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Park and recreation professionals across the United States protect local land and communities from wildfire
When a wildfire, known as the Holiday Farm Fire, swept across Oregon in September 2020, staff at Willamalane Park and Recreation District in Springfield, Oregon, had to take on new roles in the community: disaster responders. Even though the wildfire stopped about six miles away from the park district’s borders, locals experienced a tense week of thick smoke, air quality warnings, mandatory evacuations and the imminent threat of a destructive wildfire.
“It was terrifying, but it was also really inspiring to see how people jumped in,” Kenny Weigandt, community engagement manager at the Willamalane Park and Recreation District, recalls. “The smoke and the ash really caused a huge, prolonged issue for us.”
Experience responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic proved helpful in the district’s response to the wildfire. Many staff were able to continue coordinating relief efforts because of the remote-work technology and policy that they had implemented for COVID-19. The district also had a crisis communication plan ready. This plan includes a process for communicating updates to staff first during a disaster — which includes anything from wildfire and floods to medical events and COVID-19 to security breaches — and sharing this information to the public and media outlets.
The district became an information hub for the community and press. People were encouraged to stay indoors to minimize exposure to the hazardous air, updated about the status of the wildfire and given information about where to donate and access resources. “We were connected to partner agencies and were able to help joint communication,” Weigandt says.
Coming Together for a Collective Response
As a relatively large district with 46 parks and four indoor facilities, the Willamalane Park and Recreation District decided to put some of its resources to good use during the crisis. It designated two of its indoor facilities, the Bob Keefer Center and Adult Activity Center, as smoke respite shelters. The district quickly found out that it needed air scrubbers to clean the smoke out of its HVAC system, which was pulling outside air into the building. The city of Springfield provided air scrubbers to the district so it could continue operating these facilities as daytime shelters. These facilities provided access to clean air and water, restrooms, Wi-Fi and parking. “It was really valuable for people who needed it,” Weigandt says.
“The most important thing that we learned during this is you have to rely on your partnerships with other municipalities or like-minded agencies,” Weigandt says. The district joined a collective community response, communicating and coordinating relief efforts with the Red Cross, local school district, neighboring park agencies, utility board and the health department. Through this effort, the district learned that firefighters needed a site to stage response that was outside the burn zone but close enough to quickly get to the wildfire. The district offered one of its park areas and firefighters used that location to coordinate efforts and take breaks between shifts.
King County Prepares for Wildfires
Increasing numbers of wildfire events are prompting many park and recreation agencies to prepare by gathering data and implementing plans. One such agency is King County Parks and Recreation in Seattle.
As a changing climate brings more flooding and tree stress, it also brings wildfires closer to the Puget Sound area in Washington state. “We’re seeing increasing evidence that we better be ready,” says Sarah Brandt, King County Parks open space government relations administrator. This evidence includes more frequent
King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan, updated in 2020, offers guidance for preparing for and responding to climate change. The plan outlines the county’s 30-Year Forest Plan and its 3 Million Trees initiative that includes not only planting new trees, but also protecting current forested landscapes — which can mean thinning aging forest stands to improve resiliency, according to Brandt. “[It’s] King County’s effort to, hopefully, lift all boats and provide support where we can to our partners who are also managing forests,” she notes.
Another piece of the Strategic Climate Action Plan is the King County Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy, which will look at wildfire risk reduction comprehensively, says Lara Whitely Binder, King County Climate Preparedness program manager. “We will be providing recommendations related to what we could be doing to improve forest health, what we could be doing to manage wildfire risk at the wild and urban interface, and what we need to be doing to increase our capacity to respond to [a] wildfire when it occurs and to manage wildfire smoke impacts.”
Developing this strategy involves gathering information from experts in numerous fields across many organizations, which notably includes parks and recreation. “There’s an incredible wealth of information and understanding of the landscape in park staff,” Whitely Binder says. The strategy, scheduled to be completed in the fall, also will include input from the U.S. Forest Service, tribes, public utilities, extension agents, permitting agencies, fire districts, emergency management and public health departments, the clean air agency and the state department of natural resources.
“As you see in King County, parks can have a really significant set of assets in terms of being the stewards of forested landscape,” Whitely Binder says. “I think there’s a strong role for parks departments at large to play in being part of the conversation around wildfire risk reduction, because they are stewards of forest landscapes that could be either affected by or a conduit for fire that’s moving across the landscape.”
King County’s wildfire preparation will have to look a little different than in other areas of the West, since the area has not evolved with wildfires. Recent fires are a new occurrence because of climate change, Whitely Binder says. Large amounts of forest thinning and prescribed burns, a well-known tool to prevent wildfires, could radically change the local ecology and harm native species. That means a focus on managing areas that sit between the forests and residential communities and figuring out the best response for the local ecosystem, she explains.
California Park District Develops Incident Command Center
Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District in Carmel, California, has seen several of its parks impacted by wildfire events, with portions of parkland containing burned vegetation. Currently, it is designing and developing an Incident Command Center (ICC) at one of its parks to help address future wildfires and other natural disasters. “The ICC is being planned in coordination with the state’s and region’s fire management authorities and offices of emergency management,” says Rafael Payan, general manager of the district. Fire response and other emergency crews will be able to use the ICC as a staging area. The district plans to begin constructing the ICC this summer. In the meantime, it has outlined plans to use its existing facilities as staging areas for disaster response and emergency housing, if necessary.
The ICC includes a two- to three-acre dog park that can be adapted as a wildfire response staging area. It provides space for “pumpkins” or “portable swimming pool-like structures” that supply water for helicopters doing aerial water drops, Payan says. The space also could temporarily hold livestock displaced by fires.
The district’s wildfire preparation also includes establishing reliable water sources for firefighting, using grazing cattle to reduce the vegetation that contributes to wildfire spread and installing exhibits that educate about the hazards of wildfires and the benefits of controlled burns. After wildfires, the district has used firebreaks as recreational trails and established aerial, drone and ground-photo resources to monitor ground-cover recovery, Payan says.
Prescribed Burns Help Wildfire Prevention in North Carolina
On the East Coast, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation has a long-standing tradition with one common tool to reduce the likelihood of and risk from wildfires: prescribed burns. About 20 years ago, this North Carolina district started conducting prescribed burns to help prevent wildfires, says Christa Furtsch Rogers, Mecklenburg County Natural Resources manager. “We try and burn at least 500 acres of our nature preserves annually, and a big part of that is for wildfire prevention.”
The program started as part of the county’s Piedmont Prairie Restoration Program to protect and restore several endangered plants on prairie lands that depend on fire for survival. This expanded to forested areas because the county saw the benefits in maintaining a more desirable composition of species and reducing the coverage of invasive species, Furtsch Rogers says. “It helps us cut down costs for treating those invasive plants, and we gain a lot of really positive benefits along the way, like improving wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling and encouraging herbaceous growth on the forest floor,” she explains.
The county’s Natural Resources Section manages the burns, which are made possible by working closely with numerous groups, including the North Carolina Forest Service, local fire departments, local air quality agency and the North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council. The county notifies nearby landowners before a burn takes place and uses CharMeck Alerts to update neighbors within a certain proximity of the burns. Furtsch Rogers recognizes the challenges of gaining support from public officials and the public for a new prescribed burn program. “Take any opportunity to show people the risks of wildfire and the benefits of prescribed fire,” she says. “It takes some trust-building, so start early.”
Native Americans Bring Fire Back to the Land
Being able to conduct prescribed burns has two very important meanings for the Yurok Tribe in California. “The continuance of our culture depends on putting fire on the land,” says Margo Robbins, member of the Yurok Tribe and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council. The Yurok people are basket weavers, and this culturally important activity relies on using hazel sticks that are produced after hazel bushes are burned. “The art of basket weaving was dying because of fire exclusion and the fire suppression policy that has been in place for over 100 years,” Robbins says.
Fire suppression of the past also has riddled the tribe’s mountain terrain with an extremely dense underbrush. This made the community concerned for its elders. “We live in a very remote region,” Robbins says. If a wildfire occurred, they worried the elders might not be able to escape. “For those two reasons, we started down this path to reclaim our right to use fire,” she explains.
“Our first burn took place on seven acres in a traditional hazel gathering place and was celebrated by the entire community,” Robbins says. The need to continue these burns resulted in the 2013 formation of the Cultural Fire Management Council, a community-based nonprofit composed primarily of tribal members.
Because the tribe’s ancestral territory spans a half-a-million acres, the group began working on conducting larger burns through The Nature Conservancy’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX) program. The program invites firefighters to places across the country that need prescribed burns and provides them with real-world training. Through the program, the council hosts two TREX burns a year, with up to 30. Tribal members also have received training and help families conduct small burns around their homes, clearing underbrush from their personal property. In seven years of burning, there have been no escapes, thanks to their training through the TREX program, Robbins says.
Prescribed burns require scraping a fire line around an area that will be burned, cutting the brush back and digging down to the soil for a buffer of many feet. The methodical process goes line by line across a landscape and places people to monitor and put out any sparks outside the fire line, Robbins says. “You keep control of it, and that’s the difference between a prescribed burn and wildfire," she adds.
Burns leave trees mostly unharmed and produces “biochar” that improves soil health and cleans the water that flows through it. New growth comes back faster, and water becomes more plentiful since overgrowth does not demand the resource.
“I think it’s really important for anybody and everybody [who have] responsibility for tracks of land to learn how to take care of it in the best way possible,” Robbins says.
“Prescribed fire can be used to reduce the risk of wildfires, but also helps restore fire to natural areas that depend on it,” says Marek Smith, North America fire director with The Nature Conservancy. Communities living in fire-prone or adapted landscapes can explore this and other wildfire adaption practices provided by the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. If park and recreation agencies want to learn more, they can begin by getting involved in their state’s prescribed fire council.
Jennifer Fulcher is NRPA’s Web Editor.