Photo Credit: FAC efforts look different in different places. This blog unpacks how the rural setting of Leavenworth, Washington and the urban setting of Austin, Texas lead to some very different, yet sometimes similar, approaches to FAC. Maps not drawn to scale.
Communities learning to live more safely with wildfire come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of whether they are rural or urban, FAC-focused communities have a great deal in common. However, there are also some setting-specific challenges (and opportunities) associated with being an either rural or urban FAC effort. In order to explore the nuances related to various FAC settings, Justice Jones of the Austin Fire Department and Annie Schmidt of the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (formerly with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition) provide their perspectives on their respective backdrops during an interview with FAC Net.
Tell us about your community and its location.
The Chumstick watershed (approximately 50,000 acres) is located just north of Leavenworth, Washington. The population of Leavenworth is around 2,000, though another 2,000 live in the extended area. The geographic area is mountainous (it is beautiful here!) with numerous one-way-in, one-way-out canyons feeding the more populated valleys. Complicating things is the extreme influx of seasonal tourists; we see an estimated 2 million visitors a year. The setting is generally rural, with a high-resource, high-amenity area in the town of Leavenworth itself. As you move out from the town, the setting becomes decidedly more rural.
Austin is the fourth-largest city in Texas and the 11th most populous city in the United States, with a population just under 1 million. From 2011 to 2014, our population grew 10 percent! And over 120 new residents move to Austin each day. Statewide, the fire environment has changed in the last 10– 15 years due to the impacts of drought, changes in land use and an increase in human-caused ignitions close to communities.
What is your organization trying to achieve?
The Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC) is working to build a community, culture and landscape adapted to wildfire. Over the past year, it has focused extensively on prescribed fire while simultaneously working to enhance community preparedness and recovery capacity. From a long-term perspective, the CWSC is striving to create a culture of adaptation throughout the Leavenworth, Washington area, where wildfire best practices are as common and as familiar as buckling up a seatbelt or changing the batteries in a smoke alarm.
Austin Fire Department’s vision is a resilient and empowered community that no longer lives in fear of wildland fire. Our belief is that a community made up of fire adapted individual humans is both the foundation of fire adaptation and our best hope for ending wildland fire-related losses.
Our short-term goals relate to our long-term goals, which include implementing our newly created county-wide Community Wildfire Protection Plan, connecting formerly isolated Firewise communities, developing wildfire risk regulations and codes and facilitating inter-jurisdictional fire management planning. We want FAC to be embedded in our local planning processes to ensure the sustainability of our efforts.
In what ways does setting lead to different fire adaptation outcomes?
The setting helps determine what strategies and tactics work best. Two communities of different sizes can be looking for the same outcome (e.g., less damage from wildfire), but the methods they use to get there must differ based on their settings. For example, direct mail has been very effective in our area, but with only 600 homes in the Chumstick watershed, it is an affordable and reasonable option. We would be talking about very different budget numbers if we were trying to send a mailer to every home in Seattle! I also tend to believe that what is achievable differs based on setting. For example, communities with populations of less than 500 can much more easily have close to 100 percent participation during their Firewise days than a community with 10,000 residents can.
The desired outcomes for FAC efforts are consistent across settings. How FAC principles are embodied is where the complexity lies. The ability to manage vegetation, regulate development and build fire protection capacity varies from community to community. That’s where proven strategies and best practices become the foundation for dealing with the variables. One example of this is our cross-boundary fuels treatment project conducted in partnership with Travis County. Through the recognition of a shared wildland-urban interface, and thus a shared responsibility to mitigate risk, we have implemented a project that otherwise would have been unfeasible.
Tell us about a success that may not have been possible in another setting.
The CWSC is at its heart a grassroots effort. The ability of neighbors to work together or to advocate for action in this setting is tremendous. The work of fire adaptation can still be personal. One of our early successes was the collaborative design and implementation of a cost-share program. The program gave extra priority to neighborhoods where multiple landowners were participating. Our setting made it possible to try things while simultaneously not swamping the boat with too many participants. The ability to try things, to test new ideas and to push the envelope is possible in all settings, but it seems to work really well with our rural, small population. In a setting like ours, you get a good, representative sample, can work with a small budget and can be responsive to changes and challenges.
In 2016, we partnered with the Austin Energy Green Building Program to incorporate best practices for wildfire safety into its rating system. This will result in all future affordable housing in Austin complying with best practices as a prerequisite for certification. It also helps builders and developers see and understand the value of fire safety as a marketing strategy.
What are some of the setting-related challenges you face?
One of the more entertaining challenges in such a technologically driven world is the utter lack of cell service in the canyons surrounding town. Some of the tools that can be effective in larger and flatter communities (such as social media) can be a challenge here. We also have an extremely high percentage of absentee home/landowners (approximately 50 percent), so finding ways to reach that group effectively has always been a challenge.
Those same narrow canyons that limit mobile coverage can also impede smoke dispersal, so approval for large-scale prescribed burns can also be challenging.
Setting-related challenges include:
- There is a lack of academic research related to Austin’s fire environment and mitigation best practices;
- Ninety-seven percent of the land in Texas is under private ownership, resulting in minimal federal funding for wildfire mitigation;
- We have relatively new wildland-urban interface (WUI) environments;
- There is a lack of historical fire occurrences to use as a point of reference;
- Our fuels mitigation best practices have yet to be tested by fire.
What strategies have you used to approach those challenges and would they be applicable in a different setting?
With respect to social media, we approach that pragmatically. It is one tool, but not the only tool, we use to reach our community. I think in areas with more consistent coverage, or where the population was large enough that even partial coverage reached a significant percentage of the community, the tools used for outreach could rely more heavily on mobile devices.
Our best strategy revolves around having a plan that the public and cooperators can support and is based on and consistent with the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Fostering partnerships with agencies that assist private landowners has been key. We work to implement this strategy at all scales, with the understanding that everyone has a role in FAC. We focus much of our energy on helping others understand and acknowledge their role. Another strategy is to solidify those roles through cooperative agreements.
Editor’s note: This concludes part one of this two-part blog series “Urban vs. Rural: When it Comes to FAC, What’s the Difference?” Read part two here.
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