The rise of wildfire-resilient communities

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.”

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.