Editor’s note: Magdalena Valderrama (FAC Net Core Member) is cofounder and the programs director for Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association. SSCRA builds community-based partnerships, relying on community processes for greater community resilience. In this blog, Magdalena offers a couple lessons learned in terms of keeping your area’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) viable and effective.
With the arrival of the Community Wildfire Defense Grant program, many communities are starting their community wildfire protection plans (CWPPs) now, and many other communities are dusting theirs off from the shelf to begin their updates. Our CWPP represents an unexpected saga that I hope other wildfire survivors can learn from.
I knew nothing about wildfire mitigation when the Valley Fire hit Lake County, California on September 12, 2015. It burned down my house and two-thirds of my neighborhood alone, and to this day occupies dubious standing among the top twenty most destructive in our state. In the previous months, two major wildfires had already occurred in our county. As I bent with other survivors to help clean up and rebuild, I wondered what might have been missed ahead of time at the county level. Surely, I thought fleetingly, there must be a process or plan that could have helped prevent so much catastrophic destruction.
As long-term recovery became the norm, I helped form new Firewise Communities and began attending the meetings of our two Fire Safe Councils. At one point, a new acquaintance mentioned something called the Lake County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. A copy of it buried online showed a very robust CWPP, released in 2009 and complete with an action plan. I discovered with a mixture of dismay and relief that our Cobb area was included in it – and that the recommended period for updating a CWPP is every 5 years. Six years had passed by the time the Valley Fire hit us, our county was about to experience several more wildfires, and by early 2019, 66% of our entire landmass had burned.
That same year, I also unexpectedly became an affiliate and then a core member of FAC Net. The learning and especially the connections that resulted boosted and sustained my search for solutions. Personally, and to make a very long story short, it took another four years of persistent questioning and many individual and group meetings throughout the chaos of repeated disaster and recovery. It was a process to reorient all the key stakeholders at the same time, and get the county and community in concert once again behind a valuable CWPP.
As I write this blog, a countywide CWPP Update is nearing completion. Our lessons aren’t over, but these are the top few that I can pass on to you:
1. Do not underestimate the step of establishing some sort of viable, long-term management structure and sources of funding from the outset. It’s easy to hold stakeholder meetings until the cows come home because lots of people have stories to tell and something to say. Strategic facilitation for strong management structure and funding strategy are needed for the long run. Otherwise, the CWPP stays on the shelf and soon people forget it even exists.
2. As soon as the action plan is written, begin planning for implementation. Who will define individual projects in what order, set a timeline, and fund them? Who will track performance against CWPP priorities? Back then, we had no one tasked with either. We now have a new nonprofit partner getting us started on mapping projects and tracking progress. While we develop the management structure, we are slowly gaining in the ability to measure performance.
3. Make sure the CWPP is formatted and referenced in a way that community members can easily see where their activities might fit in and find the information that they need to take their next action. The CWPP presents an opportunity for communities to become more engaged and take on their own critical role in wildfire readiness. We’ve found that the CWPP can be very useful in helping neighborhoods and communities develop their own capability in identifying specific projects.
4. “Healthy Fire = Healthy Land = Healthy Forests = Healthy Waters.” I learned this equation through FAC Net’s dedication to helping the rest of us understand and adopt, wherever we can, the critical role of traditional land stewardship practices of our Indigenous nations. Our initial CWPP mentioned the involvement of our tribal nations, but nothing else about what the members of these communities in our county needed or could contribute. We need to include much more in our CWPP about stewarding the land in addition to adopting the more acute techniques of modern wildfire mitigation. Whether we will be able to or not this round remains to be seen – but in Lake County we are committed to working toward this goal.