, and meaningful blue-collar job skills. And, Dave realized there is a social justice opportunity here. Wildland fire is not reflective of the demographic make up of our society. Fire fighters are predominantly white, male, blue collar. Because of climate change, wildland fire is a growth opportunity.

That’s how the GPWFM came about. There is a prescribed fire mission but without the workforce for a meaningful landscape impact. So job training for underserved youth is built in, while also serving an ecological need. These are both personal values for Dave. He grew up with a learning disability and did not excel in a traditional learning environment or academic trajectory. “Although every kid should have the opportunity to go to college, not all kids should have to go,” Dave said. It isn’t where they can express themselves best. Dave believes the cycle of poverty starts with kids like these who are not growing up wealthy. For this reason, it is important that there are meaningful blue-collar opportunities. The module targets students that can excel and just need the setting and tools to do so.

Connections with the Guild

Dave met Eytan through TNC FACN on a prescribed fire. They built a relationship with each other through the Fire Learning Network. Dave mentioned that he had created the GPWFM, but needed an organization to house it in, because he did not want to start another non-profit. Together, they identified alignments. Most notably, Forest Stewards Youth Corps was already working with the students Dave wanted to work with and prescribed fire is a key focus to deal with forestry issues in the west.

Dave’s role with the Guild

The module isn’t a partnership with the Guild, it is part of the Guild. It is a natural progression that students who start in FSYC can matriculate onto the year-round module. 

Dave’s title is Director of Fire Management. He is also Module Lead for the GPWFM, but the national scope is the most exciting part for Dave. He is working with Eytan in NM as well as with Amanda to develop a TREX in ME. Dave’s hope is that with the SE and Lake States regions there are similar opportunities. After all, 80% of all the ecosystems in the US are fire adapted. Dave intends to help each region expand prescribed fire without doing so in a “regional silo.”

Dave’s goal for the next 18 months is focused on development. Students coming on board will need lots of support beyond just training and job opportunities and paychecks.

The full composition of the module, when realized, will travel with 14 fire fighters composed of:

  • Five experienced full-time members who are compelled by fire and the social mission,
  • 5-7 youth apprentices (18- 25-year-old), and
  • 2-4 always open positions which will be made available to folks from many different backgrounds (modeled from the detailer program idea of the FS). This offers new experience to people from different regions, basically anyone with a red card. Could be FS, BLM, NM State Forestry, or Guild members. Dave wants to say, “we will be on prescribed fires in the SW for the month of October, come be a part of it for two weeks.” Dave is especially intrigued by college students. For example, on several TREX events, he has met PhD students in fire science and fire ecology who have never been on a fire until then.

The job description is clear – Dave needs to fund this venture. Running 90% on soft money and 10% on Guild money, equipment acquisition and dollars for training need to come from the module. During this initial 6-month process, the Guild has written the fire management functionality into grants to cover some staff time that would otherwise have to be contracted out.

The impact potential

Fire management isn’t a “region” so it is able to cross boundaries. The business model is based on a fee for service partnership with public land-owning entities (FS, BLM, State of NM land office, Counties, etc.) who need workforce capacity because that is their barrier to implementation.

There are many private landowners (some make anonymous donations to the module) who also realize the need to use prescribed fire as a management technique on their property but don’t have the means to do it. Finally, collaborative partnerships with TNC and the watershed center are powerful.

Dave’s vision

“Prescribed fire is a portion of the restoration economy. Due to climate change especially, the only way we are going to fix the problems confronting the restoration economy is in a “new deal” approach. We need opportunities like what FDR created to put 100,000s of people to work in meaningful, middle-class, blue collar jobs. As wildfires and floods, etc. grow, this must grow too.

So, one module isn’t enough. I’d like to see a module attached to every region of the guild. Or perhaps in each of the FS’s 9 ecological regions. As the Guild expands, we are seeing that the module could be in 2 – 3 different places at the same time (like through partner projects like TNC and All Hands, All Lands).

More broadly, the field needs to decouple prescribed fire and suppression fire. When all the same people work both missions, they often aren’t on prescribed fire programs to get the work done because they are sent to pre-position for extreme fire situations elsewhere.

For more information about the Module please visit gpwfm.org and please contact Dave at 303.588.3440 or dave@forestguild.org. Photos in this article by Caitlyn Barber, Erin Banwell, and friends of Dave.