An Interview with FEMA Planner Brett Holt (Part 1)
Author: Brett Holt
The Fire Adapted Communities Network (FAC Net) and Washington State FAC Learning Network (WA FAC) recently interviewed Brett Holt, Mitigation Planner in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 10. The two-part interview series will be shared at www.fireadaptednetwork.org and www.fireadaptedwashington.org. Part One provides an overview of how FEMA can support community fire adaptation efforts, including ideas for community members and FEMA employees who are interested in partnering. Part Two is focused on opportunities for communities in Region 10, and on more immediate assistance FEMA may have available and will be featured on the WA Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network website.
Brett has worked with FEMA for 6.5 years, with previous wildland firefighting experience with the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. He currently represents FEMA on the Western Regional Strategy Committee and represents FEMA Region 10 on the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network Steering Committee. Brett has significant interest in the integration of Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans and Community Wildfire Protection Plans to help communities expand their stakeholders, streamline planning processes, and expand eligibility for federal grant programs. He is also a member of the national Fire Adapted Communities Coalition.
FAC Net: How would you characterize FEMA’s role in helping communities become more fire adapted?
As we know, a paradigm shift in fire management is occurring in the U.S., and FEMA is supporting this shift to communities becoming more wildfire-resilient. FEMA has an increasing role with our tribes, state partners and local communities as they work towards achieving this vision. I would characterize FEMA’s role as forming strong partnerships with states, tribes and local partners; encouraging the development of mitigation and recovery plans to lay the foundation for a solid fire resilience program; and supporting implementation of actions through our mitigation funds that realize the community’s resilience vision.
FAC Net: What should we know about the FEMA programs and technical services available to assist communities with their fire adaptation efforts?
There are a number of programs and technical services that FEMA offers to assist communities with their fire adaptation efforts. I’ll list some of them, but keep in mind that there may be eligibility requirements to participate in some programs or receive assistance.
- Natural Hazard Mitigation Planning Program: This is the program I work in and the one I’m most familiar with at FEMA. This program offers technical assistance from FEMA and state staff, or through electronic resources in the FEMA library, for developing sound mitigation plans and planning programs.
- Risk MAP: The Risk MAP program is FEMA’s mapping, assessment and planning program as it primarily relates to the flood hazard, but it can apply to multi-hazards. The program can offer the development of multi-hazard risk assessments, as well as technical assistance in how to communicate risk and review and/or develop codes. There is also training available to increase local capabilities.
- Grants: The primary mitigation grants offered through the Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants programs, as they relate to wildfire, are the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant program and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). They are great programs to obtain funding to implement defensible space projects, ignition resistant materials, and fuels reduction projects. Only communities with FEMA-approved natural hazard mitigation plans are eligible to apply for these grants. Communities can also seek non-mitigation funds through the Assistance to Firefighter Grants Program, which includes the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG), Fire Prevention & Safety (FP &S) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER).
- Recovery Planning: Recovery Planning technical assistance is offered through FEMA’s Community Planning and Capacity Building Recovery Support Function. Each FEMA region has a designated lead that can work with states and local communities in addressing recovery planning, both pre- and post-disaster.
- Training: While there are a lot of FEMA courses that cover all aspects of emergency management, there are two specific courses that are offered in the field which I think communities can benefit from. The first is “G-318: Local Mitigation Planning,” which is a two-day training that covers all aspects of developing and implementing a natural hazard mitigation plan. This covers how to develop your committees, conducting a risk assessment, developing clear and attainable mitigation strategies and, most importantly, how to implement your plan. The second is the “Fire Adapted Communities” training offered either at the National Fire Academy in a six-day offering, or one of the two-day modules offered in the field.
FAC Net: What advice do you have for community members, fire departments or municipalities that are interested in engaging with FEMA as part of their fire adaptation work?
This is a great question because, as I have learned over the past few years working more with wildfire mitigation professionals, people know that FEMA has a lot to offer but just aren’t sure how to gain access to programs. Our main state partner for mitigation programs is the Emergency Management Division. I would encourage you to first reach out to the State Hazard Mitigation Officer (SHMO) located in every State Emergency Management Division. The SHMO will either know where to direct you or manage a specific program you are asking about.
I realize that FEMA may not be the answer to all local needs for fire adaptation work, but we can help communities with planning, funds, code development, community preparedness, training and general capability development. Communities should take a look at what they are trying to accomplish and see if FEMA has the resources to assist. The SHMO can provide direction.
FAC Net: Can you share something important you’ve learned about working on wildfire issues in your career?
I realized that no matter the natural hazard we are discussing, whether its wildfire, flood, tornado or earthquakes, we still have a similar framework to work in to reduce risk and create resilient communities. We all want to do what’s best for our communities. We all need to identify our risk and understand the vulnerabilities to the specific hazards. We need to identify specific strategies to reduce the risk, whether it’s through regulations or physical projects, and we need to communicate the risk to elected officials or the public to encourage action. From my perspective, the difference I see with wildfire mitigation is that it seems to be more grassroots-oriented than other hazard mitigation efforts. I see more local stewardship groups and coalitions formed around wildfire, which I believe is a strength that others working to reduce risk to other hazards should adopt.
FAC Net: What advice would you give to other FEMA employees who are interested in working with communities on fire adaptation projects?
First, I would say they can always contact me about my efforts in Region 10, as well as my work with our U.S. Fire Administration. Of course, FEMA employees looking to expand their role with state and local jurisdictions can reach out to the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network to learn who in their region are advocates for fire adapted communities. I think it’s important to connect directly with the people championing for their communities to be fire adapted.
FEMA staff should realize that our community preparedness programs, Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants, Assistant to Firefighter Grants, Mitigation Planning Program, recovery planning resources, Risk MAP program, and the many trainings offered at the National Fire Academy are just some of the initiatives that FEMA offers to help communities become more fire adapted. We need to be at the table when it comes to wildfire mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
FEMA staff should contact the State Hazard Mitigation Officer to learn what work is being done by state emergency management and forestry/natural resource departments. This also helps in building relationships between these agencies that sometimes haven’t consistently talked when it comes to wildfire mitigation.
FAC Net: Can you tell us about someone who has influenced your thinking or shaped your views on some aspect of wildfire adaptation?
I started my wildland firefighting career in Oregon with Prineville BLM then, on the Malheur National Forest. Both Mike Benfield, my engine captain and later my assistant fire management officer, and Brian Mattox, my roommate and district hand crew lead, taught me that it takes more than just fire engines to address our wildfire issues. They helped me understand that while we need to fight fire, we also need to introduce fire through prescribed burning and thinning, where applicable. I’ll admit that prior to meeting these two in the late 90s/early 2000s, I was focused on putting out fire.
I also need to give a huge shout-out to Annie Schmidt and Katie Lighthall. These two women recognized the role of FEMA and were very receptive to me reaching out to learn more about the National Cohesive Strategy and FAC Net. They also introduced me to some key people, even in my own agency.
FAC Net: What are you most excited about working on in 2016?
That’s a tough question. I love my job and every aspect associated with it, but I think I’m most excited to build more relationships with FEMA staff who want to engage on developing fire adapted communities, and with wildfire professionals who are pushing the envelope in terms of wildfire resiliency. I truly believe that some of our toughest obstacles are related to a lack of trust or confusion, whether in the messenger or message. I believe that the more we can connect and the fire adapted message is discussed, the further along our nation will go to being wildfire-resilient.
FAC Net: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you’d like our readers to know?
I’ll just emphasize that building relationships is essential to accomplishing any of this work. We have to work together, we need to learn how to get to ‘yes’ more often, and the only way to influence this paradigm shift toward fire adaptation is through dialogue. Though I was a wildland firefighter with the USFS, BLM and NPS years ago, it’s truly the relationships with wildfire mitigation professionals that I’ve developed in the past three years where I’ve learned the most and, hopefully, been able to share my knowledge.