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Council Corner: White House roundtable was valuable

I had the honor of being an invited panelist in a White House Roundtable on Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface last week in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House compound.

Fifty-plus people attended, including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell; Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the White House National Security Council Alice C. Hill, who chaired the meeting; U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas L. Tidwell; and Under Secretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie Jr.

The chair opened with a description of how climate change, drought, rising temperatures, etc., are significantly increasing the risk of wildfire, whose impact is most severely felt in WUI zones.

So what was the roundtable about? The president was preparing to issue an executive order requiring all new federal buildings over 5,000 square feet built in WUIs to essentially meet Fire Adapted Community standards (“defensible space,” nonflammable roofs, etc.). And government experts in wildfire fighting and prevention wanted to bring in key collaborators on the local level for an “on the ground” discussion of dealing with wildfires.

Climate change is creating conditions that allow high-intensity fires we hear more and more about, including the still-burning Fort McMurray fire in Alberta — and warming trends are moving faster than previously predicted.

We seven roundtable panelists touched on these areas:

  • Community preparation for wildland fire, including controlled burning, managing natural resources and learning to live with wildland fire safely.
  • Community development and land use planning, understanding of smoke trade-offs.
  • Community resilience in the WUI: creating a collaborative approach to address wildfire challenges.
  • Minimizing risk to first responders, community infrastructure and cultural resources.
  • A changing climate is affecting wildland fire intensity, which jeopardizes the well-being of communities and lives of first responders.
  • Providing first responders and communities with tools to handle increasingly complex wildfires.

Besides the Ashland Forest Resiliency project, represented by me, the other six panelists included A Native American organization from Washington state; the US Fish & Wildlife Service from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge; the Nature Conservancy's Restoring American's Forests programs; The Santa Fe, N.M., Fire Department; CalFire; and the USFS Office of Learning.

Ashland's niche is to show the role community engagement can play in developing and socializing strategies adapted to local conditions.

Here is some of what I contributed:

  • During the helicopter logging components of AFR we listed each log that was cut and transported to a mill, to address concerns we were cutting large trees.
  • During our two drought years the community voluntarily achieved water conservation of 35 percent, significantly better than other communities’ efforts. I attribute this to attention drawn to our watershed, careful stewardship by AFR, and the information and support activities around AFR.
  • AFR has blossomed into a de facto "AFR Institute," which this year will host at least six groups that incorporate the living laboratory of AFR into their events/conferences.

This "Institute" also is involved in research and development on:

  • Controlling/reducing smoke from controlled burns.
  • Coordinating carbon sequestration in AFR with our Climate Energy Action Plan.
  • Differences between “Restoration Forestry” and "Environmentalism" (allowing Nature to completely return to its natural state).
  • Involving Ashland's Planning, Wildfire Mitigation and Tree commissions in finding improvements to the new Wildfire Mitigation Ordinance under consideration.

Comments during the general discussion included:

  • Last fire season, crews fighting a fire that threatened timber on an Indian reservation were redirected to save vacation homes of metropolitan residents, setting back the reservation's economy 10 years even though houses can be insured but trees can't.
  • High-intensity wildfires pose life-threatening situations to firefighters because of their traditional culture of saving lives and property, which can lead to bad choices in dangerous situations.
  • Megafires are a different phenomenon from ordinary fires. Their frequency is increasing. The best strategy is prevention, so ordinary fires are less likely to grow into megafires.

The Roundtable broadened my perspective on the global nature of the wildfire problem and how Ashland relates to it. It was also valuable to renew friendships with a number of people I already knew (eight of the attendees had previously toured AFR).

John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland.