Photo Credit: Project Firehawk Art by Ava Schmidt, age 12

Editor’s note: 2020 has brought countless changes to our world. Together, we are beginning to reimagine our way of living—with wildfire, but also in every other sector. This blog, and those in the brand-new series that will follow, are in that same spirit of reimagination.  The series is called Project Firehawk– in reference to a cohort of Australian birds who carry fire in their beaks to spark change.  Its essays will explore the core underpinnings of our work, and in some cases, challenge the status quo.  We have asked the series’ authors to be bold as they tackle hard questions to reveal needed shifts in our relationship with fire. We have asked them to be unafraid as they point out what is (and isn’t) working in our current system.  These thought pieces may irritate you, create controversy, or even cause you to stand up and cheer.  Regardless of your reaction, we hope this series causes you to pause and maybe even initiate a larger conversation about what it really means to live better with wildfire.

Within the wildfire world, the need for action considerably outpaces our funds and capacity.  Forest health treatments? Backlogged for years.  Prescribed fire?  Don’t even get me started.  Programs that support residents and homeowners?  Cost-share at best, unavailable at worst.  Programs that develop capacity and build community resilience? Not even on the map. In the face of all that overwhelming need, it is both reasonable and inevitable that agencies, funders, and communities ask “how do we best prioritize our investments?”  The answer to that question often, almost by default, is risk assessment.

While older risk mapping processes accounted only for biophysical risk and did not contain any elements of social vulnerability, newer processes are getting better at identifying a more holistic picture of the factors that comprise risk (though incorporation of social vulnerability and traditionally under-represented values like rangeland can always be improved).  Risk maps are often used to prioritize investment upon the assumption that the return on reducing risk in a “high risk” area will always be greater than reducing risk in a “medium risk” area.  Community Wildfire Protection Plans, statewide strategic plans, forest health plans, and more are often based upon this assumption… but shouldn’t be.

People can live in the most fire-prone, hazard-ridden landscape imaginable, and they can know it, but neither the risk itself nor the awareness of it is sufficient to create actual change on the landscape.  In our imperfect world, returns are not always guaranteed.  Traditional risk maps don’t tell us whether or not communities have the capacity or the will to address collective risk.  These risk maps can’t tell us what the actual return on investment will be in terms of behavior change or voluntary action. Risk maps only tell us where we have risk, not where we will see community-driven risk reduction.

Two places both received investment in voluntary home hardening and defensible space creation:

Apple City is located in a high-risk landscape.  Banana Town is located in a medium-risk landscape.  They are the same size, have the same basic demographic composition, and the same amount of funds is invested in each community for voluntary home hardening and defensible space creation.  Apple City has a higher biophysical risk but after investment, fewer residents take action than in Banana Town.  In Banana Town, more collective action is taken, community risk is reduced, and overall community resilience improves.

What is the difference between Apple City and Banana Town in this scenario?  Risk certainly (Apple City is high-risk, Banana Town is medium-risk) but in this scenario, the difference in results had nothing to do with risk and everything to do with “ripeness.”  Banana Town was “ripe” for investment and Apple City was not.

“Ripeness” in this context can be defined as the readiness of a community to address its wildfire risk and invest in its resilience. An assortment of factors, such as flexibility, risk tolerance, and capacity likely contribute to community ripeness (though which factors contribute in which places almost certainly varies by community and over time).  Ripe communities may have some combination of a:

  • willingness to say yes, willingness to fail, and/or demonstrated history of betting on themselves.
  • unique approach to community-resilience work, enough staff to generate and implement experimentation, and/or a willingness to try new things.
  • demonstrated history of overcoming problems, multiple approaches to solving a complex problem, and/or willingness to change from established patterns.
  • deep partnerships, history of existing collaboration, shared commitment to working together, one strong existing partnership, and/or a strong community sparkplug.
  • in-kind match available, leadership actively looking to springboard from existing programs, existing creative funding mechanisms in place.

Not every community will have these factors (and some may have others)—but I believe communities who do share some of these traits are more ready for fire risk-reduction implementation than those who do not. When communities have something beyond the minimum in at least one aspect of their existence—whether it be persistence, passion, funding, timing, or something else— they have at least one element that they can lean on as they build or enhance the others.  The ability of a community to rise is driven by much more than its risk.

A closer look at Banana Town and Apple City can help illustrate how Banana Town, even though it had a lower risk profile, was ripe for investment and Apple City was not:

In Banana Town, a recent small fire outside of town had convinced the local Fire Chief that the wildland fire risk in the area needed to be addressed.  The local Fire Chief, a trusted and energetic partner, had great relationships with other agencies and community organizations.  When funds became available to address their wildfire risk, the Fire Chief actively sought matching local funds, drew on her network of partners, and energized residents to band together to treat entire neighborhoods and improve evacuation routes.

While Apple City was only 20 miles away, there had been a constant turn-over in local leadership.  A community sparkplug who helped convene neighbors had pursued recognition four years ago but had since moved and the community had not renewed their status. The recent wildfire which threatened Banana Town did not impact Apple City.  Funds were made available for home hardening and defensible space but they were never fully expended.

If we could solve our wildfire problems by only implementing fuels treatments on state or federal land adjacent to the community or if meaningful community action was guaranteed in all high-risk landscapes, the conversation about ripeness would be less critical. However, we know that the pathway to resilience winds through every aspect of our communities.  Everyone from the individual resident to the federal land manager has a role and many of those roles require voluntary action.  The simplification of our decision systems to a single input (risk) without accounting for ripeness, particularly when allocating community wildfire risk reduction funds, dooms us to inefficient spending at best and failure at worst.

To change our fire future, we need to invest in ripeness.  

Investments in ripeness may look different from the investments we are used to making.  You can’t take a community that isn’t ready for wildfire adaptation, provide implementation funds for voluntary defensible space creation, and expect radical changes in resilience. Investments in ripeness are about investments in the community itself.  Strategies that actively look for (and capitalize) on assets as opposed to barriers are a good start.  Strategies that build capacity, like investing in people within communities by providing training or empowering local residents to share in decision-space, are even better. Sometimes, the best way to treat an acre is to invest not in the acre but in the community that tends it. 

FAC Net Project Firehawk

Project Firehawk Art by by Ava Schmidt, age 12

In addition to direct investments, investment in networks can help accelerate community ripeness.  As many may know from personal experience, once apples are close to ripening, exposing them to other fruit that is already ripe can speed up the process.  This is why people put a ripe banana in a brown paper bag of *almost* ripe apples!  Networks like FAC Net take advantage of this principle all the time; communities sharing and learning from each other accelerates ripeness and our collective progress.  Networks create proximity and access, develop relationships, and facilitate change.

There are things we can all do in our places and within our sphere of influence to move beyond prioritization based upon risk alone:

  • Practitioners: Articulate the importance of investing in strategies that build ripeness in our communities. All too often we ask for what we think will be funded (acres treated) as opposed to what we really need (capacity to create change).  Be the ripe banana in the brown paper bag; share your successes, failures, strategies, and lessons with your neighbors and with your peers.
  • Planners (and everyone who engages in collaborative planning!): Take a long, hard look at our planning documents. Are there ways to incorporate ripeness in addition to risk?
  • Agencies, funders, and policy-makers: Recognize that not all communities are ready (yet) for implementation. Support essential investments that build ripeness and the research we need to create quantifiable metrics for our prioritization. Continue investing in paper bag strategies like FAC Net!
  • Researchers: Help us evaluate and quantify community ripeness. Things we can count and measure will help us make the systemic changes we need. Bonus points for working with communities to develop the research.

Without dedicating time and resources to explore ripeness and develop it in our communities, we run the risk of investing our limited dollars in the wrong things in the right places.  We also risk missing places like Banana Town – where the investment returns are far greater than anticipated because the community was ripe.  If we want a different future, we have to create it.

P.S. Read on for the Apple City/Banana Town epilogue!

At a gathering of Fruit County mayors, the Mayor of Banana Town presented the impact of the implementation investment (with before and after photos) and talked about factors that contributed to community success.  The Mayor of Apple City began investing in a community wildfire coordinator to help build community adaptation capacity and initiated a partnership with Banana Town to explore how best to address their collective wildfire risk.

Annie Schmidt is a Program Specialist for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.  She has been wrestling with community ripeness since 2014 when the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network was born.

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