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Unlikely career path

A wildland firefighter’s journey from structural firefighting to fire prevention

Joanie Schmidgall
Siuslaw National Forest
February 2, 2024

Smokey bear waves from the back of a Forest Service truck in a parade.
Lex Scanlan chauffeurs Smokey Bear at the Toledo Summer Festival and Logging Show near the Oregon Coast on July 15, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Lex Scanlan)

Growing up in Chicago, a career as a wildland firefighter felt as distant to Lex Scanlan as the vast mountains and giant conifers far to the West.  

“Most of my family and friends are from the Midwest where wildfire was a pretty abstract concept,” Scanlan says, chuckling. “I have always been independent, so choosing a career path foreign to most of my family and friends wasn’t too surprising.”

Her stepdad initially inspired Scanlan to pursue structural firefighting with classes at a community college in Arizona. Over a spring break, Scanlan enrolled in basic wildland firefighter classes to earn her Red Card, the certification to work on wildland fires. Before she knew it, she was hooked!

From the Midwest to the West Coast

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Scanlan earned a masters in natural resources from the University of Idaho with a focus on fire management and ecology. She spent several years working on fire engine crews in the West, but these days she finds herself in a place not known for large megafires – the rainy, moss-laden Oregon Coast.

As the first, full-time fire prevention technician on the Central Coast Ranger District of the Siuslaw National Forest, Scanlan is tasked with a unique set of challenges.

Typically, the Siuslaw faces more floods than wildfires. But recently the area has experienced a rise in human-caused fires, mostly due to a large number of outdoor recreators who seek refuge on the cool Oregon Coast during the hot summer months. Tourism in general has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s great so many people recreate here, but it’s led to an uptick in fire starts,” she says.

To employees in Forest Service uniforms stand with Smokey Bear in front of a Forest Service fire engine.
Lex Scanlan stands with Smokey Bear and Dan Eddy from Northwest Oregon Bureau of Land Management at the Oregon Ag Fest in Salem, Oregon in April, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Lex Scanlan)

That’s where Scanlan comes in, leading fire prevention and education outreach efforts. Each year, she attends community events and visits local schools to articulate the dangers of human-caused fires. To Scanlan, the job is more than just talking about fire prevention.

“I most enjoy connecting with my community and building trust,” she says. “I often talk to people completely unfamiliar with fire. My Midwest upbringing reminds me to explain wildland fire concepts without the use of complicated fire jargon.”

A Holistic and Proactive Approach

At the Central Coast Ranger Station in Waldport, Oregon, Scanlan works for Zone Fire Management Officer Nathan Shinkle. He had long advocated for a full-time prevention position and recognizes how essential Scanlan is.

A firefighter poses in front of a prescribed burn.
Lex Scanlan and her “fancy” camera capture photos at a prescribed burn at Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the Oregon Coast Range on September 25, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Lex Scanlan)

“One of the first things I did was buy Lex a fancy camera,” he says. “If she’s going to succeed in prevention, she needs to communicate well and be creative.”

Shinkle himself isn’t a typical fire management officer. He directs his firefighters to learn more than just suppression techniques. They also need to learn how fire is a part of the whole ecosystem.

He’s given each of his employees the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The author explores how indigenous knowledge and ecology intertwine. The book even includes a chapter about prescribed fire on the Oregon Coast, something Shinkle hopes to see more of in the future.

Over the last few years, western Oregon has experienced consecutive historic fire seasons that burned millions of acres and impacted entire towns. Fires in 2020 proved especially destructive. Although much smaller in acreage than the larger fires of the Oregon Cascade Mountains, the 2,500-acre Echo Mountain Fire, burning primarily on private land, destroyed more than 100 homes near the coastal town of Lincoln City during a rare, late-summer wind event.

Two Forest Service employees gather measurements from an instrument placed in a forest opening.
Lex and Madeline Scheintaub, a fire planner from the Bureau of Land Management, taking pre-burn measurements at Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in preparation for a prescribed burn on September 21, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Lex Scanlan)

With the 2020 fire season and subsequent impacts as a cautionary tale, the Siuslaw National Forest aims to increase fuels reduction projects and prescribed burning.

“The last few years serve as a wake-up call,” said Shinkle. “Climate change adds an extra layer of uncertainty, bringing longer and hotter summers. We’re bound to see increased fire danger on the Coast and a resilient landscape is essential.”

“This is why Lex is so important to our program,” he said. “She knows how to talk to people and understands the ecology behind fire.”

Fire Prevention for the Future

Unlike many places in the West, campfire bans are not a regular annual occurrence on the Siuslaw National Forest. Yet the summer of 2023 brought the driest conditions in recent memory.

To streamline the decision to enact public use restrictions for fires, Scanlan collaborated with a fire planner from the Utah Bureau of Land Management to develop a new fire restriction matrix specific to the central Oregon Coast. By mid-July the Siuslaw had put it into practice, implementing a temporary campfire ban, reducing the risk of wildfires.

“I’m proud of combining my knowledge of fuels, ecology and prevention to create this valuable tool,” Scanlan says. “Our leadership can rely on it as the summer months become hotter and drier.”

An emergency communicator stands next to a board of maps and information with a sign that says "Fire Information"
Scanlan stands next to a sign board while working as a Public Information Officer trainee during the 2021 Antelope Fire in California. (Photo courtesy of Lex Scanlan)

Scanlan also hones her abilities as a public information officer. Last summer she supported a local incident management team on the Three Buttes Fire.

“The unusual fire activity created a lot of worry and angst in the community. It was the first time in 20 years the Siuslaw hosted an incident management team on the Central Coast Ranger District which led to increased interest from the public and local media,” said Scanlan. “Telling the story of fire burning on the coastal landscape proved complex.”

Luckily the Three Buttes Fire didn’t breach containment lines, but the dense coastal vegetation and steep terrain kept the fire active until fall rains arrived. Scanlan knows it won’t be the last time a large wildfire hits the Siuslaw.

Scanlan finds fulfillment bringing awareness of prevention and fuels management to an area where opportunities to explore these concepts abound. The forest is adding a fire ecologist position on the Central Coast Ranger District and Scanlan hopes to compete for the job soon.

“I love that my job is so much more than protecting the land from unwanted fire,” said Scanlan. “As the climate shifts and we see more fire on the landscape, telling the story about good (planned) versus bad (human-caused) fire will only become more important. An informed public that understands how fire ecology interlinks with forest management is essential for success.”