Residents encouraged to develop preventative steps to protect communities
WASHINGTON, D.C.–America’s wildfire environment has changed. Recent trends in climate, fuels, and demographics are contributing to the increased frequency of large and costly fires. To exacerbate this issue, more and more people are living in fire-prone areas. A 2005 federal study found that in the 1990s, 8.4 million homes–60 percent of the new houses built in the U.S.–were added to wildland urban interface (WUI) areas nationwide.
Although the risks may be high, communities are empowered to protect themselves. According to a 2007 survey by the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), approximately 3,300 at-risk (for fire) communities have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) in place, a 22% increase from the year before. Part of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, CWPPs help to reduce risk and damage and increase the ability to successfully suppress fires.
“Nevada was the first state to have CWPP’s completed for all of our communities at risk in the country,” said Pete Anderson, Nevada’s state forester and fire warden. “The CWPP’s have and continue to serve as the implementation road map for fuels reduction projects in the WUI areas across the state.
“While Nevada has done an excellent job through the CWPP process, utilization of the National Fire Plan and the WGA Ten Year Strategy, much is left to be done on the greater landscape of our national forests and public lands. Nevada continues to lose millions of acres to wildland fire impacting wildlife habitat, agricultural and ranching operations and outdoor recreation opportunities.”
By developing and receiving approval of a CWPP, communities can help to shape federal land fuel reduction project prioritization. The plans require collaboration among landowners and federal, state and local officials.
“The main purposes of a CWPP are for localities to take responsibility for their own wildfire protection by building their mitigation capacity and identifying priority fuel reduction projects,” said Jeff Jahnke, chair of the NASF Forest Fire Protection Committee. “These plans provide for a collaborative approach to community protection, which is critical to success. You have buy-in and a plan that fits the community, and the process itself helps landowners take responsibility for
their own protection from fire.”
The number of acres nationwide consumed by wildfire in 2007 is rapidly approaching recordsetting 2006 numbers. But those figures don’t paint the whole picture; it’s not just a matter of how many acres are burning, but where those acres are. The 600-acre Tin Cup fire in Montana was just a few hundred yards uphill from homes and just two miles from businesses and residents in downtown Darby–and they were ready. With a CWPP in place, the town of Darby has received Federal State Fire Assistance grants and has been implementing fuels reduction projects over the past four years.
“When and if a fire gets here, the town is prepared,” said Nan Christiansen, public affairs officer for the Bitterroot National Forest.
The rural community of Taylor, Fla. is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of federal, state and private wildland and has been affected by large wildfires in the past. With the assistance of state and federal agencies, the community developed a CWPP in September 2006 and prioritized tactics including fuel reduction steps such as prescribed burning and creating fire control lines; community education; and actions to improve wildland fire response.
“Residents learned how to protect their property from wildfires, and an 11-mile control line was constructed to serve as a fuel break and a strategic point to base firefighting operations from,” said Annaleasa Winter, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. The town’s efforts were put to the test when the Bugaboo Fire forced an evacuation on May 8.
Many fire officials believe that the measures taken under the CWPP helped to save the community.
“Because of the CWPP and backfires set along the control line, firefighters were able to guide the fire around the community and prevented the loss of any structures in Taylor,” Winter said.
As the number of communities at risk from wildfires rises, CWPPs become increasingly valuable tools to help in saving lives and property. NASF hopes these stories will inspire the development of many more CWPPs.
“We have made a lot of progress but there is still work to be done,” Jahnke noted.
Communities can work with their state forestry agency to develop a CWPP; for a listing of all state forestry agencies, visit http://www.stateforesters.org.
The National Association of State Foresters is comprised of the directors of state and territorial agencies and the District of Columbia. Through public-private partnership, NASF seeks to advance sustainable forestry, conservation and protection of forest lands and their associated resources.