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07.01.2013

Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: A Washington State Example

Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

FAC Ambassador and photo credit: Jennifer Hinderman

Fire Adapted Communities is all-encompassing approach to dealing with a world-wide problem that requires a shift in the way we live in and with our environment.  Guidance and resources are provided for use at the local level to help communities learn to accept fire as part of the natural environment.  Adaptation of our communities living in the wildland urban interface is key as the size and severity of wildland fires continues to increase. 

One of the main concepts behind the fire adapted approach is that a community should understand its fire risk and take action to minimize harm to residents, homes, businesses, parks, utilities, and other community assets.  Collaboration between these entities allows for a comprehensive approach to developing a safer environment.  

Many populations around the nation that are already taking a fire adapted community approach without even realizing it.  One such community is Skagit County in northwest Washington State.   As far as the frequency of intense, large acreage wildfires compared to the central and eastern part of the state, Skagit County ranks pretty low on the list; however, Skagit County has good reason to be aware of the potential for wildfire to occur and be destructive.  Eighty percent of the county is forested; it’s wet in the winter and spring which allows for growth of dense underbrush that in turn dries out rapidly toward the end of summer and early fall; the population continues to expand into the wildland areas; and it has the 6th highest wildland-urban interface growth potential of all counties in Washington*.

Over the last eight years Skagit County has been active in creating a more resilient community and expanding the collaboration of those efforts.   Successful partnerships were formed early on that included:

  • Washington State Department of Natural Resources
  • Skagit County Fire Marshal’s Office
  • Skagit Conservation District
  • Skagit County Planning Department
  • Skagit County Department of Emergency Management
  • Skagit County Commissioners
  • Local fire districts
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Homeowners

Steady stakeholders efforts of have included:

  • Development of a county-wide CWPP that was integrated into the county’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan
  • Outreach and education about forest health and preventing and preparing for wildfire
  • Use of the Firewise Communities/USA® and Ready, Set, Go! programs
  • Collaboration on fuels reduction projects
  • Shared funding resources
  • Continued promotion of successful outcomes

Stakeholders have also recently engaged and gained support from local land conservancy agencies and utility companies, as well as local realtors, and insurance companies.  Skagit County currently has seven active Firewise Communities®, and there are many others that are working hard to mitigate their wildfire risk.  Skagit County continues to work on engaging other partners and improving the resilience of their community. 

The success of Skagit County’s efforts to become better prepared has been recognized around the state and NW region of the U.S.  Their model is now being implemented around Washington and the response has been very positive.  One way this is evidenced is in the number of communities involved in the Firewise Communities/USA® program; Washington State has over 100 Firewise Communities, the second highest-ranking state in the nation.

As we can see by looking at Skagit County, effective changes in the way we address global issues begin at the grassroots level.  Those most directly affected by the threat and destruction of wildland fire – whether it be the firefighter battling it, the incident commander managing a wildfire event, the landowner whose house is in the path of a fire, a business owner suffering monetary losses from lack of customers during a wildfire, or a local community leader responding to a state of emergency – have the drive and the power to implement solutions for dealing with wildland fire issues.

Although Skagit County has developed a relatively successful grassroots model, let’s remember that becoming more fire adapted community is an ongoing process.  This means being flexible and adaptable to all kinds of environmental and economic changes when they occur.  A community that collaborates, knows how to access the right resources, and has implemented useful tools will have more success at adapting to our changing wildfire environment. 

*Adapted from: http://headwaterseconomics.org/interactive/wui-development-and-wildfire-costs