Photo Credit: The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (March 2012 hearing). Photo by Flickr user CSIS via Flickr Creative Commons 

The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) is designed to facilitate learning across communities and organizations spanning the diversity of ecological, cultural and institutional environments around the country. At the same time, FAC Net is charged with aggregating what we learn about the community-led practice of fire adaptation up to the scale of policymakers and agency leaders, parlaying how national assistance programs, incentives and regulations are both facilitating and impeding their work, and how they might be changed to better support the growth of fire adapted communities nationwide.

As a member of the FAC Net staff team, I was recently afforded two unique opportunities to synthesize and communicate some of what we’re learning by working with community leaders from the ground, up the chain to federal policymakers and decision-makers. The first opportunity came when I was invited to testify at a field hearing of the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, held in Seattle, Washington on August 27. The second came more recently when I was invited to speak, along with other members of the national FAC Coalition, to a joint meeting of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council and the National Strategy Committee for the Cohesive Strategy. Drawing on lessons emerging from diverse community experiences across FAC Net, I communicated the following:

  • Cooperative planning is essential to not only building fire adapted communities, but also to achieving better outcomes across the three Cohesive Strategy goals. This includes community wildfire protection planning (CWPP), landscape restoration planning and community planning. This premise is a cornerstone of disaster resilience theory, and one we must incorporate into our wildfire planning framework going forward. Local communities and supporting organizations need a combination of technical assistance, direct funding and incentives to develop and implement high quality CWPPs, landscape restoration/resilience strategies, and community/general plans that incorporate wildfire.
  • Direct investments in mitigation and ecological resilience are making a real difference for fire management safety and effectiveness, and for improving community and landscape wildfire outcomes. We need to invest far more through a range of existing programs. The Firewise USA recognition program, Ready, Set, Go!, and cost-share programs that help implement community mitigation projects prioritized in CWPPs all help to mitigate risks and build FAC momentum in communities. Strategic fuels treatments with a heavy dose of prescribed fire also effectively mitigate risks in many ecosystems and need to be scaled up.
  • Community capacity is the cornerstone of building fire adapted communities. Strong local institutions and leaders empowered to coordinate local FAC planning and implementation appear to be common ingredients in those communities that are making the greatest strides toward becoming fire adapted. We need programmatic funding to support community capacity to engage in FAC work, and this investment takes two forms. First, there is the capacity to support standing coordination of the many leaders and organizations who have a role in fire adaptation. Whether through a local fire safe council, wildfire coalition or committee, there are few funding sources to support the core staffing for coordination, which is the foundation of FAC and Cohesive Strategy. We’ve observed the amazing impacts of funding just a part-time staff position in communities across the country. The other essential form of community capacity ripe for investment is in the local FAC workforce. Whether in the form of the local fire service, contractors, conservation districts, other local organizations or any combination appropriate to place, a skilled and invested local workforce to implement across the spectrum of mitigation actions is needed. It is this local workforce that can serve across all three Cohesive Strategy goals, at-once being the messengers and implementers of community protection and landscape resilience treatments, while also being available to deploy in fire management. At the same time, building a robust local workforce begins to build a culture of living with fire, available and skilled in service before, during and after wildfire events.

It is at-once a privilege and a huge responsibility to boil down diverse community experiences and needs into basic policy provisions that could make a difference for communities at-risk from wildfire across the country. The needs of a major metropolitan area such as Austin, Texas clearly diverge from those of rural communities like Towns County, Georgia. At the same time, we’re learning through FAC Net that they can both be serviced by federal policies and programs that support cooperative planning, direct mitigation and building and sustaining community capacity for fire adaptation. Going forward, we’ll continue to use the Network as a venue for scaling-up learning from practitioners and community leaders to the policymakers and national leaders whose job it is to facilitate their success.

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