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Wildfires need regional approach: recent studies for the departments of agriculture and the interior provide multijurisdictional case illustrations in Colorado and oregon. (Regional Governance).

When the Hayman wildfire roared across Colorado forests toward Denver early this summer to become the largest wildfire in the state's history, it burned properties in four counties, a national forest, and the Denver Water Board's main watershed. It also affected the whole region's air quality as it raced 19 miles in one day.

The 3.5 million people of this rapidly expanding metropolitan area were immediately affected as their air filled with smoke and their water supply was threatened. The fire burned 137,000 acres, and destroyed 133 homes, one commercial building, and 466 outbuildings. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. Fortunately, the fire was far enough south of the city to avert catastrophic damage. Even so, the cost of fighting this one fire totaled over $39.1 million--and rehabilitating the burned lands is likely to at least double that figure.

Numerous local fire departments responded to the fire, but news reports said that some never tied in properly to the unified command structure that later took over the main responsibility for containing the fire. In addition, they charged that federal and local emergency dispatch centers were not well coordinated. It was not surprising, therefore, that sorting out responsibilities for the costs afterward was messy and contentious.

State law in Colorado provides for emergency response coordination by county sheriffs, and a new law enacted in 2000 allows countywide coordination of fire plans for reducing vulnerability to wildfires across all lands in a county on a voluntary basis. However, individual jurisdictions and landowners are still pursuing wildfire preparedness and hazard mitigation efforts separately for the most part, and multi-county coordination is not provided.

Regional Dimensions of Wildfires

This Hayman fire experience is strikingly similar to the findings of a new report on the means of containing the rising costs of suppressing wildfires released on November 15, 2002 by a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration. In the report, the panel concluded that wildfire threats are rising rapidly, they affect all landowners in the areas where they rage, and collaborative efforts are needed to respond effectively and efficiently to the rising threat.

The Academy report, based on a close examination of six large fires that burned in the summer of 2001 and other research, found that such collaboration is rare. There are no clear incentives for taking this approach. In fact, the federal government's roles in fighting wildfires tend to work in the opposite direction. Federal dollars usually pay for most of the firefighting costs, and damages not covered by insurance are often picked up largely by federal disaster recovery funds. Furthermore, the federal land management agencies primarily responsible for fighting wildfires are most comfortable managing their own lands rather than worrying about other properties. That is what they were established for, and that is what they do best.

Individual Agency Missions

Each of these federal agencies has its own mission that generated different management approaches over many decades.

* The US Forest Service (FS) manages the nation's prime forests for multiple commercial, recreational, and environmental uses, and other benefits.

* The National Park Service preserves the nation's most spectacular natural sites and cultural heritage properties for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations.

* The US Fish and Wildlife Service protects and enhances essential habitats needed to support diverse species of plants and animals.

* The US Bureau of Indian Affairs manages Indian lands for the economic and other benefits of tribal members.

* The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers residual public domain lands and mineral rights (remaining under its control after deeding major sections to other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private parties) for multiple uses benefiting the nation.

Overlaid on these individual agency missions are the governmentwide missions of protecting endangered species, air and water quality, historic and archeological sites, wetlands, and soils. So, while the agencies' separate missions tend to set them apart from each other, other governmentwide policies attempt to pull them back together.

Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy

Since 1995, a single Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy has been trying to bring all of the federal agencies together to better address wildfire threats. One of the policy's least implemented requirements is the one calling on each of the federal land management agencies to participate in "landscape-scale" fire management planning and action programs. This term means that the fire management plans should cover whole natural fire "regimes" where similar vegetation and climate conditions create a common historic fire history and cycle of burning. The whole ecological region is to be included in the planning regardless of how it might have been split up by federal, state, local, tribal, and private ownership boundaries, and divisions between federal agencies.

The Academy study found that about 77 percent of the wildfires reported annually, and 47 percent of the acres burned, are on nonfederal lands. Wildfires that start on one owner's land may (and often do) bum onto the land of another party without regard to manmade boundaries. Obviously, a collaborative, multiparty planning process would be required to produce landscape-scale plans that meet the needs of all the affected owners.

Other parts of the policy require every federal land unit to have a fire management plan that can help to implement the agency's land management plan by recognizing and using the natural phenomenon of wildfire in its beneficial historic roles. About 82 percent of federal lands are now covered by such plans, and the rest are to be covered by 2004. However, many of these plans are not up to date, and in almost all cases they apply only to the lands of the agency that prepared them. In other words, they are seldom landscape-scale, as required.

Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)

It is also clear, however, that the beneficial uses of wildfire are unique to wildlands. Wildfires are not beneficial when they run into human settlements. They are not wanted there at all. So planning in these increasingly numerous areas is for fire exclusion. Such areas are commonly referred to as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI for short. The latest list of WUI communities published in the Federal Register contains 22,000 entries.

Planning for WUI areas needs to be even more intensely collaborative than for wildlands, because of the much larger number of governmental jurisdictions and property owners in these locations. Natural fire regimes still underlie these areas, and must be reckoned with, but the overlying ownership patterns include not just adjoining federal agencies and counties, but also municipal governments, local and volunteer fire departments, local utilities, homeowner associations, and others. Countywide and multicounty intergovernmental councils, often known as councils of governments, may also exist in these areas to deal with other public issues that cross local boundaries. But, they have seldom dealt with wildfire hazards.

New Incentives for Wildfire Regions

The Academy's Panel on Wildfire Suppression Costs believes that much can be gained by taking regional approaches to mitigating wildfire hazards and preparing to fight wildfires on a coordinated, multijurisdictional basis. Therefore, it has recommended a two-part federal incentive program with matching grants that would fund collaborative planning at the statewide and communitywide (regional) levels, and require that certain hazard mitigation and preparedness steps be taken jointly by recipients as a condition of receiving the federal funds. The program would build upon existing state and community assistance programs already available from BLM, ES, and the US Fire Administration.

The Academy panel recommended that the new wildfire mitigation program be modeled on two existing federal aid programs:

* the long-established surface transportation program for highways and public transit, which has exemplary planning and project prioritization provisions, and

* the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) new natural hazards disaster mitigation program just getting started under the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.

Both of these programs provide planning funds to state and local governments, require collaborative planning, and provide for coordination between the two levels.

The FEMA program will begin distributing disaster mitigation planning funds in December 2002, and will require wildfire mitigation plans in those states and communities where significant wildfire hazards exist. Because of the almost identical missions, it will be important for the new wildfire mitigation incentive program from the land management agencies to be compatible with the FEMA program. Meeting the requirements of one should be equivalent to meeting the requirements of the other.

Community-Based Management Regions

For purposes of the new wildfire incentive program, any state with a significant wildfire problem would be a recipient of statewide planning funds for preparing wildland fire management plans covering at-risk areas outside federally-recognized community management regions in the state. The recognized community-based regions would be either countywide or multicounty areas having significant wildfire hazard exposure and the institutional capacity to pursue landscape-scale collaborative fire management planning for that area. The Academy report estimates that 1,000 or fewer community-based management regions (either single-county or, preferably, multicounty) would be needed to administer this incentive program to all the appropriate areas.

Defining the community regions will require:

* assessments of wildfire vulnerability and institutional capabilities in the areas where the 22,000 WUI communities are located, and

* applications from community-based regional organizations showing the desire of their member communities to plan and work together and demonstrating their ability to meet the financial match and other program requirements.

The Bend, OR example summarized in the Academy report shows one way a community wildfire management region might be structured.

Bend (Deschutes County), OR

The FEMA-sponsored Deschutes County Project Impact pilot program headquartered in Bend, OR is a precursor of FEMA's new disaster mitigation planning program. It is one of the two Project Impact pilots that focused on wildfire hazard mitigation. Applying the FEMA organizational approach, the Deschutes pilot established a 25-person steering committee to oversee its work and bring a wide range of cooperators to the table to create numerous partnerships within the region.

Although housed administratively within the county government, the Deschutes project works extensively with the Bend city government, homeowners' associations, fire protection districts, the three-county Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, and others. In addition, the project is an active member of the Upper Deschutes Basin eco-region sponsored by the Fire Learning Network (FLN)--a joint project of The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior designed to promote fire-related ecosystem renewal.

The FLN project connects Project Impact's community-interface emphasis to the ecosystem health approach in two national forests, the BLM district, state forests, and an Indian reservation. The partnership is truly at a landscape scale.

The Project Impact pilot and the FLN eco-region are each governed by collaborative steering committees, but both rely primarily on existing organizations to carry out coordinated actions designed to benefit the whole region. Over the past three years, this coordinated effort has orchestrated over $800,000 of projects funded from diverse sources for purposes of reducing the region's vulnerability to wildfire.

Designing the New Regional Program

At the national level, the federal land management agencies have been working with the Western Governors' Association, the National Governors' Association, the National Association of Counties, and others, over the past two years, to develop a collaborative approach for reducing wildland fire risks to communities and the environment. This new approach consists of a 10-year comprehensive strategy (adopted August 2001) and an implementation plan to carry it out (adopted May 2002). The Academy report supports this nationwide approach by recommending a strong federal incentive for collaboration at the landscape scale.

Next comes the hard work of designing the regional program and developing enough consensus to get it introduced and debated in Congress. Some of the features that might be considered for this collaborative program include:

* Regional wildfire vulnerability assessments;

* Joint interagency wildfire preparedness plans and exercises;

* Joint strategies, hazard mitigation plans, and priorities;

* Specifically identified responsibilities for action, project commitments, and implementation schedules;

* Enactment and enforcement of the local codes and ordinances needed to ensure community resistance to wildfires; and

* Regular progress reporting to ensure accountability for the partners' performance.

Improved Coordination and Collaboration

The payoffs from such a program could begin with more efficient and strategic use of the federal wildland fire assistance already going to state and local governments, and could grow through better coordination with other National Fire Plan funds as well as with FEMA, state, and local funding. The federal budget alone, and particularly the budgets of the land management agencies alone, will not be adequate to meet the growing demands being generated by the unrestrained buildup of hazardous wildland fuels and burgeoning WUI communities. Effectively orchestrating the funding available from all sources will become increasingly necessary, and collaborative process will be required to accomplish that goal. The Academy panel believes that sharing the burden and taking prudent defensive actions through intergovernmental and public-private partnerships are essential steps. Many of those partnerships should be regional.

Not least among the benefits of this collaborative approach is placing responsibility for prioritizing investments with collaborative statewide and countywide or multicounty regional councils. These councils could be patterned after the metropolitan planning organizations required by the federal surface transportation programs for purposes of joint planning and multiparty prioritization of implementation projects. They could also draw upon the planning, policy coordination, and administrative capabilities of the many existing regional organizations that already blanket the nation. Such organizations are far better positioned than administrators within state governments or federal agencies to decide which of the 22,000 WUI communities on the nation's most current list should move forward first with the help of federal aid.

Candidate Regional Bodies

Candidate regional bodies that might provide assistance include (among others): the multijurisdictional resource advisory committees already working with the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and the Interior, federally required multiagency local emergency preparedness committees, USDA-sponsored resource conservation and development committees, Department of Commerce-sponsored economic development districts, state-enabled and locally-based councils of governments, and Department of Transportation-sponsored metropolitan planning organizations. It is important to use these existing regional organizations because they have already established many of the key political and administrative relationships among governmental jurisdictions and private sector players that will be needed in mitigating wildfire hazards.

They have also developed key capabilities for performing regional analyses, developing regional consensus and agreements, preparing federal aid applications, and administering multiparty programs. These are priceless capabilities that often take decades to develop. Making use of them where they already exist could advance the progress of collaborative wildland fire mitigation and preparedness efforts significantly and avoid establishing yet another layer of regional organizations.

As proven time and again in other programs, a regional approach has much to offer those responsible for managing wildland fire.


(1.) Most states have multicounty regional councils created to perform a variety of intergovernmental coordination tasks. Approximately 540 such councils exist in 48 states. Together, they represent approximately 90 percent of the nation's general purpose local governments (including counties, cities, townships, towns, villages, and boroughs). Such councils do not exist in Hawaii and Rhode Island, and are rare in Montana and Wyoming, but they cover the entire state in 27 cases, and range from 60 to 90 percent coverage in the other 19 states. The states without regional councils all have counties, except for Rhode Island. The estimate of 1,000 community-based regions needed to administer the proposed wildfire hazard mitigation program is based on using regional councils (or a similar multijurisdictional body) where they exist and counties elsewhere. Officially defining these regions, of course, will involve discussions and political negotiations. Therefore, this estimate is necessarily very rough at this time.

Bruce D. McDowell, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has directed three recent Academy studies of wildfire management issues commissioned by Congress and prepared for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. The latest of these studies, Wildfire Suppression: Strategies for Containing Costs, released on November 15, 2002. is the basis for this article. The Academy 's published wildland fire reports are available on its Web site,
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Author:McDowell, Bruce D.
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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