Photo Credit: Cities in the wildland-urban interface have the challenge of thinking both short and long term when it comes to wildfire recovery planning. Shown here is Hood River, Oregon, the location of a recent learning exchange that focused on that very challenge. Photo by Sam Beebe via Flickr Creative Commons

Author’s Note: Contributed to by Alison Green, Hilary Lundgren and Ed Keith.

Fire adapted communities take action before, during and after a wildfire. Fire adapted communities are also resilient communities. Last month, Hilary Lundgren (Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, CWSC), Alison Green (Project Wildfire) and Ed Keith (Deschutes County) hosted a learning exchange in Hood River, Oregon that focused on how to foster long-term recovery after a wildfire. A total of 20 participants and facilitators (including county planners, business owners, public works officials, emergency managers and non-profit directors) participated in the exchange, exploring how to best cultivate community disaster resilience.

The idea for this learning exchange was a result of last spring’s Pacific Northwest Learning Exchange. FAC Net members from Oregon and Washington left that exchange wanting to learn more about business resiliency and long-term recovery planning. Consequently, they hatched a plan to co-develop a follow-up learning exchange, focusing on how to integrate post-fire recovery concepts into community operations.

What We Learned

The exchange kicked off with an introduction to FAC principles, the hosting organizations, and the participants’ roles and functions in their respective communities. To help participants hone in on why they were invited, we asked them to list partners who they rely on for their everyday work. Using this partner list as a foundation, participants then mapped the individual networks that they would utilize in the context of a wildfire. Throughout the exchange, attendees adjusted their networks as they learned new information.

Workshop participants doing a mapping a long-term wildfire recovery planning activity with sticky-notes.

Attendees mapped their original wildfire networks in one color, so folks could add new organizations (in another color) as they learned more about long-term recovery planning. Credit: Emily Troisi, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Day one’s sessions centered on the importance of business resiliency and pre-disaster recovery planning as important foundations for resilient communities. Businesses that plan for power outages, smoke or road-related decreases in tourism, and unavailable employees are more prepared to re-open after a disaster. We learned that businesses can begin to develop their continuity plans by starting with worksheets and resources available through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our facilitator for this discussion, Tristan Allen from Washington Emergency Management Division (EMD), shared the following statistic from FEMA:

Forty percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and another 25 percent fail within one year.

He explained that businesses that have agreements in place to share supplies, services and electricity, adequate insurance, and a continuity plan for opening their doors again are much more likely to succeed after a disaster. Further, their success plays an important role in the community’s overall recovery post-disaster. Specifically, a business that continues to function after a disaster can provide jobs and services when its community needs those things the most.

A second highlight of the exchange was a session on diversity and inclusion by Maria Estrada (The Nature Conservancy) and Rafael Estevez (Washington EMD). Maria and Rafael emphasized the importance of understanding not only language barriers but also the social factors (such as education, income, health, age and culture) that can affect an individual’s ability to prepare for and recover from a wildfire. They helped attendees think about who should be included in the pre- and post-disaster planning processes. They also offered innovative outreach and engagement strategies, such as the development of transcultural outreach materials and including preparedness resources with paychecks.

The second day was a working session on long-term recovery planning facilitated by Derrick Hiebert (Washington EMD). One frequent downfall in planning, Derrick said, is the ability to see and think long term. It can take years for a community to even begin to return to normal after a large disaster. People often focus on the first six months post-disaster but don’t typically realize that recovery is often still underway one to two years following an incident.  For example, many people are just starting to rebuild homes after 18 months or more. Acknowledging that timeline and discerning how to keep people in a town that is still in recovery mode are important, difficult processes. Lastly, participants had small group discussions on how to jump-start this planning effort in their communities. Everyone left with at least one action item, pages full of notes and new connections.

Deliberate Design

Because the exchange’s core planners (Alison, Ed, Hilary and myself) are not long-term recovery planning specialists, we invited experts to join the planning team and to lead specific discussions. Together, we held multiple planning calls, developed presentations and activities, and engaged in discussions to ensure that we were meeting our learning objectives.

The learning exchange took place over two half days. Although technically the exchange could have just been one day, it was important to schedule the exchange such that participants were able to travel during work hours and share several meals together. Building relationships is a key component of a learning exchange – with the hope that the attendees generate a new network that they can call for help, and are able to help, in the future. By having groups of participants come from multiple areas, relationships were built within places, but also across places.

The diversity of roles represented at the learning exchange demanded a flexible agenda, formality and efficiency so that we could meet the needs of the participants. Also, facilitators had to develop an agenda that stimulated a ‘network’ atmosphere for participants from three separate communities, many of whom had never worked together.

Implications for CWSC and Project Wildfire

During the community break-out session, participants worked with their respective regions. CWSC asked the question: “If someone lost their home, how would we help individuals find temporary shelter immediately after the fire (0- 1 months) and during the recovery period (one month to two years)?” They began to outline the various organizations (Red Cross, Community Foundation of North Central Washington, volunteer organization groups, etc.) and entities (property management companies, housing authority board, landlord groups) that would need to be involved in answering that question. Each participant intended to begin a conversation about continuity plans with their respective board of directors once they were back home.

Participants having a round table discussion.

The Leavenworth attendees (along with our Washington EMD facilitators) talking through their next steps after the learning exchange. Credit: Emily Troisi, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Project Wildfire’s recovery planning will initially take place both at the county scale and at the landowner/ business owner scale. The county officials present (public works, planning, emergency management and forestry) reported that the exchange began a conversation about creating a general, all-hazard recovery plan. At the homeowner/business owner scale, there are meetings planned at the local Chambers of Commerce to discuss how to plan for a more resilient community. All of the feedback has been positive and powerful.


If you’re interested in exploring the topic of disaster resilience further, check out these resources:

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