Building wildfire resilience in the West

Three participants in the September 2018 Cascadia TREX monitor fire behavior during the Roslyn Ridge burn in Washington. This 8-acre burn, implemented in cooperation with local fire departments, helped restore forest health and reduce fuels and future wildfire risk around the City of Roslyn while also providing prescribed fire training opportunities. Photo credit: Kara Karboski / Washington RC&D

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles in the embrace of yellow-brown chaparral hills that would burst briefly into verdant green after rare winter rains. My family home was, and still is, nestled in the southern foothills of my hometown. Twice during my childhood, a portion of those yellow-brown hills burst instead into a hot, glowing orange.

At the time, I did not understand that chaparral vegetation is well adapted to and readily regenerates after fire. It seemed like our entire community was struck by surprise, waiting on edge for updated evacuation orders, and shutting down schools when gray ash  blanketed the ground. These wildfires felt like an enigma outside of my control. I have since learned that my family home is in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone—an evaluation of wildfire risk required by California state law—in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)—an area where human made structures border or reside within wildfire-prone landscapes.

Now a Bay Area resident, I’m confronted with wildfires yet again. This year, communities are facing an unprecedented wildfire season in the midst of an unprecedented year, simultaneously devastating communities across the Western United States.

Although these fires are markedly more destructive today than during my childhood, they no longer feel entirely out of my control. While there is only so much we can do when an extreme wildfire is already sweeping through a community, there is plenty we can do to prepare. Equipped with an ever-increasing understanding of how to make lands and communities in the Western United States more wildfire-resilient, now is the time to invest in solutions that come to terms with the reality of living in a fire-adapted landscape. Now is the time to minimize the future threat of extreme wildfire events to lives, property, and ecosystem health.

Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif. on September 9, 2020, when smoke from wildfires in California and Oregon spread over the Bay Area darkening the skies to an orange hue. Photo Credit: Mary Flannelly

To contribute to these solutions, the Hewlett Foundation has launched a three-year grantmaking strategy aimed at creating a wildfire-resilient Western United States. The Western United States experiences significant wildfire risk compared to other regions of the country, and the foundation already has a robust network of conservation-focused grantee partners in this region through its Western Conservation strategy. Additionally, the Hewlett Foundation addresses climate change and its solutions through its Climate Initiative strategy. The Wildfire strategy connects to both these existing strategies. And while the Wildfire strategy encompasses the entire West, emphasis will be placed on four states—California, Washington, Montana, and Colorado—that offer new opportunities for policy solutions.

What’s behind these extreme wildfire events?

The 2020 wildfire season in the Western United States is reflective of the three primary drivers that have led to increasingly extreme wildfire events—unusually large, intense, and destructive fires—in recent years: a century of fire suppression and exclusion, development of homes and other infrastructure in high fire risk areas, and climate change.

A history of fire suppression policy, which attempted to eliminate fires from our landscapes, has led to dense vegetation growth in some forest types. This dense vegetation creates a high “fuel load,” or flammable vegetation, which leads to more intense fires when a landscape does burn. These fires can disrupt even fire-adapted ecosystems, contributing to rapidly changing forest biodiversity, and negatively impacting water quality and soil health.

Historic and ongoing development patterns have placed many homes in high fire risk areas, with little to no consideration of that danger. This means a significant number of residents in the West live in homes that have not been built to accommodate fire on the landscape, putting communities at risk of losing lives and property, and requiring the deployment of significant and costly firefighting resources during wildfire events.

Finally, as clearly demonstrated through this year’s wildfire season, climate change has exacerbated the weather patterns and conditions that lead to conditions ripe for wildfire. Climate change leads to higher temperatures that dry out vegetation, prolonged drought, and more lightning strikes. A recent study found that climate change has already doubled the risk of extreme wildfire conditions in California. Much of the West was predicted to have higher than normal wildfire risk this year due to drought conditions.

Where will the Hewlett Foundation focus its efforts?

Many wildfire professionals have understood for decades that we need changes to the way wildfire management is approached in the Western United States. But a century of fire suppression and exclusion is ingrained in our culture and institutions. The Hewlett Foundation will focus on four major opportunities to further shift the West’s approach to wildfires to one that proactively works to create wildfire-resilient lands and communities. (Climate change is notably missing from this list of opportunities, reflecting our goal to coordinate with existing climate change mitigation efforts supported by the foundation.)

  • Prescribed fire policy and management. Prescribed fire, also referred to as prescribed or controlled burning, involves intentionally lighting a fire in an area after careful planning and under controlled conditions to achieve specific natural resource management objectives, such as wildfire risk reduction, improved water quality, or improved wildlife habitat. Prescribed fire is currently underutilized as a management tool that can be safely used across private, state, and federal lands, including near developed areas, under the right conditions.
  • Tribal leadership. Tribes throughout the United States have used fire as a resource and cultural management tool since time immemorial. After European settlement, Indigenous communities were largely prohibited from continuing their fire management practice, yet many remain uniquely positioned to provide leadership on wildfire policymaking and practice.
  • Land use planning in the wildland-urban interface. Many communities in the Western United States were and continue to be developed with little to no regard for meaningfully reducing wildfire risk. Recognizing that fire is an inevitable and often necessary part of the landscape through the West, communities must become fire adapted. The alternative is continuing to lose life and property to extreme wildfire events. Land use planning includes a variety of tools local governments can use to better prepare its existing and future communities for wildfire risk.

An overview of community tools for land use planning from the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire. View the full infographic here:

  • Funding for wildfire resilience. The vast majority of wildfire-related spending currently goes toward wildfire suppression, and for good reason—we need to protect our communities. However, public and private institutions in the U.S. have chronically underfunded wildfire resilience, despite the fact that our failure to invest sufficiently in these activities has had significant economic and other immeasurable consequences.

To help build and sustain the field, we will work across these four areas of focus to strengthen grantee capacity and enable greater stakeholder coordination and collaboration in the four states. The “traditional” field of wildfire professionals and conservationists have made important progress in moving towards wildfire-resilient landscapes and communities, but more work needs to be done. As we experience more and more extreme wildfire events, the intersections between wildfires and many other fields—including climate change, public health, social justice, water, energy, labor, and housing—are becoming increasingly clear. We are therefore faced, in this moment, with both an incredible need and incredible opportunity to build stronger and more diverse coalitions to secure the forest and fire policy solutions we need for a more resilient future. This diversity must include Indigenous and other impacted communities of color.

Taking control of our future

Friends and colleagues often ask me what it’s like to be working on wildfires during this time. I fluctuate across a wide range of emotions—sorrow, fear, and despair, but also resolve and hope. I have hope because we know how we ended up in this world of increasingly catastrophic wildfire events, and we have enough knowledge to create much more wildfire-resilient communities and wildfire-resilient lands. I have hope because of the many wildfire experts, some of whom helped me develop Hewlett’s first wildfire strategy, that have already been making progress on changing the systems that have led to increasingly hazardous wildfire seasons. And I have hope that the 2020 wildfire season will change wildfire policy and management in the United States, just like the Great Fire of 1910 (also known as the Big Blowup or the Big Burn) did in setting the stage for the nation’s previous era of fire policy.

One of the most sensationalist headlines from this year’s wildfire news coverage exclaimed that Big Basin, California’s oldest state park and home to ancient redwoods, was “gone.” The sentiment was understandable—a fire had swept through the beloved park and engulfed the visitor’s center (where I stood to pay my entrance fee a couple weeks prior). But, fortunately, we learned days after that many of the fire-adapted trees had, in fact, survived. This example parallels the shift from the wildfire narrative we’re accustomed to telling ourselves—one that paints all wildfires as unexpected and destructive monsters to be eliminated at all costs—to what I hope is a new narrative. This narrative recognizes and embraces that many of us in the West live in fire adapted and fire dependent landscapes, and re-imagines our cultural and physical infrastructures accordingly. We can and must get ahead of the catastrophic wildfire seasons like the one we’re experiencing now.

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