Mitigating the Risk of Wildfires

March 23, 2023, Feature, by Jennifer Fulcher

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Why parks and recreation is integral to the preparation for and response to this natural disaster

As climate change creates warmer and drier conditions — and as urban developments encroach on wilderness areas across the United States — the risk and potential for damage caused by wildfires increases.

“Wildfire is an environmental risk that is exacerbated by the coming together of people and landscapes with large stockpiles of unburned fuel,” says Jonah Susskind, senior research associate for SWA, an international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm.

Park and recreation professionals sit at the intersection of the urban and wild interface, serving as stewards of expansive natural areas. Collectively, local park and recreation agencies manage more than 11 million acres of open space across the United States. In this role, parks and recreation can serve a vital purpose by helping manage risk posed to these open spaces, including the risk that comes from wildfires.

Developing a Wildfire Buffer in California

As a landscape architect who researches and works at applying solutions for environmental risk management, Susskind has had an up-close view of how Paradise (California) Recreation and Park District is proactively working to address wildfire risk. In 2018, the Camp Fire swept through Northern California, becoming “the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history,” according to a 2019 California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection news release.

The Paradise Recreation and Park District has become a community leader for rebuilding efforts. The district reached out to the Conservation Biology Institute and The Nature Conservancy to explore community design that could increase local resilience to fire and climate change, enhance safety, and care for local natural areas. In June 2020, the partnership released the Paradise Nature-Based Fire Resilience Project report that explores the feasibility of using Wildfire Risk Reduction Buffers between urban areas and wildlands. Susskind found this report during his own research and through SWA worked with Paradise to develop additional planning and design strategies, as well as graphic illustrations for these strategies.

“Paradise has done…an amazing job, led by their rec and parks district…of really taking this on as an opportunity to look at new ways of innovating around land-use planning, building code [and] transfer of development rights,” Susskind says. A “greenbelt buffer” idea emerged from the report. It relies on acquiring residential land in high-risk areas and changing land-use patterns to serve as a buffer between a community and the surrounding “high-risk locations identified by the wildland fire probability model,” the report says. The district has been working to incentivize landowners in these high-risk locations to relocate and to manage that land in preparation for a future wildfire event. “It’s a process that’s now well underway…. It’s a very innovative approach,” he says.

Parks and Recreation’s Role in Wildfire Risk Management

Parks and recreation can serve two vital functions when it comes to wildfire risk management, Susskind explains. The first is implementing fuel management programs in parklands that often sit in high-risk areas, just on the outskirts of residential areas. Since local park and recreation agencies operate more nimbly than larger federal organizations, projects often can be completed in a shorter timeframe. The second is by conducting public outreach, education and monitoring. “Parks departments tend to be a first line of communication with park users,” he says. In his work, Susskind has seen how park and recreation districts have earned the trust of their communities, and this trust is vital — especially in a post-disaster environment. “That’s a huge opportunity for parks and rec departments to take a leadership role at these decision-making tables,” Susskind says.

When park and recreation agencies assess wildfire preparedness in their own communities, Susskind recommends examining plans and forming partnerships. “One of the easiest and, I think, most effective approaches to partnership is to become familiar with existing community wildfire protection plans, as well as any other planning or regulatory frameworks related to wildfire,” he says. “If there are opportunities to align open space and recreation plans with these other documents, that is such a critical first step towards aligning with other potential partnerships.”

Since different departments and jurisdictions in a community have their own plans, becoming familiar with how these impact areas of overlap, such as with wildfire planning, and determining how to align these plans can set the stage for forming partnerships. In addition to other local and national organizations, he recommends partnering with design firms, landscape architecture companies and urban planning studios as a way to build up a suite of graphics and other tools for community outreach.

Forming Partnerships and Amplifying Messages in Oregon

After stepping into the role of disaster responders during the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020, Willamalane Park and Recreation District in Springfield, Oregon, decided to take action. In fall 2020, the district decided to start pursuing funding to escalate the work they already had been doing for wildfire suppression.

Luckily, the district had two superpowers: strong partnerships and a powerful story. The district has been part of United Front — a group of local stakeholders in Oregon that includes the City of Eugene, City of Springfield, Lane County, Lane Transit District, Springfield Public Schools and Willamalane Park and Recreation District. “We all collectively work together to try to solve as many problems as we can and really work with our legislators to try to bring as much funding back for essential projects to our region as a whole,” says Kenny Weigandt, community engagement director for Willamalane Park and Recreation District. The group decides on the “most essential community needs” and works together to secure the support to meet these needs. Since 2020, wildfire suppression has continued to rank top on the list.

During the Holiday Farm Fire, the district’s connection to NRPA staff turned out to be invaluable. Kyle Simpson, NRPA director of government affairs, heard about the fire’s proximity to the district and contacted Weigandt to see if there was any support NRPA could provide. At the time, Weigandt was concerned about the lack of resources to respond to the wildfire, so Simpson put him in contact with communications and editorial staff at NRPA to amplify their message and to share their needs with the rest of the park and recreation community, Weigandt says.

The district gathered the resulting NRPA blog and magazine article, compiled it with other news coverage of the district’s wildfire response work and shared that with local legislators to gain support for their wildfire suppression work. “I’ve used all of it, and I continue to use all of it whenever anyone’s asking about the need for this project, why it’s important for our community,” Weigandt says. “It really showed Willamalane can be a viable solution to help solve this problem.”

The hard work has paid off. At the end of 2022, the district received $200,000 in federal appropriations funding that requires an equal match from Willamalane to support a wildfire fuel reduction project. The appropriations funding was supported by former Representative Peter Defazio (D-Ore.), Senator Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore.) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The five-year, $400,000 project supports the district’s small natural resources team, allowing them to hire contractors to assist in removing excess fuels, such as grass, brush and tree limbs, from the forest floor of the district’s 1,500-acre Thurston Hills Natural Area. The work not only will help lessen the threat if another wildfire occurs in the area, but also will support natural habitat and improve community access to the property. The district plans to document and showcase the effectiveness of the project.

“The community trusts us to be really good stewards of the land,” Weigandt says. “There’s this huge responsibility that comes with that, and it is to protect the land as best we possibly can.”

For anyone looking to follow in the district’s shoes, Weigandt recommends forming partnerships. “Our partnerships are the only reason that we were able to do this,” he says. Reach out to anyone facing similar challenges in your area to make a connection and start working together. Having a unified strategy and message makes it easier for public officials to support your work. He also recommends reaching out to any legislators, explaining the impact local parks and recreation make in a community and offering to give them a tour of your properties. Public communications can be vital in educating community members on fire prevention and safety and media can amplify the local park and recreation story on a county, state and national level. Weigandt also has learned not to be shy in being proactive and asking for help.

Making Plans in Colorado

As an area prone to wildfire, Pitkin County, Colorado, actively employs wildfire risk management projects. Carly O’Connell, senior planner for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST), is very familiar with wildfires, previously combating them as a wildland firefighter and studying planning and design for wildfire.

Since her department maintains vast areas of land, conserving more than 20,000 acres of open space through conservation easements and maintaining about 84 miles of trails and 60 miles of Nordic trails, the OST department regularly collaborates with local fire departments and land management partners, participates in the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative and teams up with the Aspen Fire District. Together these partners work “to integrate shared priorities into management plans for county-owned parks and open spaces and pursue grant funding to implement projects,” she says. “Strong partnerships are a good vehicle for supporting long-term maintenance and other operational costs associated with fuels management.”

“Nationwide, wildfire occurrences are increasing and becoming uncharacteristically large, severe and costly,” O’Connell says. “The problem of wildfire is magnified by droughts, heat and decades of fire suppression; rising temperatures and decreasing snowpack in the West suggest increases in total acres burned and longer wildfire seasons ahead.” Especially since much of Pitkin County’s population lives near and enjoys recreational activities in wildland areas, wildfire poses a serious risk to residents, visitors, property and wildlife, she adds. Achieving resilient communities requires a joint effort across all social systems in a community.

Parks and recreation can integrate wildfire best practices into plans prepared, projects completed and landscapes managed. These practices can inform local policies and codes and be integrated into master plans, open space management plans, site plans and site designs.

OST addresses wildfire through various area-specific management plans that focus on the preservation, improvement and use of land, water, wildlife, cultural, educational and agricultural resources. Plans, developed with broad public outreach and adopted by the OST Board, inform annual work plans and operating budgets for OST. Examples of these plans include the Pitkin County Hazard Mitigation Plan and the Sky Mountain Park Management Plan.

OST also performs vegetation and fuel-thinning projects in county-owned open spaces and parks that are high wildfire-risk areas. “In all treatments, the goal is to match the intensity of fuel treatment with on-the-ground conditions that correlate with increasing age, density and decadence of target species,” O’Connell says.

“Parks and recreation professionals must join the call to make decisions differently to plan for a changing and uncertain future. We are integral to solutions,” O’Connell says. “We as staff, managers, designers, planners and so forth of meaningful acres of parks, open spaces and public spaces can learn from land-use planning’s inclusion of wildfire in community development.”

To learn more about park and recreation agencies’ work in wildfire prevention, read the article, “Parks and Recreation Fend Off Wildfires,” in the April 2021 issue of Parks & Recreation magazine.