Photo Credit: White House WUI Round Table. Photo by Nick Goulette

On May 18, 2016 I had the distinct privilege of participating in the White House Roundtable on Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface. The meeting was organized by White House National Security Council Staff, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security, and led by Alice C. Hill, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council.

Eisenhauer BldgI was joined by several FAC Net members and friends from around the country, as well as other FAC Coalition members. The purpose of the roundtable was for the Administration, as well as expert speakers, federal collaborators–including tribal and state and local governments–to discuss fire activity and perspectives relating to wildland-urban interface fire experiences, and highlight best practices to address these fire risks and enhance community resilience. The Administration invited individual concerns, viewpoints and best practices, while not intending to produce consensus advice or recommendations.

I was delighted to hear, from the very beginning, the experience and perspectives of the FAC Net and Fire Learning Network (FLN) well-regarded and represented. The meeting began with a welcome from Undersecretary for the Interior, Sally Jewel, in which she struck on the importance of cooperative and collaborative efforts across agencies, communities and aligned organizations as essential components in addressing the challenges we face in the WUI and across fire adapted landscapes. She even made reference to the work of the FLN as a shining example. Following opening remarks, two panels offered perspectives on enhancing community and landscape resilience to wildfire, both of which featured colleagues from the FAC Net. Mayor John Stromberg (Ashland, Oregon) kicked off the first panel relaying the story of innovation and progress being realized through their Ashland Forest Resiliency project. Wrapping up the panel, Chris Topik from The Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests initiative synthesized many of the themes drawn out in Mayor Stromberg’s story, insisting that key ingredients to successful fire adaptation are happening where communities and agencies are working cooperatively, and he emphasized the role of federal investments in building the capacity of communities to step up to their fire problems.

In the second panel, focused on improving wildfire response in the WUI, Chief Eric Litzenberg (Santa Fe, New Mexico) shared the story of his department’s evolution into fully engaging with their wildland fire challenges, forming a wildland division, partnering with the USDA Forest Service, raising money from local taxpayers to invest in watershed resilience, and taking a comprehensive approach that is addressing and integrating all three goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Other panelists touched on topics such as tribal efforts and the competition between community and natural resource protection, the growing complexity posed by increasing WUI development and climate change, and how evolving thinking about risk management can contribute to safer wildfire response in the interface.

In the end, both Special Assistant Hill and the roundtable participants had time to offer additional perspectives and to reflect on the remarks and themes drawn out by the panelists. I had the opportunity to offer up my two cents, drawing out two of the core lessons that we’ve gleaned from the experience of our FAC Net members and affiliates, which were also repeated throughout the proceedings. First, local initiative and cooperation form the foundation of a successful WUI effort. Standing fire safe councils, wildfire committees and the like create synergy, expand participation, and sustain investment over time. Second, the technical, social and institutional capacity of communities to engage with local fire adaptation efforts is key to success, and there is a role for multiple federal agencies and programs for investing in that capacity. Ultimately, roundtable participants reinforced the critical role of the federal government in not only responding to WUI fires as natural disasters, but also in helping to build and sustain the resilience of WUI communities through their programs and partnership.

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