Working with Communities to Reduce Wildfire Risk Through Planning
Authors: Molly Mowery
Many of us are likely to be familiar with the “fire adapted communities sunrise graphic.” This illustration was first provided by the USDA Forest Service to illustrate the many different tools, programs and actions that communities can use to help them become more fire adapted. My own illustration of the FAC sunrise graphic (see image left) has since expanded to include more topics (such as post-fire recovery, watershed management and research in the wildland-urban interface) based on practitioner feedback.
One “ray” on the graphic that has remained somewhat abstract, however, is the concept of codes, ordinances and plans. While in theory we understand the concept of utilizing and implementing plans and regulations to advance wildfire risk reduction and resilience, the actual practice has varied widely across the United States. This might be due to differences in political will, varying levels of technical expertise or staff capacity, perceived challenges of implementation, or other community planning priorities.
To help overcome some of these challenges, a new effort, “Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire” (CPAW) program, aims to boost community capacity and expertise to incorporate planning as part of the fire adapted community movement. CPAW is a partnership between Wildfire Planning International and Headwaters Economics, two organizations dedicated to working with communities to develop and implement local planning measures to reduce wildfire risk, and is funded through a cooperative agreement with the Forest Service and private foundations.
In 2014, Wildfire Planning International and Headwaters Economics launched the first CPAW community pilot in Summit County, Colorado. Over the course of one year, consultants worked with Summit County leadership and staff to identify opportunities to integrate wildfire risk reduction strategies into land use planning practices. Recommendations included inserting wildfire language into Comprehensive Plan elements to acknowledge the role of fire in the ecosystem and the different wildfire risks to community values, updating language in the Land Use Development Code to ensure a consistent approach to future development in high hazard areas, and connecting the Community Wildfire Protection Plan with the Future Land Use map to include wildfire risk as part of future growth discussions. County staff have already incorporated many of the recommendations.
Last month, three new communities were competitively selected to benefit from CPAW: Bend (Oregon), Austin (Texas) and Wenatchee (Washington). Through CPAW, each community will collaborate with a team of consultants, including land use planners, foresters and risk mapping experts, to develop better planning strategies to mitigate community impacts from wildfire. Already during the recent “Wildfires and Us” summit in Wenatchee, stakeholders had the opportunity to begin discussing ways in which CPAW can benefit their community’s resilience to wildfire through additional planning tools.
“Good land use planning is not about telling people where not to build. It’s about making safer, smarter community development decisions to avoid future wildfire disasters,” said Ray Rasker, Executive Director of Headwaters Economics. “Through more community examples, we can show others what successful land use planning for wildfire looks like in practice and promote fire adapted communities.”
As community planning and regulatory lessons and examples are gathered through CPAW, the program will share best practices with FAC practitioners to enhance our collective understanding of these tools. In addition, the FAC Network is currently working on a new quick guide series focused on wildfire planning and development to help practitioners navigate through this topic. Watch for this series in early December.