The rise of wildfire-resilient communities

As fire seasons become longer and deadlier, communities turn to urban planning to combat dangers.

 

Oregon's Milli Fire burn area
Scorched trees and a highway sign along the McKenzie Pass - Santiam Pass Scenic Highway following the Milli Fire which burned over 24,000 acres in 2017.

Sparked by a lightning strike in August 2017, the Milli Fire burned for more than a month, sweeping over 24,000 acres near Sisters, Oregon. A nearby Forest Service road, along the margins of the burn area, was a stark example of the benefits of wildfire management practices. One side of the road was charred and ashen. But on the other side, the forest, which had been thinned through prescribed burning, was largely unscathed.

Yet, for Sisters, a rapidly growing town located near the Three Sisters Wilderness area, the blaze  within nine miles of city limits  served as a wake-up call. While land-use planning and wildfire management previously worked in silos, communities like Sisters are integrating the two and creating a comprehensive plan to combat the dangers wildfires present.

“You can throw firefighters at the problem as a defensive measure all day long, but the way to solve this problem is through land-use and building codes,” said Doug Green, fire safety manager with the Sister-Camp Sherman Fire District.

The 2017 fire season, at 665,000 acres burned, was the worst Oregon had seen, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. The next year, a community coalition of city council members, fire managers and city planners from Sisters enrolled in the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program (CPAW), a federal program designed to reduce wildfire risk through improved land use planning.

Through a coordinated team of land-use planners, foresters, economists and wildfire risk modelers, CPAW, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, integrates land-use planning with fire management to help communities draft a customized plan to reduce wildfire dangers.

Community fire adaptation has been one of the more popular approaches the Forest Service has funded and promoted in the past decade, according to Pam Leshack, the national program manager of the agency’s fire-adapted communities and wildland-urban interface programs. The federal government has moved away from solely educating communities about fire dangers and towards a holistic, localized approach, she said.

“Education is good for awareness. It’s not effective for motivating change,” Leshack said. “There is no one silver bullet.”

Prescribed burning
A prescribed fire to reduce crowded brushes that fuel wildfires at The Sycan Marsh Preserve in October 2017.

But this combination of land-use planning and forest management can be an effective tool for mitigating the wildfire damage to a community, according to John Bailey, professor of fire management at Oregon State University. Communities can be at the mercy of fires without local urban planning and forest management, with support from the state and federal level, Bailey said.  “We’re going to have to make changes,” he said. “You have to acknowledge that’s where you’re living and plan for it. Then we can adapt.”

In the past year, more than 20 communities across the country applied to be a part of the CPAW program. Four were accepted. For the counties and towns not chosen, CPAW tries to host educational forums and attended regional conferences. But the scale of these wildfires is still an issue.

To tackle wildfires on the federal level, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced a series of bills since May aimed at creating resilient communities and offsetting the economic damage that often accompanies these disasters. “These fires cause public health risks and economic damages,” Merkley said. “We have to take on this challenge.”

Back in Sisters, an example of what a wildfire-resilient community might look like continues to evolve. Last year, the community updated space and building code requirements and started to develop a map documenting the ‘hot spots’ where a wildfire is likely to spread. Ahead of the 2019 fire season, CPAW also recommended an inventory of wildfire risk to water supplies, public buildings and utilities.

“We’re in it together. When we get into these dry, windy conditions and embers are flying everywhere, you need to stand as one or fall,” Bailey said.

Liz Weber is an editorial intern working in Washington, D.C., for High Country News and a student at American University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.