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Study: Regional approach to wildfire more comprehensive, equitable

Opportunities to learn, such as this Wildfire Preparedness Exposition event hosted by the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council, are integral to the Regional Wildfire Mitigation Program. Photo by Anne-Marie Parkinson

Pilot program in Santa Barbara County shows promise for bolstering resilience

After a rash of wildfires across Southern California in 2003, many counties, cities and neighborhoods adopted Community Wildfire Protection Plans to improve their preparedness and fire response. But Rob Hazard, fire marshal for Santa Barbara County, has noticed that CWPPs and resources are unevenly distributed across areas at high risk of wildfire.

“Communities that are more affluent, more white, they are the ones that end up getting the grants, they're the ones that end up getting the projects to mitigate risks,” Hazard said, “whereas more disadvantaged communities…often don't have the organization to make that happen, or maybe it's not the most pressing issue of the moment.”

Mapping those underserved communities – and ensuring they have a more equitable share of attention – are some of the goals of a new, more comprehensive approach to wildfire, currently being piloted in Santa Barbara County. This “Regional Wildfire Mitigation Program” aims to fill in many of the gaps left by CWPPs, which tend to have a more narrow focus on fuel reductions for a specific locality.

The creation of defensible space – a major reason why this home was spared from the worst of a wildfire – is just one component of a more comprehensive approach to wildfire mitigation. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara County Fire

“They certainly have their role and benefits, but CWPPs are pretty limited in scope,” said Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension's statewide wildfire specialist. “They're really focused on modeling and prioritizing fuel breaks, and they leave all of these other aspects of our fire problem – our vulnerabilities, our potential losses – unaddressed.”

Moritz is the lead author of a recently published research article that describes the Regional Wildfire Mitigation Program's three key areas (or “domains”) for wildfire mitigation work: the built environment (pinpointing and addressing needs in buildings/infrastructure), landscape (creating buffers through land use policies and management choices), and community (educating the public on home hardening and other issues).

“It's this holistic approach that combines all of these elements, and each one of those elements speak to each other – they can't be independent,” said Hazard, a study co-author.

Seeking a better way

After the Thomas Fire devastated the region in 2017-18 and triggered deadly mudslides in Montecito, Moritz – an adjunct professor at UC Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management – sought more encompassing risk mapping and mitigation solutions that could complement CWPP efforts.

He got together with Hazard, who began his career as a “hotshot crew” firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and has been with Santa Barbara County Fire Department for nearly 25 years.

“Both of us believe: Yes, it is home hardening – but it's also defensible space, but it's also some fuel treatments, but it's also some prescribed fire, but it's also some agricultural belt (to create a buffer),” said Hazard. “We looked at it objectively, and in every community in Santa Barbara County there's something that either works – or doesn't.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard performs a Wildfire Preparedness Evaluation for a homeowner. Photo by Anne-Marie Parkinson

By the end of the pilot program along the south coast of Santa Barbara County, the team hopes to have refined a “decision support system” that other communities across the state – and perhaps around the globe – could use. The framework would incorporate their localized risk assessment data and conditions to help generate lists of prioritized projects across the three “domains” of wildfire mitigation.

The ability to adapt to new data and continual changes in ecosystems, communities and climate is another advantage of the RWMP. Unlike a “plan” that tends to be a one-off with a defined start and end date, this wildfire mitigation “program” is designed to pivot and evolve as conditions change. The goal is to motivate and guide implementation of risk mitigation activities in each domain.

“The program is a living program, so it's not going to be some PDF that sits on a server somewhere,” Hazard said.

One of the early lessons from the RWMP pilot has been that – aside from funding – a crucial factor in maintaining the momentum of a wildfire mitigation program is the presence of a dedicated group of community members.

“In each community, we'll need a group that is ready to take this on and spearhead it and run with it,” Moritz said. “In many communities, that will probably be the Fire Safe Council.”

Building ‘Firewise' communities

Local Fire Safe Councils are “grassroots, community-led organizations that mobilize residents to protect their homes, communities and environments from catastrophic wildfire,” according to the California Fire Safe Council.

And while Moritz, Hazard and other experts serve on the volunteer Board of Directors for Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council, they soon realized that they needed to hire staff to perform the “community domain” work of educating and reaching out to residents.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council plays a leadership role in the "community" domain of the RWMP, serving as a source of information and resources at public events. Photo by Nic Elmquist

A $5 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the RWMP project helped build the capacity of the council, which hired its first staff member, Anne-Marie Parkinson, last fall.

“A lot of people underestimate how important it is to have community activists or leaders who take on the role and responsibility of organizing people, being the point of contact, rallying people to do activities or work days,” said Parkinson, a graduate of UCSB's Bren School and a co-author of the RWMP study.

Parkinson has been working to get communities recognized by Firewise USA, a program of the National Fire Protection Association to organize residents in bolstering wildfire preparedness and reducing risk.

Although she has been encouraged by the awareness and activism among the community members she has met, Parkinson also hears from residents about the need for more resilient power and communications networks – concerns that could be better addressed by consolidating those requests with a regional approach.

“As we work with more and more communities, you can start to map which communities want better telecommunications, and which communities would benefit from a fuel break around them, and then we could write a grant that benefits five communities, instead of one small grant for one community,” Parkinson said.

Moving forward

There are many communities in fire-prone environments that are in need of help, and climate change makes their situation increasingly urgent, Moritz said, and a new and comprehensive framework – the RWMP – now exists for assessing and mitigating multiple risks.

“Every community has its own unique fire hazards and its own unique spatial layout of neighborhoods and vulnerabilities inherent to those neighborhoods,” he said. “But despite the uniqueness of each community and each region, I'm hoping this will provide a somewhat systematic way to approach making progress and mitigating a whole suite of risks.”

Other authors of the article are Kelly Johnston, Molly Mowery and Katie Oran of the Community Wildfire Planning Center; Marc Mayes of Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Lab and UC Santa Barbara Earth Research Institute; Graham Wesolowski of Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Lab; and David Schmidt of Spatial Informatics Group. The article is published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ffgc.2022.848254/full.

People interested in learning more about the RWMP approach are encouraged to contact Graham Wesolowski at gwesolowski@sig-nal.org or Max Moritz at mmoritz@bren.ucsb.edu.

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2022 at 1:27 PM
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Innovation, Natural Resources

To prepare Californians for wildfire in oak woodlands, UC ANR offers teachers training

Students from the Say Yuba Environmental Science (YES) Charter Academy modeled wildfire in oak woodlands at a workshop held before the coronavirus pandemic.

California's most destructive wildfire year on record was 2018, with devastating fires occurring in Northern California oak woodlands. From 2015 to 2017, six of California's 20 most deadly and destructive fires in history occurred in these areas. The communities living in oak woodlands, which had been mostly spared from previous wildfires, were largely unprepared.

To prepare Californians to live with wildfire, Kate Wilkin, former UC Cooperative Extension forestry/fire science and natural resources advisor, and UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and Hopland Research and Extension Center community educators Alexandra Stefancich and Hannah Bird received a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education grant.

In addition to delivering community workshops, the educators will offer online training for teachers this summer. The curriculum will be introduced by webinar on Tuesday, July 14, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (PDT). Register online for this free webinar at https://bit.ly/firecurriculum.

“The goal of this project is to educate youth and adults about their natural ecosystems and how to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Stefancich said.

Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic constrained activities, challenges arose: the federal government shutdown delayed the grant; a wildfire burned approximately two-thirds of the Hopland REC; Wilkin moved on from UCCE and Rebecca Ozeran, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, took over leading the wildfire education project.

Teachers practiced delivering lessons from the FireWorks Oak Woodlands curriculum at a training held before the coronavirus pandemic.

Training kids, adults and communities

The team is educating children, adults and communities. Their three-pronged approach includes youth education for 500 middle school students and training for teachers; adult education through advanced training for California Naturalists; and community education by partnering with Fire Safe Councils in Butte, Mendocino and Yuba counties.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this grant has been the youth fire education component,” Bird said. “The grant has funded an adaptation of theUS Forest Service's FireWorks Curriculum – first modeled for Rocky Mountains forests – to the California oak woodland ecosystem. This hands-on, place-based science curriculum aims to provide students an in-depth understanding of fire science. In working on this curriculum, the team wants to highlight the importance of not only oak woodland fire science, but the cultural history associated with fire on these landscapes.”

The grant allowed the team to work with local representatives from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and the Nevada City Rancheria to develop lessons shaped by the cultural value of fire as a tool and the long relationship between people and fire in California.

While developing the lessons, the team realized the importance of trauma-informed educational practices.

“Just five years ago, we often talked about wildfire theoretically, but now every student I speak with has their own experience to share,” Bird said. “It is important to give time in the lessons for the trauma experienced by our youth, and to educate them and encourage a sense of agency. These lessons focus on the positive! We don't spend time on things that we cannot change. We learn crucial concepts of fire science and build on them to make our schools, families and communities more fire prepared.”

Feelings about fire

The team piloted the new curriculum with more than 150 middle school students in Redwood Valley and Ukiah, just before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Trialing the curriculum with students was really valuable,” Bird said. “These students have seen their communities affected by wildfire and it brings up many emotions for them.”

Students were asked to share their thoughts around fire at the beginning of the lessons and again at the end of the lesson series. Feelings of fear were replaced with feeling prepared and confident.

Before the lessons, students' comments about fire included, “Scary because I live in the mountains and my house is there, it could burn down.”

After the lessons, their comments included, “I felt positive about this, I feel that I know what to do, I think everyone should know how to prepare for fire.”

Pomolita Middle School students made an action plan for their school to help improve school fire preparedness. Students had hoped to present their plans to school administrators, but school closures due to the coronavirus crisis have delayed the presentation.

“Most of what we found at Pomolita school was really positive – the students do have a few suggestions that they hoped to share with the school administration,” Bird said. “Students also made an emergency contact plan and planned what they would like to have in a go bag for themselves and for their pets.”

Community educator Stefancich added, “This curriculum, aimed at middle school students, is ideal for any educator hoping to provide their students with more insight about the role fire plays in the ecosystem and how they can prepare for its eventuality. Each lesson is set up for the lay educator to be able to teach, so even without advanced fire knowledge it will be easy to use.”

The team continues to adapt the FireWorks curriculum for oak woodlands and expects it to be available at the FireWorks site https://www.frames.gov/fireworks/curriculum/overview by the fall. 

 

While the UCCE team was developing its fire workshop curriculum, the Mendocino Complex Fire burned two-thirds of the Hopland REC in 2018.
Posted on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 8:36 AM
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Family, Health, Natural Resources

Becoming a fire-adapted community

A fire-adapted community is a community that can survive a wildfire with little or no assistance from firefighters.
Between January 1 and March 15 of this year, 374 wildfires have burned 3,240 acres in California. According to CALFire, the five-year average for the same time period is 359 wildfires burning 1,124 acres. All of this during California's supposed wet winter months. As the East Coast bundles up and digs out from yet another storm, we in California have been shedding layers and applying sunscreen. Though we appreciate lower than normal seasonal disorder blues, we are facing a tough year ahead in terms of potential fire activity. The forest and shrub ecosystems are dry and with little relief in sight, many who live and recreate in the in these areas and their surrounding communities, are crossing their fingers that wildfire will not disrupt their lives this year.

The magnitude of wildfires especially affects those communities that are part of the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Many communities, whose back doors open out into conifer forests, shrub fields or grasslands, have been working towards becoming more resilient and proactive about wildfire. One way is to become a Fire-Adapted Community. A Fire-Adapted Community is a community that can survive a wildfire with little or no assistance from firefighters. The community acknowledges and takes responsibility for this by preparing for a fire at multiple levels including the use of appropriate building construction materials, and proper vegetation management. Members of the community are concerned with safety: safety of the individual, homes and businesses, community infrastructure, open spaces, riparian areas, any and all community assets. They address issues, plan, prepare and work with their local government agencies, fire services and citizenry to reduce their risk if a wildfire comes their way.

There are four elements to a Fire-Adapted Community:

  1. Community collaboration - Strong fire-adapted communities have a role for everyone. This means that all members of the community (government, schools, businesses, homeowners, renters, fire services, emergency responders, etc.) work together to raise awareness of fire risks and increase knowledge of fire ecology and mitigation actions. This is done through various outreach activities, partnerships and incentives. It also includes completing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) that will assess your community's risk and identify actions to take to lower those risks. It could also involve participating in the Ready Set Go! program which is a collaboration between residents and local fire departments to help people prepare (Ready), understand the threats (Set) and evacuate early (Go) in a fire event.

  2. Surrounding environment – Fire adapted communities look beyond their fences to see what risks exist and what actions can be taken in the surrounding landscape to reduce those risks. These actions can include fuels reduction projects, improving community ingress and egress and/or the protection and enhancement of riparian and wildlife habitat.

  3. Planning and regulatory considerations - Fire adapted communities work with their local and state government agencies to ensure that policies, standards and regulations support actions that reduce the risks of wildfire in the community. This may include building codes and standards that encourage the use of non-combustible materials in home construction; the creation of community protection zones that would create a safe environment in the case of resident evacuation; maintaining large turnaround areas for large pieces of equipment; and having a reliable and easily accessible water system.

  4. Neighborhood, landscapes and buildings - All members of a fire-adapted community work to ensure that their homes, businesses and community assets are prepared in the event of a wildfire. This means reducing flammable materials around homes and businesses; maintaining the immediate landscape and using appropriate, less combustible building and landscaping materials; creating fuel buffers around the community; ensuring that streets and homes are well signed; creating safety zones for residents and animals; having a communication plan – who to call and how to connect if a fire occurs; and designating evacuation routes.

All of these actions taken together, in a collaborative process, help build a strong fire adapted community that is better prepared to face and survive a wildfire.

       

In the Sierra Nevadas, Incline Village, Nev., is an example of a fire-adapted community. For the past 10 years, they have implemented fuels reduction projects based on their CWPP and involved homeowners and local businesses in planning and implementing mitigation actions. Recently, their goal was to engage a larger audience, build personal connections and recruit new volunteers. Their efforts led to a large gathering where participant input was an essential part of community building and the creation of next steps for the fire adapted community leadership. One participant said that it Gave me hope that a coordinated, cohesive strategy to prepare our community is seriously underway.”

“I really admire the many active citizens in communities throughout the Sierra Nevada working to reduce wildfire hazards in their neighborhoods," said Susie Kocher, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources forestry and natural resources advisor. "It really will take all of us working together to help our communities become adapted to wildfire.”

Becoming a fire adapted community also means joining a network of people and projects. The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network is a repository of information and encourages the development and sharing of ideas that can help your community build capacity, raise awareness and take actions towards wildfire resiliency.

For more information on becoming a fire adapted community, or other items mentioned in this blog, please visit:

 Images courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association.

Posted on Friday, April 10, 2015 at 4:26 PM

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