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
  • 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.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • 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...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.