Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Victims Share Insights from Recent Catastrophic Fires at Cohesive Strategy Learning Event

Top: Rick Stratton sharing value of the Quantitative Wildfire Risk Assessment. Bottom: Caerleon Safford sharing impacts and lessons learned from Sonoma County's 2017 fires and Jeff Johnson from the Western Association of Fire Chiefs calling the group to action.

Over 200 stakeholders from across five counties in Oregon came together on April 18th for a unique Cohesive Strategy learning experience - Can Central Oregon Become Another Paradise? The event kicked off with sobering accounts from four individuals who experienced the 2014/2015 Carlton and Okanagan Complexes in Washington, the 2017 Thomas, the 2017 Tubbs and the 2018 Camp Fires in California . The agenda included a "hard truth" look at what residents and fire professionals wished they knew before the fires that could have helped them better prepare for their individual fire experiences and post fire impacts. 

Followed by a large-scale, catastrophic fire simulation, elected officials and representatives from local, state, Tribal and federal fire and land management agencies, law enforcement, emergency management and the department of transportation saw first hand the chaos that ensues when confronted with a fire siege much like the Camp Fire in Paradise, California last year. 

Building on the examples earlier in the day and the simulation, participants worked through additional exercises to daylight lessons learned from the event as well as key messages that they feel the public should receive. The day ended with individuals from the audience sharing their "aha" moments from the event and their personal and agency commitments to changing behaviors to avoid these types of large-scale disasters and post fire impacts. Some of those included:

  • Increasing the focus on hazardous fuels reduction in the 50-100 feet around homes and structures (FireFree, Firewise).
  • An increased focus on evacuating early, not waiting for an agency to tell you when to go (Ready, Set, GO!)
  • Identifying vulnerable populations and planning for how to evacuate them early.
  • Ensuring all city and county officials on the same page regarding land use planning.
  • Participation in the new Oregon Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy organization.
  • Lobby congressional delegations and state government to take wildfire as seriously as hurricanes.
  • Increased protections for cell towers and other communications infrastructure including backups. 
  • Locating additional evacuation centers for large-scale evacuations.
  • Ensuring city and county codes address wildland fire hazards.

The Western Region of the Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy effort conducts these "Learning Labs" for all levels of stakeholders as a fresh approach to learning valuable lessons about working better together before smoke is in the air to address key issues in communities. To find out more about a hosting a Learning Lab in your area, contact our Coordinator Kate Lighthall

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface

Today, more than one-third of the U.S. population lives in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — those areas where development mixes with undeveloped wildlands. The attraction of country living and closeness to nature is accelerating growth in the WUI. However, when wildfires strike, the WUI’s mix of buildings with forests and grasslands sets the stage for disaster.
A key issue — and one that planners can influence — is where and how we build our homes. The land-use decisions that planners shape can help build communities that are safer and more resilient to wildfire.  
PAS Report 594, Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface, offers planners an in-depth introduction to the WUI and wildfire basics, covering challenges, trends, and historical context along with the latest wildfire science. It then moves to solutions, providing a holistic planning framework and practical guidance on how to address WUI and wildfire challenges in plans, policies, and regulations. And it highlights opportunities for collaboration with fire departments, federal and state agencies, and other key stakeholders. Case study examples show how communities across the country are already planning for the WUI.

Download the full report and the executive summary here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Building Resiliency Post Fire

How does your community recover from severe disaster and build resilience? James Gore, County Supervisor in Sonoma County, California is leading the charge towards building resilient counties following devastating wildfires. The 2017 fires left the Santa Rosa area war-torn and shattered but not defeated. As Supervisor Gore describes in this short video, the county "jumped into action" during and immediately after the fires by rethinking their disaster communications and assisting local communities in organizing to start the rebuilding and recovery process. Watch this short video to see how innovative ideas are being implemented to help this embattled community recover and build resiliency for their future. 

After Wildfire Guide from New Mexico

Screenshot of the online portal. 

As part of our new working group examining the issues around post fire impacts, we are uncovering a variety of methods by which states and communities are addressing these sometimes catastrophic incidents. 

In New Mexico, stakeholders have been facing severe post fire impacts and long-term recovery efforts for decades. New Mexico State Forestry, in partnership with a diverse group of stakeholders (listed below), developed and published the After Wildfire Guide to help communities recover after a wildfire. 

The guide provides information on how to mobilize communities; local, state and federal resources available to communities and individuals for assistance; and a technical guide with information about pre- and post-fire treatments to address the catastrophic effects of a wildfire on the lands and to prepare for potential flooding. The Guide continues to be updated as New Mexico encounters new information to assist communities.  

Take a look! This can be used as a model for other states and regions seeking solutions to help communities prepare for, respond to and recover from wildfires. 

Contributing partners to the development of the After Wildfire Guide include the US Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), New Mexico Association of Counties, New Mexico Forest and Watershed Health Coordinating Group, New Mexico State University, the Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

Three New Cohesive Strategy Working Groups

At our fall 2018 strategic planning meeting, members of the Western Regional Strategy Committee (WRSC) agreed to launch three work groups to address significant issues surfacing across the West. The WRSC is in a unique position as convener, facilitator and influencer that can assist in connecting stakeholders, delivering information, pushing messages and elevating issues to the appropriate levels.  These new groups will not take away from our regular attention to all things Cohesive Strategy; they will allow for a deeper dive and specific action by stakeholders around each set of diverse issues. 

Post Fire Impacts Working Group
As a result of the many conversations occurring around the West regarding post fire impacts and recovery, this group will examine the issues and challenges experienced by stakeholders and determine the appropriate engagement points for the Regional Strategy Committee to facilitate positive moment towards better impact and recovery outcomes. The group is currently surveying the wide array of issues, impacts and preparedness solutions in play across the West and will be in attendance at the After the Flames Conference in early April. At a minimum the group will gather and develop a repository of information from those who are currently investing in preparedness and recovery solutions, and share information with partners and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). If you are interested in participating in this working group or including a member of your staff, please contact Kate Lighthall.  

Improving Wildfire Response Working Group
Our charge as a Regional Strategy Committee is to facilitate implementation of the Cohesive Strategy. It's been a fairly easy lift to act as a convener/influencer around the goals of Fire Adapted Communities and Resilient Landscapes. We have only some engagement however around the strategic goal of a Safe and Effective, Risk-Based Wildfire Response. While the nation's wildfire response system is ranked at the top in the world, there are still areas that can benefit from the principles and management options outlined in the Cohesive Strategy. Wildfires continue to kill firefighters each year, threaten communities and landscapes. There are multiple opportunities for risk-based approaches. This group is looking closely at the stressors that are currently inhibiting a safe and effective, risk-based wildfire response. We know we have to strategize "outside the box" because "business as usual" is leading to significant issues. We've identified a number of issues so far and will be having rich, candid dialogue at the work group level. We are looking forward to trying out some of the solutions and recommendations within our region and elevating specific issues and recommendations to WFLC agencies that can help improve the current response scenarios. Please contact Kate Lighthall if you or your staff have an interest in working with this group.

Increasing the Use of Prescribed Fire Working Group
Just the mention of creating this group stirred lots of interest.  While prescribed fire is only one of the valuable tools in the resilient landscape toolbox, there is a belief across the region is that it is not used enough or at a scale that can improve resiliency for communities and landscapes. While there are many reasons for this, we believe there are opportunities for learning and engagement among practitioners, communities, air quality professionals, the EPA, and others that can lead to greater understanding and actions towards an increased use of prescribed fire where it is appropriate. As with the other two working groups, this group will collect, store and share information about what's working and what's not at national, regional, state and local levels, communicate appropriate messages and make recommendations for improvements. Please contact Kate Lighthall if you or your staff have an interest in working with this group.  

Stay tuned for progress reports!  


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Western Governors and U.S. Department of Agriculture sign MOU for Collaborative Land Management

Hawai'i Governor David Ige and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue sign the MOU. Photo: WGA

On December 12, 2018, the Western Governors' Association (WGA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to "establish a framework to allow the Forest Service and WGA to work collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals, further common interests, and effectively respond to the increasing suite of challenges facing western landscapes." This MOU was signed at the WGA 2018 Winter Meeting following Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's keynote. The MOU was signed by Secretary Perdue, WGA Chair and Governor of Hawaiʻi David Ige, and WGA Vice Chair and Governor of North Dakota Doug Burgum.

“This is an important step in cooperatively addressing land management challenges,” said Governor Ige. “We recognize that no one agency or level of government has the capacity to deal with all of these risks alone. This MOU puts us on a path to working closely on these serious matters.”

“Governors possess primary decision-making authority for management of state resources, including many resources on federal lands. Being a ‘good neighbor’ is an essential component in USDA’s work, which is why this MOU is so important,” said Secretary Perdue. “USDA’s Forest Service will work shoulder-to-shoulder with WGA to co-manage risks and identify land management priorities. As authentic collaborators, the states and federal government will improve service to the public by creating more efficient, effective, and long-lasting policy.”

Read the full agreement here.

2018 Farm Bill, Executive Order 13855 and DOI Secretarial Order 3372 and their Impact on Implementing the Cohesive Strategy

Fuel breaks work on the Badger Creek Fire in Wyoming. Photo: USFS

*updated January 31st to include corrections and the DOI Secretarial Order in response to the Executive Order. 

Just prior to the partial government shutdown, Congress approved and the President signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, aka the Farm Bill. In December the President also signed Executive Order 13855 - 
Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk. In addition, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior released Secretarial Order 3372 - Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management. 

Together, these pieces of legislation and policy will influence the implementation of the Cohesive Strategy across the nation. The following is an overview and non-exhaustive summary of these documents that affect implementation of the Cohesive Strategy.

2018 Farm Bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018

  • Allows for competitive grants for collaborative, landscape-scale, restoration of priority landscapes on state lands through the State and Private Forestry Landscape Restoration Fund.  
  • Amends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) to include cross-boundary hazardous fuels reduction projects (both USFS and BLM). Up to $20,000,000 per year can be appropriated for this, through 2023. 
  • Hazardous fuels appropriations reduced from $760 million to $660 million through 2023 (both USFS and BLM). If agencies get to keep their full appropriations and avoid fire borrowing, this might be satisfactory.   
  • Establishes the Water Source Protection Program for restoration and protection projects. Speaks directly to the Cohesive Strategy guidance for landscape scale work, across boundaries, where fire touches other resources. 
  • Amends HFRA to allow for the application of “extraordinary circumstances” when using a Categorical Exclusion (USFS only). 
  • Directs the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a categorical exclusion for vegetation management activities that protect, restore or improve habitat for greater sage-grouse or mule deer. 
  • Amends the Good Neighbor Authority to include Tribes and Counties – this give additional stakeholders an opportunity to treat forested and rangeland landscapes around communities.
  • Reauthorizes CFLRP at $80 million through 2023. 
  • Addresses timber innovation including research and development of the use of “mass timber” – a promising idea in the field of biomass utilization. 

Executive Order 13855 - Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk

The E.O. directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to:

  • Implement policies to improve forest and rangeland management practices by reducing hazardous fuel loads, mitigating fire risk and ensuring the safety and stability of local communities through active management on forests and rangelands.  
  • Prioritize fuel reduction treatments as part of forest and rangeland management activities.
  • Pursue benefits to rural economies by encouraging productive uses of forest by-products.
  • Collaborate with state, tribal, and counties to create a comprehensive wildfire strategy that prioritizes the highest-risk lands, considers regulatory and economic challenges related to managing DOI and U.S. Forest Service lands and encourages local economic growth through timber and biomass sales.
  • Establish specific forest and rangeland management objectives. DOI shall establish a goal of treating 750,000 acres for fuels reduction and 500,000 acres to protect water quality and mitigate erosion and flooding risks resulting from forest fires. USDA shall establish a goal of treating 3.5 million acres of USFS land for fuels reduction and 2.2 million acres to address water quality and post-fire erosion and flooding. DOI and USDA are also instructed to offer up for sale 600 million board feet and 3.8 billion board feet of timber.  
In order to accomplish these objectives, USDA and DOI are instructed to coordinate with other federal agencies and streamline relevant administrative and regulatory processes. This may be done by minimizing the time period for regulatory comments, consultation and administrative review, using all applicable categorical exclusions and developing new categorical exclusions. It's important to note that no funding allocations have been made to address the activities in this Executive Order so accomplishment can be affected positively or negatively depending on appropriations. There are many directions in the Executive Order however that speak to alignment with the Cohesive Strategy in terms of cross-boundary collaboration and reducing fuels on landscapes for healthier, resilient forests and rangelands, and communities.

Secretarial Order 3372 - Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management
In response to the Executive Order, SO 3372 is intended to enhance the Department of the Interior's management of federal lands to: 1) better protect people, communities, wildlife, habitat and watersheds by actively managing lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire; and 2) promote the sustainable recovery of damaged lands. Referencing the Executive Order, the Secretary of the Interior directs the following actions:

  • Include fire management best practices in all land management plans.
    • The plans shall incorporate the principles of active management to facilitate the wildfire prevention, suppression and recovery planning to protect people, communities, landscapes and water quality; and mitigate severe flooding and erosion caused by wildfire. 
    • Bureaus and offices shall collaborate with USDA to identify federal lands with highest catastrophic wildfire risks. 
  • Coordinate and collaborate with land-managing partners and stakeholders. 
    • Identify salvage and log recovery options from lands damaged in the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons, insects or disease.
    • Develop performance metrics that better capture the risk reduction benefits of the fire management tools enumerated in the E.O. 
    • Implement a cooperative strategy to utilize unmanned aerial systems to prevent, suppress and rehabilitate landscapes impacted by wildfire.
    • Identify and catalog all NEPA categorical exclusions that address wildfire management to maximize their use and develop new categorical exclusions. 
    • Consult with USDA and U.S. Department of Commerce to identify and deploy additional resources that streamline Endangered Species Act compliance timelines for wildfire management activities.
    • Consult with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify and remove fuels management barriers implemented under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
    • Conduct an examination and report on the costs and challenges of managing wildfire risks through land management activities.
    • Inventory local units where the Good Neighbor Authority could help reduce wildfire risks. Use the inventory to develop and start implementing a plan to coordinate with federal agencies, states, tribes, localities and other stakeholders to support infrastructure necessary to maintain healthy forestland, rangeland and watersheds.
    • Inventory and assess roads that may be beneficial to wildfire, fuels and vegetation management. Develop strategy to maintain roads for these activities.
  • Utilize active land, vegetation and wildfire management techniques that are supported by best practices and best available science (see SO for list). 
  • Maximize the wildfire management benefits of physical features within landscapes.
  • Seek and implement expert guidance.
    • Assemble a Department team of planning specialists to lead planning efforts and resource deployment across the Department.
    • Establish a FACA board to report of the Secretary on the Executive Order and this Order. The Board should include federal, state, Tribal and local stakeholders.

Click on each title above to view full text of the Bill, the E.O. and the Secretarial Order.