Romney students fight real-world wildfires

BYU MPA students don’t have to wait to graduate before tackling hot issues. In their second year, students enroll in a class that partners them with government or non-profit entities, giving them the chance to solve real problems for real organizations. And while it’s no easy feat, they will tell you it’s one of the most effective, exciting experiences of their graduate career.

Take Andrew Wallentine, for example—a 2015 MPA graduate from Lanark, Idaho, with experience in fire-fighting. Wallentine and a small team of students in his class landed a partnership with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. The division’s wildfire reduction strategy component—which uses state funding to address the problem of catastrophic wildfires—focuses on fire mitigation and prevention.

“This was one of the neatest projects I worked on during my time at the institute,” Wallentine says. “What the state of Utah has done with the division is pretty groundbreaking, but because it was so new, they didn’t really have a foundation of information to work with. That’s where we came in.”

Wallentine and his team started by determining the definition and cause of catastrophic wildfires, and then moved to figure out how to best mitigate those fires. They dove into third-party research, conducted surveys, and looked into rainfall, temperature, and vegetation.

Hundreds of hours of research and several months later, the team presented a system and recommendations to the division. The recommendations included a GIS mapping system and reporting structure to track fire frequency, intensity, and cost. The students also suggested the division create a database of peer-reviewed articles and information—resources to back up the division’s actions and to present to the legislature for continued funding.

“To deal with students who, with one exception, had no knowledge of our agency, and to see them put together this cognitive, cohesive report, was incredible,” says Nate Barrons, catastrophic wildfire reduction strategy coordinator. “They gave us a phenomenal foundation to work from and move forward with.”

Following the project, the division hired Laura Palmer, a 2016 MPA graduate from Ventura, California, as a full-time intern to implement the team’s recommendations.

“Although the team’s recommended program is a five-to-ten-year process,” Palmer says, “it’s cool to think that what I helped implement will have a long-term impact and be further built upon in the coming years.”

The project not only had a positive impact on Palmer and the division, but on the entire team of students.

“We hit a lot of walls, but we learned a lot,” Wallentine says. “The biggest things I pulled from the Romney Institute and this experience were the ability to think critically, to break down those barriers and walls, and to move forward. Once you master those things, you can really make a difference.”