Edie Hannigan is a land use policy manager with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, in Sacramento. Her title might sound a little bland for someone who swoops in, superhero-like, to prevent future devastation when communities catch fire, but Hannigan doesn’t care much about titles—only about doing important work.
“I’m working on how we can better protect existing homes from wildfires,” says Hannigan RC’09. “It’s easy to make a lot of laws to protect new homes from wildfires, because they haven’t been built yet. We’re looking at ways we can encourage existing communities to protect themselves better.”
According to Cal Fire, the fire season on the West Coast is starting earlier and ending later each year. The season has increased by about 75 days across the Sierras, and is largely driven by climate change. In the past few years, millions of acres have burned, causing dozens of fatalities and thousands of destroyed homes.
“I’m really honored to be part of the solution to this crisis,” she says. Hannigan grew up in Wayne, New Jersey, and studied geography at Rutgers before earning a master of planning degree at the University of Southern California (USC). She has been working with Cal Fire since 2013. “It’s incredible to me,” she adds, “coming from New Jersey and growing up not even realizing that there are wildfires, to be able to find solutions and keep more people safe.”
Hannigan is not a first responder but her role is arguably as important to Californians in fire-prone regions. With an investigator’s skills and an eye toward the future, she arrives on the scene of fires like the community-destroying 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California. That fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 homes, businesses, and other buildings. “I do damage inspection,” she says. “Right after a fire has gone out, we go through and look at the homes that have burned down and the homes that are still standing.”
Each structure tells a story about why it burned or didn’t. “Some questions we ask are, did the building have fire-safe building requirements? Did it have enclosed eaves? Was the roof made of a fire-safe material?” she says. “Basically, we want to figure out how a building was constructed so we can analyze that data. What are the best parts of the building code? What’s working well?” The goal is to unpack the data to create what she calls “good policy.”
It’s a job appropriate for a woman who grew up with natural disasters. Hannigan remembers Hurricane Floyd ripping through Wayne in 1999. She also remembers her northern New Jersey neighborhood’s frequent struggles with flooding, which sparked her interest in building communities that are more resilient to Mother Nature. Working with fire was nothing she anticipated, however.
“It was just the opportunity that arose for me,” she says. “Going to graduate school at USC, I got the opportunity to learn about all different types of hazards and potential disasters in Southern California. Cal Fire had just gotten directives from the legislature to start doing this work, how to build fire-safe communities, and they were hiring a bunch of people. It was just the right opportunity at the right time.”
Despite loving New Jersey and her time at Rutgers, Hannigan quickly fell for her adopted state. She is an avid swimmer and takes frequent advantage of open-water swimming in the state’s many beautiful bodies of water. In July, she completed a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco.
“When I first came for my graduate program,” she says, “I thought, if I hate California, I can always come home. But it turns out it’s really hard to hate California.”