Project Firehawk Art by Ava Schmidt, age 12

Project Firehawk: Risk, Ripeness, and the Case for Paper Bags

By: Annie Schmidt

Topic: Evacuation outreach/planning Planning Preparedness Wildfire risk assessment

Type: Essay

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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7 thoughts on “Project Firehawk: Risk, Ripeness, and the Case for Paper Bags”

  1. Joe Stutler says:

    Great article, in Central OR we can validate this thesis. Lots of places in high risk category but no spark plug or cultural interest from that neighborhood or community. Consequently we invested in those places that were “ripe” for change and invested in the education and “why” this needs to be done and left most of the “what” to that neighborhood after we gave a few pointers on “how” to do it. This is an outstanding article and this must become the “how to” primer for both risk assessment and action, could also be a selection criteria for assistance as we move communities toward being fire adapted…thanks Annie.

  2. Gloria Erickson says:

    Annie you are so right on!!!!!! I have many Banana Cities and Apple Cities in the county I work with. Many of my “high” risk areas are not as engaged, or “ripe” to take action as are many of my “medium” risk communities. Sometimes, it is hard to convince “funders” that these medium risk areas, which have many engaged, motivated people, should be given an equal opportunity to assist them in their efforts. They do become the beacons and the leaders in energizing the Apple cities to take action.

    Great story telling. Love it!!!!!

  3. terry lawhead says:

    Outstanding, vital, so well presented. Tools for use. Thank you.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Thought provoking

  5. Jenny Coe says:

    Thank you for articulating this so well! This is how I see a lot of the risk reduction work that gets accomplished in NW WA. While there have been times where I compare working with those moderate wildfire risk Banana towns to Apple Cities and think “shouldn’t I be working harder to coerce Apple city into action, and how do I convince funders to support work or projects in places like Banana Town?” , in the end, when you have the willingness, the bravery, the energy, the strong bonds, and leadership, you end up with improved resilience and often long-term buy-in. I feel like you just put into words, something I’ve been witnessing for years, but not fully identifying or articulating. Nice work, Annie!

  6. Lulu Waks says:

    Fantastic perspective, Annie. I found it very thought provoking. Do you know of examples of community ripeness research? I’d love to read it if it exists.

  7. Hi Lulu! Thanks for your question. There is literature related to community capacity and adaptive capacity (specific to wildfire, even). Some of these pieces help identify the components of capacity (what is it, how do we understand it better, how do we foster it). Some help illuminate what capacity is needed for change. I will include some citations below. However, while I believe capacity contributes to ripeness, I don’t believe capacity (or adaptive capacity) substitutes for ripeness. The central questions in my mind pertaining to ripeness is WHEN are communities ready? How do we measure their readiness and how do we foster it? Capacity is part of the equation but in my mind it isn’t the only part, as discussed in the blog. I don’t know that I have seen literature which sheds light on this specific question – though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!!! I am definitely a practitioner and not a researcher. If you find anything relevant, please share!

    Reports and plans which make space for ripeness:

    Davis, E.J, Allison Jolley, and Nick Goulette. 2019. Investment Opportunities for Increasing Forest and Fire Management Capacity in California: A Capacity and Needs Assessment of Local Groups, Non-Profits, and Tribes. Available at NOTE: While this report characterizes ripeness slightly differently, see page 63 for a discussion of its inclusion in investment decisions.

    Washington State Department of Natural Resources. 2019. Washington State Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan. Available at: NOTE: See page 69 (second paragraph) for a discussion of incorporation of ripeness (in addition to risk) into investment strategies.

    Peer-reviewed research which sheds some light on capacity (note this list is not exhaustive in any way):

    Abrams, J.B., M. Knapp, T.B. Paveglio, A. Ellison, C. Mosely, M. Nielsen-Pincus, and M.C. Carroll. 2015. Re-envisioning community-wildfire relations in the U.S. West as adaptive governance. Ecology and Society 20(3): 34

    Paveglio, Tavis B.; Moseley, Cassandra; Carroll, Matthew S.; Williams, Daniel R.; Davis, Emily Jane; Fischer, A. Paige. 2015. Categorizing the social context of the wildland urban interface: Adaptive capacity for wildfire and community “archetypes.” Forest Science. 61(2): 298-310.

    Paveglio, T.B., M.S. Carroll, P.J. Jakes, and T. Prato. 2012. Exploring the social characteristics of adaptive capacity to wildfire: Insights from Flathead County, Montana. H. Eco. Rev. 19(2):110 –124.

    Other research into social networks, coupled social and ecological systems, and networks definitely exist! I didn’t dive into that here. Though in the blog I talked about how risk awareness alone doesn’t create action. There is lots of research on risk perceptions and awareness – one of my favorite pieces is this one:

    Toman, Eric; Stidham, Melanie; McCaffrey, Sarah; Shindler, Bruce. 2013. Social science at the wildland-urban interface: a compendium of research results to create fire-adapted communities. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-111. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 75 p.

    FAC Net Blogs which shed light on capacity (an ingredient of ripeness):

  8. Allison Jolley says:

    It’s funny, even though my recent blog/research is listed as related, I personally struggle a lot with ripeness because of concerns and questions that come up for me over equity. My latest thought is that we shouldn’t *not* invest in communities that we seem “unripe,” but that the investment should be modified to reflect what the community is ready for. Like what you said about not investing in the acre, but in the community. I’m so glad to hear Apply City is hiring a FAC Coordinator– that’s exactly what I’m talking about! 🙂

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