Is Your Community Wildfire Ready?

Applying the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy at the Local Level

Josh Van Vlack

In western states, wildland fires have become part of the culture in and outside the fire service. Rarely a day goes by without wildfire-related headlines- countless acres burned, homes destroyed, infrastructure damaged, not to mention post-fire effects like impacts to drinking water, erosion, flooding, and reconstruction. But wildfires are not unique to the mountain west and arid southwest. The southeast and eastern regions of the United States have their share of wildfires also, totaling over a million acres annually. In 2016, the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires claimed the lives of 14 individuals and destroyed close to 2,500 homes. 

To address this threat throughout the nation, the Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Agriculture established the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) in 2010. WFLC was charged with developing a holistic strategy to approach wildland fires nationwide. These efforts resulted in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, released in 2014. The vision of WFLC in writing the strategy was “to safely and effectively extinguish a fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a Nation, live with wildland fire.” Three goals were developed within the strategy to work towards this vision: 

Restore and maintain landscapes: Landscapes across all jurisdictions are resilient to fire-related disturbances in accordance with management objectives. 

Fire-adapted communities: Human populations and infrastructure can withstand a wildfire without loss of life and property. 

Wildfire response: All jurisdictions participate in making and implementing safe, effective, efficient risk-based wildfire management decisions.

Now, before I continue, I’m sure every reader is asking how a 100-page federal report written by a bunch of bureaucrats over the course of four years applies to the fire service in general and local jurisdictions in particular? I would argue that many of the things we already do in the rural and suburban fire service work towards these three pillars and add a few more ideas to get your community wildfire ready.

Restore and Maintain Landscapes

Have you driven around your community and noticed high concentrations of fuel, or maybe areas of continuous fuel such as greenways, parks, or open spaces? How many of those areas are administered by your local parks department, public works, or other similar agency? Has your department considered working with them to both educate them on the risk and propose mitigation measures? 

In the south, where there is generally more social license to utilize prescribed fire, it may be possible to plan and execute seasonal fuel reduction burns in and around your community. This can achieve several objectives- prescribed fire offers exceptional training opportunities within individual departments and normal mutual-aid agencies but can also offer unique opportunities to train with other partners such as state wildland fire agencies, departments of natural resources, and even wildlife agencies. If there is potential for wildlife habitat enhancement, many NGOs such as Quail Forever, Rough Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, and the Nature Conservancy have prescribed fire programs. In an era when the fire is rarely portrayed as beneficial, prescribed burns also offer fire departments terrific opportunities to engage and educate the public about the benefits of fire as a tool, and showcase department apparatus, staff, and training. 

Prescribed fire carries its own challenges and complications for implementation; however, there are many resources available to help agencies along the way. Look for your state or regional Prescribed Fire Council as a start, along with your state natural resource agency, for assistance. 

Where the prescribed fire is not practical, fire agencies can work with their local parks or public works departments to explore other methods to mitigate fuel concentrations before the peak of the fire season. Mowing can be quite effective and may be used to create fire breaks in continuous fuels. In many communities, domestic goats are being used for grazing green spaces and other open spaces, particularly where terrain or fuel type prohibits cost-effective mowing. When high intensity, low duration grazing is utilized, goats will consume nearly all vegetation within their reach, including shrubs and small trees. 

Fire Adapted Communities

I imagine each and every one of you can name that one neighborhood, subdivision, or road that is your department’s nightmare wildfire scenario- long, narrow driveways; tight overgrown access roads without turnarounds; large areas with only one means of ingress or egress; high fuel loads and limited water supplies. Sound familiar? Have you spent time with those property owners or homeowner’s associations to explain your concerns? Are you engaged with your local planning and zoning authority to prevent new nightmares as your community grows?

The concept of fire-adapted communities recognizes that wildfires, to some extent, are inevitable; and that communities must evolve to coexist with fire as part of the ecosystem as a whole. This includes applying Firewise principles to individual properties as well as neighborhoods and subdivisions as a whole. At the most basic levels, these principles decrease the risk of homes igniting by creating defensible space around homes, which in turn increases firefighter safety and decreases the resources required to defend properties when wildfires occur. To learn more about the program, and the tools available to prepare homes for wildfire, visit Firewise.org. 

Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) are another way fire departments can aid in developing fire-adapted communities. As defined by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a CWPP “identifies and prioritizes areas for hazardous fuel reduction treatments and recommends the types and methods of treatment on Federal and non-Federal land that will protect one or more at-risk communities and essential infrastructure and recommends measures to reduce structural ignitability throughout the at-risk community.” Stakeholder input is incredibly valuable in developing and maintaining these plans, which are intended to be updated at a minimum of every ten years. Your local office of emergency management or natural resource agency should be able to provide you with a copy, as well as information on the revision schedule and how to become involved. In areas where these plans already exist, departments should be familiar with the high-risk areas, the recommended mitigation efforts, and the response implications identified in the CWPP.

The programs mentioned above are largely voluntary, and that’s where fire departments can have the greatest impact. By going out into the communities and meeting with landowners and homeowners’ associations to educate them on both the risks and the ways they can reduce those risks, fire agencies can do their part to create fire-adapted communities.

In some locations, covenants and building codes, and other regulations require mitigating measures when homes are constructed or sold. By being involved in the planning process, fire departments can provide key input that planning and development departments may overlook. Does your department attend community planning meetings? Do you provide written comments on proposed developments? Do you periodically visit areas of concern with local officials to share your concerns and highlight issues that may impact response? Are existing regulations, such as road clearing width, being maintained and adhered to? Most departments are used to doing routine inspections on commercial properties within their areas, and the wildland-urban interface areas can be treated in a similar manner.

While evacuations are frequently thought of as part of the response phase of an incident, how familiar are your communities and your organization with their evacuation process? How will community members be notified? How about visitors to the community? Does your 911 center utilize CodeRed or a similar emergency notification system? Do your department officers know how to activate it and what information they will need to provide? Answering all of these questions will better prepare your community in the event of a wildfire. The Ready, Set, Go! program is a great tool developed in part by IAFC to better communicate the stages of an evacuation to a community. The Ready phase is things the public can do well in advance, like creating defensible space, hardening the home’s exterior, having an evacuation plan and checklist, cache supplies, and rehearsing their plan. The Set phase is the pre-evacuation step and is often declared by incident managers during a fire event. The Set checklist identifies what to take and how to prepare your home inside and out just before you leave. Go! It is the evacuation order itself and should be accompanied by key evacuation information such as evacuation routes and shelter locations. By utilizing a standardized, easily understood, and well-communicated evacuation phasing and notification system, departments can further prepare communities for wildfire. 

Wildfire Response

The third and final tenant of the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy is an effective and efficient response to wildfire. This third area is where the US fire service already excels. On average, over 97% of wildfires are suppressed during the initial attack; however, those that escape initial response efforts are responsible for over 90% of the loss of life and property. What may be seen as small steps at the local level can greatly increase firefighting effectiveness. Interagency training, large-scale scenarios, county-wide exercises, and similar activities can build important relationships which pay dividends when smoke fills the air. Such activities also allow responders to work out any communications kinks which could prove disastrous when responding to wildfires. Building capacity to assist locally, regionally, and nationally in large, long-duration campaign fires further increases the effectiveness or response at a national scale, as does participating in incident management teams. 

Putting the Pieces Together

One common theme in all three tenants is communication- how we relay to our citizens the ways in which they can assist their local fire services in protecting their lives and property. Working jointly with our partners, we can leverage our social media platforms and our existing outreach efforts to spread the message about wildfire. There are many low and no-cost programs, materials, and communication tools available through NFPA and other organizations. Our presence, involvement, and efforts to restore and maintain landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and respond to wildfires effectively can and will leave a lasting impact on those we serve. Together, we can make our communities wildfire ready. 

JoshVanVlack2Josh Van Vlack is the Operations Division Chief for Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, WY. Josh holds a Masters Degree in Strategic Leadership with an emphasis in Emergency Management from Black Hills State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Forest Management from the University of Montana. Prior to his current position, he was Assistant State Forester for Wyoming State Forestry Division and volunteer Fire Chief at Laramie County Fire District 8.

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