Topic: Wildfire Type: Essay

It Takes all Three to Protect a Community

Authors: Nick Goulette

My home and neighborhood in Weaverville, California was spared destruction by the Oregon Fire on the afternoon of Sunday, August 24, 2014. Only a couple of hours after ignition, over 200 homes were under mandatory evacuation. The narrative about why only one structure was lost, and no one was seriously hurt in this fast-moving WUI fire could focus on any of several factors. Was it the timely and effective fire suppression response? Or maybe the prescribed burn executed last fall that slowed the flaming front? Or perhaps the years of preparation local leaders and residents have engaged in to make the community more fire adapted?  I’d argue for all-of-the-above. The real story is that only through the timely and effective implementation of all three National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy goals in combination, was the community spared far worse consequences.  And everyone–from local residents and community leaders, to federal and state agency land and fire managers–played their part.

For me, a story about positive wildfire outcomes always begins with fire adapted communities. The truth is that even outside the WUI, wildfires affect critical community values. The Trinity County Fire Safe Council has been meeting monthly, almost without fail, since 1999. Along with developing and regularly updating the county-wide CWPP, this group prioritizes fuels management projects, coordinates public engagement and education, and develops shared strategies for hazard mitigation across land ownerships, agencies, and institutions. The Trinity County Resource Conservation District (RCD) leads both the Fire Safe Council, and the innovative Weaverville Community Forest Stewardship Agreement with the USFS. Prior to the Oregon Fire, the USFS and RCD worked to implement a series of strategic fuel breaks –identified as priorities in the CWPP–that helped to slow the spread of the wildfire.

In Trinity County we don’t limit our vision of resilient landscapes to the backcountry. Resilient landscapes, the habitats that support wildlife from rivers to ridge-tops, run right through our backyards. Recognizing the potential for both community wildfire protection and enhanced landscape resilience, the USFS has been working to enhance and protect oak woodlands in the Weaver Basin through prescribed burning.  Working with an adjacent private landowner and the Weaverville Volunteer Fire Department, and with the help of the RCD in engaging the public to build support and understanding, they implemented the Five Cent Gulch prescribed burn in November of 2013. With significantly reduced ladder and surface fuels, the burn unit proved a pivotal feature on the landscape when the Oregon Fire pushed in on what would have been a rapid uphill run. This treatment created conditions that dropped the fire to the surface, slowed its forward advance, and began flanking to the north and south. That reduction in intense fire behavior helped fire managers get the upper hand.

Finally, the suppression response by fire managers was rapid and extensive, aggressive but calculated. Federal firefighters, CAL FIRE and local departments brought everything they had to bear on the fire. Sixteen engines, two water tenders, nine hand crews, three dozers, five helicopters and a staggering nine air tankers responded within hours of ignition. They had it pretty well wrapped up by morning with no major injuries. The investment in training, equipment and coordination paid off.

So it was the combination of factors: long-term investments in building a fire adapted community, collaborative management for landscape resilience, and safe and effective wildfire response that saved the community of Weaverville from the fate of so many communities at risk from wildfire across the country. The local paper reported that we, “dodged a wildfire bullet.” I’d suggest that it was far more than quick reflexes that yielded the favorable results. Rather, it was years of preparation, collaboration, training, community engagement and active land management that carried the day. Fire adapted communities work on all three Cohesive Strategy goals. The 2014 Oregon Fire will ensure that we don’t forget it.

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