Strength in Numbers
Pam Leschak of the U.S. Forest Service on how the new Fire Adapted Communities initiative can combat the growing threat of wildland fire
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012
The U.S. wildland fire problem is too big a task for one entity to handle on its own, and the current fire season is a good illustration why. By mid-June, about a million acres (404,686 hectares) had already burned in the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting; the 10-year annual average is about 1.5 million acres (607,028 hectares). That’s why NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division has established a series of partnerships with organizations to protect lives and property on a grand scale.
YOUTUBE VIDEO INTERVIEW
Fire Adapted Communities program manager Molly Mowery attended this year's NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. In this interview, we asked Molly to explain what the FAC (Fire Adapted Communities) program is, how it works, and how communities can get involved.
Furthering this strength-in-numbers approach, the USDA Forest Service (USFS), which already urges homeowners to safeguard their property from wildfires using principles from NFPA’s Firewise® Communities Program, entered into a new agreement with NFPA last year that aims to turn entire neighborhoods into areas able to resist wildfire hazards.
Launched in June at a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., the Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) initiative links USFS and NFPA with eight other agencies (see the list of partners in the “Wildfire Watch” column on page 46) to help the 70,000 communities situated in wildfire-prone areas around the country develop all-encompassing action plans for wildland fire mitigation. NFPA will oversee the initiative’s website, fireadapted.org, which complements a series of public service announcements by the Ad Council on ways communities can begin the process.
Following the congressional briefing, Pam Leschak, FAC program manager for the USFS, spoke with NFPA Journal about the collaboration, the impact of wildfires on wildland urban interface communities, and why, as Leschak puts it, “an ounce of mitigation is worth millions of dollars in cure.”
It seems the wildfire season is already off to an eventful start, including record-breaking fires in New Mexico. What’s happening out there?
We’re now looking at fire on the landscape year round. When a fire involves a community in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), certain issues—homes, infrastructure, cultural resources, evacuation, structural protection—add complexity to an already complicated situation. I don’t think people understand there’s something they can do in order to prepare. They can help themselves and their communities.
What USFS tactics have already prevented potential damage from wildfire?
The USDA Forest Service as well as our state, federal, and private sector partners have emphasized Firewise. It’s been a very successful program nationwide which concentrates on taking measures, creating defensible space around homes, being proactive. Fuel reduction projects, using mechanical means and prescribed burns, have also had an impact on reducing the risk of damage from wildfire. Smokey Bear’s wildfire prevention message has greatly reduced the number of human- caused fires nationally. Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) are critical in helping communities identify and address risk.
Speaking of public lands, there seems to be this perception that USFS protects only forests from fires and does not have much involvement with community protection.
Wildfires don’t recognize boundaries; the Forest Service is responsible for protecting the national forests and grasslands. Through various agreements, we also assist federal and state agencies with wildfires, including around communities. All the agencies involved in firefighting have to face the challenges of suppression in the WUI. We’re all trying to emphasize there are mitigation measures individuals and communities can take before a wildfire to reduce their risk later. That’s what FAC strives to do—provide the tools to help people prepare.
When was the term “fire adapted community” officially coined?
In 2005, the agencies working on the Quadrennial Fire and Fuels Report introduced the term. The 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review revisited the concept and pushed it further. The FAC initiative takes all the tools that reduce risk in the WUI and combines them under the FAC umbrella.
In a way, it’s not new; it’s using the proven tools and putting them in one place. We can create defensible space through the Firewise program; multiply its effects by promoting the Ready, Set, Go! program created by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), where fire departments educate the public about wildfire risk, prepare their properties, and make evacuation plans; and combine that with CWPPs, which get everyone involved in identifying risk, mitigation, and safety efforts. Combining all these tools for one large effort will get us much further in reducing risk. There is no one silver bullet.
Why is Firewise an important component of this endeavor?
It’s a very important tool in the toolbox. Firewise is the only national program that educates the local community on defensible space and what they can do to prepare for fire, and has created a reputation over the years of addressing those issues effectively.
How else is NFPA getting involved with this new initiative?
NFPA has taken a leadership role in the FAC effort. NFPA designed, developed, and will maintain the FAC website, fireadapted.org. They are also a key member of the FAC Coalition. Molly Mowery [program manager for FAC and International Outreach] works closely with the USFS and FAC Coalition members to help deliver the FAC message.
Before you had this consolidated message, were there difficulties informing homeowners and communities about all the tools that were available to them?
It’s always a challenge to get a consistent message to an audience the size of the U.S. There’s been a lot of success with the Firewise audience; the IAFC has its own audience, which is fire departments nationwide. But the Coalition’s combined audience reaches far more people. We’re all working toward the same result—which is communities that can withstand a wildfire with little or no damage — so it’s an exponential increase in efficiency and results.
What about those people who might feel that preparing an entire community against wildfires is a cumbersome or burdensome task?
Some people may feel that way, but if you look at the larger picture, do you want to spend some time, some community service, and a few dollars identifying your risk, or do you want your community significantly impacted with homes burned, maybe civilian or firefighter lives lost, and infrastructure damaged after a fire? The effort you put into mitigation and becoming fire-adapted is minimal compared to the impact on a community from a wildfire. A fire-adapted community simply has a better chance of surviving a wildfire with less damage.
In your opinion, why should mitigation be a localized effort?
Firefighters do all they can to protect life and property, but a fire truck can’t be in every driveway during a wildfire. Wildfires, like floods and hurricanes, are major national issues and everyone shares the responsibility to prepare for them. The individual responsibility component is key. People, homes, and communities that are prepared have a better chance of surviving a flood, a hurricane, or a wildfire. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of the burned neighborhood or rural community where the Firewise homes are the ones that survived. FAC takes it to the next step to prepare the whole community for wildfire.
Are there communities that are already adhering to FAC principles?
Communities around Bend, Oregon, and the communities of Fargo, Georgia, and Taylor County, Florida, have adapted to wildfire. These communities have been impacted by wildfire often enough that they recognized the need to do something about it. They are Firewise communities and have active and engaged fire departments. The citizens of those communities understand the risks, and they’ve done things to mitigate that risk. They’ve worked with local land managers like the Forest Service and state foresters, as well as timber companies, to conduct fuel reduction activities in and around their communities. FAC is a simple concept that works: talk to people, explain the risks, and take actions to reduce the risks.
What are your thoughts on how the various coalition partners have come together for this new initiative?
I’m quite impressed. There’s a lot of excitement, but it’s also been an emotional launch. These partners have been intimately involved in educating the public on the importance of preparation and mitigation, and have been working on a lot of different fronts on their individual programs. To combine those efforts and to see a partnership that combines and augments each other’s program is really gratifying to a lot of people. To see all this come together and see the impact this could have on reducing the wildfire risk in the WUI is pretty moving. We can all leverage each other’s advantages and augment our efforts in a much more collaborative, cohesive way. That’s a model that we should all follow.
— Interview conducted by NFPA Journal staff writer Fred Durso, Jr.