Fighting Fires by Lighting Fires

A paradigm shift provides a valuable lesson for public management.
August 27, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

The national media coverage of the fires in California's Santa Barbara County this summer showed how effectively multiple jurisdictions worked together to fight the fires. However, a recent trip to Flagstaff, Arizona, provided a glimpse of an extraordinary partnership that crosses so many boundaries it is probably destined for public-management stardom.

Flagstaff sits in a wildfire risk zone of 180,000 acres -- 400 fires a year, a majority started by lightning, and each a potentially catastrophic blaze roaring through the Ponderosa pines. The economic impact of such a fire could be devastating to the region's recreation economy even if not a single dwelling were lost.

Risk reduction might seem an obvious strategy. Yet in many similarly situated communities, conflicting interests, interjurisdictional distractions and the low odds of a catastrophic wildfire inhibit serious or lasting attention to mitigation.

Ten years ago, spurred by major fires burning at the city limits, the Flagstaff fire department began a sustained, multifaceted risk mitigation campaign. The department was able to bring together an army of partners from the environmental and academic communities; businesses; and state, federal and local governments. Together, they eventually formed the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership. And Flagstaff has become, well, a hotspot in wildfire risk mitigation.

The achievement required major attitude adjustments. For generations everyone believed two things: that all trees are good and that all fires are bad. However, by 2004, the fire department had thinned its millionth tree and was setting more fires than it was putting out. It's called "socially welcomed fuel reduction." Public acceptance for prevention and suppression policies is now so deep that early this year the city council enacted a far-reaching wildfire-mitigation ordinance with nary a dissent.

A North Carolina State University researcher examining successful wildfire mitigation efforts in three states points to the fundamental paradigm shift necessary to make communitywide efforts successful: convincing businesses, property owners and citizens that their individual actions can have collective benefit. In the individualistic West, this was accomplished through strong public education, proactive outreach and peer pressure.

More important, the key to the sustained progress of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership is that it has forged a balance among what could have been conflicting pressures. Risk mitigation is tightly linked with ecological concerns and economic prosperity. Good science underpins interventions that are guiding this region toward restoration of forests suffering from 120 years of misuse. Multiple funding sources are deployed to share the financial burden of comprehensive forest treatment, ensuring that all property owners participate. Homeowners are assisted in identifying and correcting risk factors in their neighborhoods, even while communitywide initiatives are pursued.

What might others learn from the Flagstaff story?

o Create a vision of a transforming threat and a transforming solution: Flagstaff could be the receiver, or the sender, of a catastrophic fire. It could not solve the problem alone. "Protect the town" was not compelling enough to bring essential players to the table or to serve as foundation for the compromises necessary.

o A trusted public-sector leader (the Flagstaff fire department) had to lead, but it needed to engage all "solution" holders. In Flagstaff, this involved state and local governmental units, several branches of Northern Arizona University research units, multiple environmental groups, businesses and utilities.

o Use good science to devise strategies that challenge long-held policy positions and lead to common ground. The nationally respected scientists at NAU proposed interventions that could support risk mitigation but also make major progress toward an ecological system of restored Ponderosa forests.

o Respect that policy shifts and alliances require both patience and time to evolve. The fire department spent $30,000 and many months in preparation before it set its first prescribed fire of just one acre. Internal city stakeholders -- council, department heads, even members of the fire department -- needed to be brought along as well. The Forest Partnership itself took years to build into a cohesive working group that effectively resolves issues and plans operations.

o Sustainability requires constant work: The partnership has survived funding cuts that led to the loss of its paid staff, as well as countless changes in leadership among its membership organizations.

How does one measure the return on investment of so complex an undertaking to avoid an odds-against catastrophe? Flagstaff's estimates are that a big fire could cost the community $60 million. In 2006, a fire that started in an untreated area was quickly suppressed when it moved into a previously treated (thinned) area. In the words of Paul Summerfelt of the Flagstaff fire department's fuel-reduction office, "It works." He may be thinking of the risk mitigation program, but his words could easily apply as well to a decade-long experiment in problem solving.