Collaboration, Teamwork and Commitment: A Formula for Reducing Wildfire Danger

by Christopher Topik, Director of NA Forest Conservation, The Nature Conservancy Category:

Once again we are witnessing tragic fires in the western United States that are harming people, water, and wildlife. In recent years, bemoaning our severe fire seasons has become an all-too common annual lament, heard from the coffee shop to Congress.  Since 1960 the shoulders of the fire season have broadened by nearly two additional months each year, due to hotter, dryer, and more dangerous forest conditions.

But unlike hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes, fires are unique; they are the one natural disaster about which we have a choice. We tend to think of fire management in terms of the massive mobilization of firefighters, air tankers, supplies, and slurry drops; instead, what if we could mobilize the social and political will to perform wide-scale proactive forest treatments, to better inoculate our communities, forests, and waters from the worst of fire’s destructive effects?

This is exactly the possibility 75 of the nation’s leading experts gathered at the White House to discuss on May 18. The room included first responders and fire experts, land managers and government officials, conservationists and business leaders. Clearly there are environmental and political challenges to improving the management of places where forests and communities merge, the wildland-urban interface, but I think the key challenges are working with people and governments. All levels of US governments – including cities, counties, Tribes, states and key federal agencies created and approved the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which provides a common platform for addressing our nation’s wildfire woes; now we need to get serious about implementation.

Conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are working with many partners to figure out ways to make forest restoration more efficient and effective. Many of our forests are now degraded so they need active stewardship to create healthy conditions and allow the use of low intensity, cleansing fires that reduce the risk of catastrophic events. We are finding new revenue sources to protect key habitats, waterways, and communities. Enhancing forest sustainability reduces the impact of fires and also provides meaningful jobs in forest products, stewardship and tourism sectors while protecting our water sources and reducing public health impacts. Well-established partnership programs, like the Fire Learning Network, promote the use of good, controlled fire to emulate nature and reduce bad fires. The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network assists communities and cities to learn to live with fire.

Citizen engagement and education is essential if people are going to prepare for nasty fires, and perform the landscape and community mitigation we know reduces the intensity of uncharacteristic fires. Building community capacity to engage in meaningful dialogue and preparation is much more cost effective than increasing firefighting once the fires take off. We must find a way to expand support to these grassroots efforts that increase community, forest, water, and wildlife and fire safety. People know what to do, and by-in-large want to be a part of the solution. They just need some help.

The nation needs a new wildfire paradigm–a new reality in which we stop automatically extinguishing all fires, significantly ramp up controlled burning, and engage and empower communities to help create a different, healthier and necessary new relationship with fire. The U.S. Congress, states, tribes and local governments all need to invest in joint, coordinated care of our forests and wildlands- the reductions in emergency response costs and damage to people, businesses and habitats are well worth the investment. This includes fixing the federal fire suppression funding mess that takes needed resources away from the forest stewardship actions that decrease fire risk while providing the benefits to life and livelihoods our forests provide us.

Christopher Topik, Director of North America Forest Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, of which Louis Bacon and The Moore Charitable Foundation are proud partners.