Feb 11, 2014
Five Lessons from the Wildfire Season
Authors: Michelle Medley-Daniel
Half of the FAC Network’s pilot communities experienced wildfires during 2013. The hub organizations working with those communities shared some of the lessons from those fires in a Network webinar. Here are five of their recommendations to other communities preparing for, or experiencing, wildfire incidents.
1. Learn to coordinate with Incident Command teams
Large wildfires are managed by Incident Command (IC) teams composed of people from around the country. These fire managers don’t always have a connection to the local community, or understand community needs and priorities. There are formal and informal ways to create bridges between the IC teams and local people, creating opportunities to integrate local knowledge into the fire management strategy.
The Chumstick Wildfire Coalition, the hub organization working in Leavenworth, Washington, worked informally to interface with Incident Command during the Eagle Fire. Their coordination with IC helped reduce the fire’s impact on local businesses, which were heavily dependent on tourism revenue. Through personal knowledge of the IC system, Coalition leaders were able to establish relationships with IC soon after they arrived. They offered valuable insight in the form of access to local communication systems—email lists, community meetings and key contacts. In turn, IC helped communicate that the town not smoked in and was open for business through their official incident reports. Coalition leaders recommend two courses, available through the National Incident Management System: ICS 100 and IS700(a), to people who would like to learn more about the IC system.
The Karuk Tribe, Network hub organization in the Mid-Klamath of northwestern California, shared their successes utilizing a more formal system for collaborating with IC. The Mid-Klamath is Karuk ancestral territory, so tribal resources and cultural specialists are integrally involved in managing wildfire complexes in the area. Designated Tribal Representatives, heritage consultants, and community liaisons were appointed to work with IC during the 2013 fire complexes in the Mid-Klamath. Each of these positions has a specific role to play in the IC structure. The Designated Tribal Representative’s role protects tribal and cultural resources, and facilitates the use of tribal and local crews to manage the fire in culturally sensitive areas. Heritage consultants provide insight into how wildfire management will impact the area in the long term, and make recommendations that take traditional fire management and cultural resources into account. Local community liaisons offer information on fire history, local landscape features, local planning efforts and pre-treatments.
Both formal and informal coordination systems have merit. Talk with your partners before the next wildfire to determine which strategy for IC coordination will be most effective for your community.
2. Develop business resilience strategies before the next wildfire
In a community like Leavenworth, Washington, where the economy is driven by tourism, a wildfire can have serious economic impacts. If potential visitors think that heavy smoke or area closures and evacuations are likely, they don’t visit. In order to address this threat to their local economy, the business community in Leavenworth has developed a business resilience framework that lays out marketing messages and fire risk and prevention information, and suggests the development of a visitor’s wildfire tool kit. The activities described in their framework will help them educate the public about wildfire, and encourage tourism in spite of inevitable wildfires.
Wildfire will continue to be a challenge to tourism-driven economies, but with deliberate planning, and by involving business owners in their FAC efforts, the Chumstick Coalition hopes to improve this aspect of community resilience. They plan to share business resilience tools as they are developed, so stay tuned for more information and sample materials.
3. Consider using social media sites, like Facebook, to facilitate community dialogue
During the 2013 wildfire complexes in California’s northern Mid-Klamath region, residents created a dedicated Facebook page to share information about the fires. The page sparked community conversation, facilitated the delivery of supplies, and was a way for residents to communicate their ideas and concerns about how the fires were being managed. This approach does come with challenges as social media sites are difficult for institutions with strict communications policies to use effectively. In this case, local Forest Service personnel were banned from posting to the site, and instead indirectly communicated through community members to users of the page.
Wildfire incidents evolve rapidly and accurate and timely communication is important. Social media sites can facilitate nearly instantaneous information sharing; however, they can also spread misinformation, conjecture and rumor. Explore some of the communication platforms available to community partners and fire managers, and decide how your local coordinating group will communicate during the next wildfire.
4. Protect homes by developing treatment prescriptions that take extreme conditions into account
Climate change and our past management legacy are exacerbating conditions for many communities in the wildland-urban interface. Across the country communities are experiencing severe droughts, flooding, forest diseases and insect infestation. These conditions may be our “new normal” and we need to adjust our prescriptions and recommendations for landowners accordingly. In New Mexico, landowners who had taken the recommended precautions suffered in the 2013 wildfires when extreme fire behavior, driven by an extremely dry fuel source, rendered their treatments ineffective. The Forest Guild, the FAC Network hub for the Santa Fe area, is taking these conditions into account in their fire planning efforts, working on evaluating landowner and fire manager expectations, and coordinating with partners to recommend new treatment prescriptions. Talk with your partners about the treatment prescriptions being used by your community, and discuss their viability under extreme conditions.
5. Invest in local coordination and relationships to create resilient communities
Relationships are an intangible, and often undervalued, investment that ends up making a big difference in long-term community resilience. The experience of FAC Network partners in southern Oregon illustrates how their investments in coordination are paying off now that budget restrictions and shifting priorities are taking a toll on traditionally strong institutions.
Over the past decade, the communities in the Rogue Basin in southern Oregon have been working to implement FAC strategies. With two-thirds of all of the homes in the Basin within a half mile of public land, the area is a vast wildland-urban interface. The checkerboard of federal and private ownership presents a challenging situation that necessitates tight coordination. With over 170 entities involved in local fire planning and Community Wildfire Protection Plan development, they’ve been a model of local coordination. These partners have treated over 200,000 acres together, and the relationships developed as a result of these collaborative efforts have proven as valuable as the fuels treatments themselves.
While the fuels treatments have helped contain fires, the relationships developed among county and city government staff, emergency response personnel and non-governmental organizations have been leveraged at a time when shrinking budgets and diminishing capacity are crippling institutions. Because of those personal relationships, people have been willing to offer assistance to partners whose budgets have left them understaffed.
Invest in local relationships by facilitating opportunities for partners to interact in person. The local coordinating group model, demonstrated by each of the FAC Network hubs, is a great way to build capacity and strengthen relationships.