How Can Communities Get More Involved in Federal Fire Management?
Authors: Mary Huffman
The current U.S. fire management system originally developed around best practices and coordination for firefighting professionals, so it’s no wonder that it’s a little tough for stakeholders to engage. Bill Tripp and Darren Borgias, leaders in the FAC Net and Fire Learning Network (FLN) Community of Practice for Using Fire (CPUF), recently led a webinar that offers insights into some opportunities for doable, system-level fixes. Here are a few examples of the stages in the life cycle of a wildland fire and where CPUF may consider networking around innovations, especially on federally managed public lands.
1. Fire planning
Federal agencies have several levels of fire planning, from prescriptions for an individual burn to risk/benefit assessments and strategic plans covering millions of acres. In most cases, these plans are developed by agency staff and then sent out for public comment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). When the area includes ancestral territories of federally recognized tribes, government to government consultation is also required.
Innovation: In southern Oregon, collaborators have gotten together prior to federal planning to map things across the landscape that are important to them and their communities. Government agencies and stakeholders then have the opportunity to incorporate this broader wisdom into the federal project planning, federal land plan revision, and community wildfire protection plans–early on. For more information, contact Darren Borgias, Kerry Metlen or George McKinley.
2. Tribal consultation
As the original fire managers of land we now call the United States, tribes have a unique relationship with federal agencies, including agencies that manage fire. Part of that relationship entails the practice of government to government consultation, whereby the federal agencies are required by law to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes regarding federal actions that may affect them. Because so many areas of indigenous life revolved around fire (like managing food and fire resources, clearing around villages, maintaining sacred sites, performing ceremonies and more), tribes are affected by firefighting and controlled burning in many ways.
Innovation: With 567 federally recognized tribes distributed from coast to coast, the FLN and FAC Net have several indigenous partners who offer additional perspectives on peoples’ relationship with fire. These tribes engage in dialogue with federal partners in a different way than the general public, more and at different times than dictated by the NEPA process. The Yakama Tribe in Washington, the Karuk Tribe in California and the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico are examples of tribes that shape the networks. If you already have a relationship with the ancestral managers of a landscape you care about, strategize about how their dialogue with federal agencies can complement the conversations of non-indigenous stakeholders. If ancestral managers aren’t yet informing your network, contact the natural resources department of your nearest tribe and extend an invitation to meet. For more information, contact Bill Tripp, Reese Lolley or Anne Bradley.
3. During a large fire
If an unplanned ignition (wildfire) grows to a certain size and complexity, the mobile U.S. fire workforce swings into action. This involves drawing on people and equipment from around the country, who may not know the local area, local fire management practices, or stakeholders’ goals. On a national forest, for example, the Forest Supervisor delegates authority to manage the fire to a visiting Incident Management Team (IMT), which typically works the fire for a two-week period using perspective captured in the local Forest’s Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS). If the fire burns for longer than that, another IMT takes over.
Innovation: In northwest California, communities are developing community liaison programs that connect trusted local coordinators with the IMTs as they come and go. Among other things, liaisons relay local information such as the condition of local water sources, who has the key to a gate or where people with limited mobility live. The liaisons manage a local communications network using social media, phone trees and word of mouth to relay the latest information on the fire and any instructions from law enforcement about public safety. Because the liaisons know local residents, they can also field concerns and keep mishaps from escalating into bigger conflicts. For more information, contact Karuna Greenberg.
4. The Wildland Fire Decision Support System
This sophisticated computer system is used nationwide by federal fire managers to provide IMTs with information for better decision-making. The system is a rich repository of data on things such as past fires, vegetation and firefighting costs. The system is also used to document firefighting decisions made during a wildfire of extended duration. Within WFDSS, GIS layers show management polygons and the management goals for each, taken from fire management plans. Some polygons have goals for encouraging more good fire while others call for full-on suppression to protect people and fire-sensitive resources.
Innovation: Technically, WFDSS can incorporate input from multi-stakeholder collaborations before, during and after wildfires. Before the fire, communities can assist in fire planning through values mapping and participating in fire management planning. During the fire, community liaisons can assist by providing locally specific information. After the fire, stakeholders and federal fire managers can update the system with feedback and lessons learned. Visiting IMTs who rely upon WFDSS can then take advantage of local knowledge embedded in the system.
Today, progressive fire managers see value in engaging their communities early and often. These system-level opportunities depend a lot upon your working relationship with your federal fire managers. Take time to meet with your federal fire staff members, and ask them to give you or your community group a presentation on fire planning, community engagement during wildfires, and WFDSS. You’ll learn a little about what it’s like to work with fire in their systems and they will learn a little about what’s important to you.