Editor’s note: Collin Haffey is the Post-Fire Recovery Program Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (since February 2023). Prior to joining the WA DNR, he worked for over ten years in fire ecology and post-fire recovery in the Southwestern US. In 2022, he worked with local, state, and federal agencies to assist communities with post-fire flood preparation, response, and recovery following record-breaking fires in New Mexico. In this blog, Collin reflects on the difficulties faced by communities post-fire, especially with compounding factors such as flooding and economic insecurity. Blog cover photo credit: Collin Haffey.
In the spring of 2022, a group of us from the New Mexico Forestry Division traveled through the state presenting to a series of city councils and county commissions. All of these groups had experienced an exhausting, community altering, economically and ecologically significant fire that year, particularly the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Fire but there were several others that year. Many of their lands were still burning when we met with them. But our Forestry Division staff was responsible for delivering one simple, and depressing fact: they needed to look beyond the fire and start thinking about floods. The fires had burned in the headwaters of their watersheds, and fundamentally altered the hydrology of their landscape.
We presented the science of the burn, the burn severity maps, explained debris flow hazards, and showed maps of the floodplains. We reminded our audience that the small streams of crystal-clear water would soon be juicy torrents of ash and sand mixed with the right amount of water to allow them to flow across roads, plug culverts, destroy fences, and threaten the drinking waters of entire communities. And finally, we spelled out how each person in the audience had a role in preparing for these inevitable floods and sediment flows that the summer monsoon rains would bring in mere weeks.
Needless to say, this information was not met with joy. Everyone was already exhausted from a fire that had been burning for almost three months. Homes had been destroyed, lives disrupted, and their small government rainy day savings accounts were gone.
Finally, after one of these less-than-uplifting evening monologues, a County Commissioner named Veronica Serna stood up from behind the sturdy wooden table in the modest and sweltering Mora County complex–and said, “you need to help us.” She continued, “we don’t know what to do. We don’t have the staff to do all this. We don’t have the money.” Of course, we were not there to work for Commissioner Serna. We were there to deliver the message, stay in our lane, and leave. We couldn’t work for Veronica. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have the knowledge, the staff or the money either.
But fast forward two weeks, and we’d worked for Veronica every single day of those fourteen. We wouldn’t stop working for Veronica for another six months. In working for Veronica, we weren’t just working for her. We worked for the county sheriff, city water manager, and agricultural producers. And it wasn’t just us; local agencies gave all the help they could. From the outside, came support of all types, especially centered around coordination, connections, and strategy development. After weeks of local and regional work, people with money showed up. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), US Geological Survey (USGS), National Guard, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil and Water Conservation Districts, FEMA, US Forest Service, fire teams, and many other state and federal agencies came with added capacity and cash (or at least the promise of payback) to get things going.
Together, we had some successes and many failures and a forgotten number of false starts. Some stuff got done, but a lot didn’t. What we cobbled together felt like plumbing with spare parts and hand-me-down tools. It worked–kind of–but boy, we were jealous of our fire suppression friends across the street with a sweet toolbox and unlimited credit at the hardware store. So we turned to dreaming of a smoother, faster process for doing what we needed.
Gaps in post-fire response
Because the truth of it is, that we don’t have the same response for post-fire as we do for the fire suppression activity. And it isn’t as if the post-fire response system is broken. Rather, it simply does not exist. Efforts from FEMA, USACE, NRCS, the Burned Area Emergency Response, and various state/local agencies can achieve good things. But they leave gaps. Gaps so deep and wide that if they were in the ground, people would buy tickets to see them, raft down the bottom, and probably write eco-anarchistic manifestos about the gaps. Our existing infrastructure of funding, capacity building, and environmental repair is insufficient to respond effectively to the reality of the challenges in a post-fire system. We need to create a system of response and recovery processes that adapts to the novel forms of disaster in a post-fire world.
Places with recent fire history are more susceptible to extreme flooding. “Cascading disasters,” as they are becoming known, build from one calamity to the next, from a fire to a flood to a flood that’s faster than the last flood, to a flood that has more large debris than the previous flood, to a flood that carries boulders that would fill up most of your living room. (If this sounds exhausting, talk to John Romero, Mora County’s only roads crew supervisor, who responded to a flooded-out road every day for 21 days straight, slowly moving a mountain of mud downstream in the northern NM version of some bizzaro-Sisyphean legend). These are slow, long, landscape scale, expensive, tragic, complex, wet, and muddy events, whose effects build inexorably on each other.
As a country, we are good at responding to one-time events, especially in populated areas with lots of capacity and money. But rural communities don’t always have lots of capacity or lots of money, especially when there are multiple disasters on top of each other – as is the case in many rural western US communities. There are too many road miles, not enough road fixers. Without added capacity, rural communities are treading water after a fire, at best. Recovery programs in New Mexico in 2022 brought in money, but not road fixers, and not the right kind of capacity. All the money doesn’t do you much good if you can’t find time to spend it. We needed boots on the ground, and we got overhead. We needed an accounts payable office, and we got a financial planning team. It all helped. It was all good. Everyone involved undoubtedly meant well, but we needed help better aligned with local needs and more precisely timed to bolster the rural capacity in a tangible way. Without change, the cascading disaster of post-fire will stretch our existing capacity in rural communities and possibly be the final straw for some.
Catalyzing actual change
So how do we create that change? In January of this year, three separate groups of people met to develop creative solutions to the post-fire challenges. These groups built on past-post-fire lessons learned, success, pilot projects, and policy efforts. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission organized an admirable push to create legislative suggestions, and an Interagency Working Group is corralling federal agency leadership to identify (and stretch) existing authorities to make implementing existing post-fire programs easier. We’ll hear more about the outcomes of those two groups later this year. I’m confident that the folks at the core of these groups will be successful, and I wholeheartedly trust they’ll try their hardest.
A third group organized by the state of New Mexico’s Forestry Division, with support from the Fire Networks, met in January in Albuquerque to discuss projects that could be implemented without any change to policy interpretations or acts of Congress. This group consisted of local, state, and federal officials, NGOs, businesses, academics, policy wonks, and more – a real example of the types of meetings brought together under the umbrella of the cohesive strategy. It just so happened to be focused on the southwest.
During the meeting, we discussed several pilot projects to improve the post-fire response and recovery efforts in burned areas, mainly rural areas. Our list included ways to maximize projects already funded and underway and ones that are more nascent, early in their development, and in need of care development before being pushed out into the world.
Early bright spots
Our small group committed to following up and the next steps, as one does at meetings like this. The difference was that when we came down from our workshop “high,” we realized that our ideas converged with the work of others. It was more than just that other areas had the same thoughts. Other folks had evolved similar ideas, responding to similar stressors. Our regional neighbors have developed a rich diversity of thought and solutions to serve rural communities.
For example, Washington State has developed a rapid-response burned area mapping program to identify the increased debris flow hazard following severe fires. This program doesn’t reinvent the wheel but instead finds and occupies the niche left between the gaps of the USGS landslide hazard mapping efforts and the process of satellite-derived burn severity maps. The program is specific to the conditions in Washington and builds on a long history of study and service provided by the state agency. Emergency managers, transportation departments, and land managers use the reports they generate to assess changed conditions and corresponding risks. Armed with that information, they can develop mitigation strategies.
This is only one example of innovative action taking place in fire-impacted communities across the country. So instead of waiting for the best ideas to spread naturally and for the “fittest” programs to win the evolutionary race, I propose we speed up the process by sharing lessons, successes, and failures across all the areas adapting to post-fire challenges. And to make this happen, I’m asking those engaged in post-fire work and struggles to join an informal community of practice supported by two existing and long-standing efforts, Fire Adapted Communities Network and Fire Learning Network (a.k.a. The Fire Networks, along with the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network and the TREX Coaches Network). Both FAC Net and FLN have supported post-fire work for a number of years. In the FLN’s case this was primarily via the Burned Area Learning Network which focused on post-fire impacts and recovery of landscapes; this body of work is now fully incorporated into the national FLN’s priorities rather than supported as a distinct effort. For FAC Net this work has been through funding awards to network members working on recovery, and sharing out lessons learned and resources through toolkits, learning groups, and member stories.
Our goal with this community of practice is to share knowledge and develop creative solutions together, learn from peers, and share successes and failures. We hope to unite the various streams of effort around post-fire to help those working in recovery find resources they need to move forward; to share creativity and implement pilot projects that can fill gaps in resource availability and policy that prevent communities from being made whole; and to give each other the skills and hope to try out new projects and programs that will make post-fire work easier. Details of how and when this group will meet are still being developed, but if you are interested in being a part of this community of practice, please email Tiernan Doyle, firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the update list. Let’s work together to develop a strong, resilient post-fire network by bringing our ideas, challenges, and smarts to a creative space to be more than the sum of our parts.
When Congress acts on the recommendations from the Wildfire Commission and the federal agencies agree on who does what, will we be ready to take the baton? Will we expect our policy partners to do the hard work of finding who’s doing this type of work? A post-fire community of practice would be the soft landing, the boots on the ground, for the changes when they come.
Together, we can maximize our impact, our resilience, and develop a post-fire network that works for everyone. I may not be working for Veronica anymore, but I’m still working with Veronica. Will you work with us?
Please reach out to Collin with any questions or interest regarding this post: email@example.com.