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Essays in Collaborative Wildfire Planning

  • Author(s): Smith, Rachel Carolyn
  • Advisor(s): Gilless, J. Keith
  • et al.
Abstract

The last three decades have witnessed an exponential increase in wildfire-related costs and losses in the United States, in part the result of rapid population migration from urban centers into relatively-undeveloped rural areas. By 2005, one in three American households was residing in volatile areas where human development is co-mingled with unaltered wildland vegetation, the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). That proportion is expected only to rise in the coming decade.

Mixing people and unaltered wildland vegetation has proved a deadly combination: each year, wildfires take lives. During these fires, scores of injuries occur, and hundreds of structures burn as millions of acres of sometimes ecologically-sensitive land is scorched. Federal agencies now spend more than one billion dollars on fire suppression activities each year, fielding thousands of wildland firefighters, aircraft, and equipment to protect communities at risk. As development of the WUI continues, it is critical that the nation work towards creating fire-adapted communities in which people and values are prepared to tolerate inevitable wildfire events with minimal loss of life and property. The importance of this goal was affirmed in the 2011 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Doing so will necessarily mean involving communities and stakeholders in planning efforts and mitigation activities to reduce fire risk and prepare communities to withstand wildfires.

This dissertation examines the issue of community involvement in fire risk abatement in order to identify the most effective tools to facilitate long-term engagement of the people who live and work in fire-prone areas. It presents several case studies in community fire risk abatement that focus on leveraging community involvement to achieve resource management goals and create fire-adapted communities.

In Chapter 1, I outline recent changes in wildland fire policy pertinent to managers of parks and protected areas. Grasping the rapidly evolving nature of wildland fire policy, particularly federal policy, is fundamental to understanding current challenges, successes, and opportunities in community fire planning. The rapidly developing formation of the wildland-urban interface has left many parks and protected areas virtual islands of wilderness, surrounded by increasingly dense development. This situation has created new challenges for park managers, who must now contend with uncharacteristic fires originating outside park boundaries that threaten park resources. Managers also face potential liability from fires within their parks that escape park boundaries and threaten communities. By enlisting new neighbors in these communities as stakeholders or even partners in fire risk abatement, however, park managers may be able to leverage increasingly limited program funding to achieve resource management goals.

In Chapter 2, I deal with the challenges of implementing broad community fire planning mandates through a resource management agency with a decentralized organizational structure. Focusing on the state agency primarily responsible for fire management in California, I examine the difficulties experienced in the implementation of a community fire planning program. These programs were envisaged in the California Fire Plan and mandated by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Governor-appointed group responsible for setting forestry and fire policy in the state. The program received full funding from the California legislature, and a decade has passed since its creation. This program required all of the organizational divisions of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) create local fire plans, written by Pre-Fire Engineers. I find that, although efforts are in the works to revitalize the program, the local plans are challenged by a lack of currency as well as an erosion of stakeholder involvement in the plan development and implementation processes. These shortcomings reflect a common challenge experienced by decentralized natural resource agencies: an absence of clear frameworks for local implementation of policy mandates. The incongruity between the priorities of state policymakers and local leadership, as well as a lack of performance-based rewards or penalties tied to mandate implementation and a lack of a clear cost-sharing structure, has resulted in inconsistently implemented policy. I describe the institutional barriers that have barred effective policy implementation in the past, and identify changes that might result in greater policy actualization. Because most state and federal resource management agencies working on fire issues operate under similarly decentralized frameworks, my findings have as much relevance outside as within California for future attempts to implement state and national policy aimed at local community fire planning.

In Chapter 3, I present results from paired surveys of stakeholders and agency facilitators involved in the development of local fire plans in California. Locally developed fire plans are designed to be instrumental in the creation of fire-adapted communities, communities resilient to disaster. Since 2003, federal fire policy has encouraged the development of Community Wildfire Prevention Plans (CWPP), and communities have been offered incentives to create the planning documents, such as eligibility to apply for federal hazard abatement funding, define the perimeter of their local wildland-urban interface (WUI), and provide input on the location and prioritization of fuel hazard abatement treatment on nearby federal lands. Though 70,000 WUI communities were identified by state and federal processes as at risk of wildland fire, just 6,000 have created CWPPs in the seven years since the program was created. In order to succeed in creating fire-adapted communities and reduce out-of-control wildfire-related costs and losses, we must better understand better what factors drive long-term stakeholder involvement in local fire plans. Understanding parallels and divisions in stakeholder and facilitator perceptions of community engagement and planning is crucial to this process. A statewide network of 27 Fire Management Plans (FMP) have been in continuous development by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for more than a decade. I surveyed 810 stakeholders and 42 CAL FIRE Pre Fire Engineers involved in the FMP in two separate efforts to better understand multiple perceptions surrounding engagement and the planning process. Reports on fire planning efforts have typically focused either on the participants or the planners; rarely are results from both perspectives available. I found striking disparities between perceptions of stakeholder engagement by agency facilitators and agency-identified stakeholders. Encouragingly, problematic stakeholder engagement did not seem to dampen their willingness to engage in future planning efforts.

In my fourth essay, I evaluate a group local Fire Management Plans (FMP) to determine their quality as planning documents. High-quality plans are more likely to be implemented, functional over the long-term, utilized by targeted stakeholders, and effective at achieving their goals. In constant development by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for more than a decade, CAL FIRE's FMPs are plans aimed at efficiently reducing fire risk to communities through the creation of regional documents that list locally identified values and hazards and propose means of abating fire risk. Though locally-developed fire plans are increasingly wide-spread, with today as many as 10,000 in existence around the United States, only rarely are they evaluated as planning documents. Through a technique called Plan Quality Evaluation and heavily informed by prior hazard planning evaluations conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), I evaluated a network of 27 FMPs in California. Despite the fact that the planners were hired and supported by CAL FIRE, the FMPs were inconsistent in size and scope as well as overall plan quality. My findings demonstrated some of the clear challenges for developers of local fire plans.

In the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation, I examine how long-term collaboration between agencies, fire safe councils, and other stakeholders can significantly reduce the impact of a potentially catastrophic wildfire. This essay analyzes a recent significant human-caused wildfire event in California that burned in an area where extensive long-term interagency partnership with a local fire safe council had resulted in a network of shaded fuel breaks. Driven by extreme weather conditions, the wildfire had escaped ground and aerial suppression efforts and threatened multiple communities in central California's Kern County. Within three hours of its ignition, the Bull Fire was threatening homes. Firefighters, aided by the extensive network of fuel breaks around Kernville were able to stop the fire with minimal losses. I chronicle the eleven-year history of the Kern River Valley Fire Safe Council and the exceptional relationships forged with federal, state, and local agencies. This decade-long partnership gave rise to multiple opportunities for collaboration in fuel hazard risk abatement projects on public and private land. This study is a substantial demonstration of the value of devoting resources to collaborative planning and risk abatement activities, particularly in nurturing the success of community fire organizations in crafting and implementing CWPPs.

In summary, my results suggest that, though the importance of community outreach and collaboration is widely accepted in the fire community, in practice it is still in its infancy - and experiencing growing pains. A structure for educating collaborative planners and facilitators is only now emerging. Uncertainty still exists as to the best way to educate or train collaborative planners and facilitators. Particularly in agencies responsible for fire suppression, facilitators and planners are most likely to enter their positions with significant fire management expertise but only limited experience with facilitating meetings, developing plans, or collaborating with stakeholder groups. As more and more people move into fire-prone WUI areas, the importance of the collaborative planner and facilitator can only grow. Professionalizing this role and the continuing maturation of the education process is likely to increase the efficacy of future planning efforts and enhance the creation of fire-adapted communities.

As wildfire-related costs and losses continue to grow, finding ways to engage stakeholders who live and work in WUI areas is of increasingly important. The "Whole Community" initiative created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency recognizes the importance of the involvement of all levels of society in disaster preparedness. This new initiative segues well with the 2011 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy), that recognizes that in order to develop a truly representative plan, all stakeholders must have a voice and input into completed plans. The Cohesive Strategy goes on to encourage the development of new relationships between agencies and stakeholder groups in order to collaboratively generate solutions that would have been unattainable individually. Two of the vital components in creating resilient communities adapted to the occurrence of wildfire are: stakeholder involvement in the development of local fire management plans and collaborative implementation of risk management projects. My research investigates collaborative planning and identifies barriers and drivers of local collaborative fire planning efforts. I hope that the research outlined in this dissertation assists in the development and implementation of future planning efforts, moving communities towards the goal of creating fire-wise communities

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