Photo Credit: Members of the City of Austin and Travis County and the Director of the Texas A&M Forest Service pose with Molly Mowery at the November 2014 CWPP signing ceremony. Photo by AFD, Preston Culver

The City of Austin and Travis County recently adopted its first county-wide Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans might seem like old news to those who have been working in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) over the last decade. This is especially true in areas of the country where federal lands dominate the landscape and associated funding spurs development and implementation of CWPPs. This isn’t the case everywhere, however, and CWPPs are still novel to many communities at risk.

Communities outside of the federal WUI model of “we will fix our side of the fence if you fix yours” are left with many questions when it comes to planning for wildfire. Some of the questions relate to funding, others revolve around whose responsibility it is to develop and implement the plan, and how it will affect private property rights. Ultimately the question that matters most is, WHY? Why should communities with little or no federal lands, who’ve received little or no funding, invest time and energy in developing a “federal” plan and have to follow federal guidelines?

The answer may be counter intuitive; it even might seem a little warm and fuzzy for such a serious issue. The answer is “belief.” Belief is what drives human behavior in the absence of rules and regulations. It is a word not often used in the context of CWPPs. A belief starts with acceptance; in this case, the acceptance that wildfire is a real threat to our communities and values. With the acceptance of this belief comes an acknowledgement of responsibility for addressing that risk.

Belief is only as powerful as the force with which those behind that belief strive to embody it. When a group of individuals or entities works together to achieve a commonly held belief, we call it collaboration. It is the belief in the power of the collaborative process that led the Austin Travis County FAC Learning Network hub to develop a county-wide CWPP. It was spurred not by a federal carrot or stick, but a belief and a commitment to do the right thing to protect our community.

One CWPP Task Force member who works with our Watershed Protection Department provided this feedback upon plan adoption, “We are very passionate about serving the community and are excited that, together, we can accomplish collaboration in a way that has never been done before.”

In that statement, she was referring to departments that work with fire and water issues aligning for a common purpose, with transparency and commitment to find what we could agree upon. In the end we were able to agree upon much more than previously imagined, even by those directly engaged. The plan includes more than 940 pages that represent more than what we agreed to on paper.  The plan also represents our belief that together we can make a difference.

Over the next year we will be focused on effecting a cultural shift in our public, from being at risk to being empowered. We hope to accomplish this through sharing with others what we have learned: the belief that “wildfire is everyone’s fight,” and that fight starts with understanding your role.

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