Conservation districts helping to update CWPPs

Conservation districts (CD) like Skagit and San Juan Islands CD in Washington State are partnering with local, state and federal agencies to update decades-old Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP).

The U.S. Forest Service has guidelines for updating CWPPs, but the process is left up to the local groups coordinating the effort. That can present both opportunities and challenges.

The Skagit CD developed the first county-wide CWPP in 2008 alongside Skagit County, as they updated their Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (NHMP), relying on community members, the county Department of Emergency Management, county officials, and state and federal staff as partners. In 2019, the county was updating its plan and requested the conservation district do the same, with the idea that the CWPP would become the wildfire section of the NHMP. However, it proved a challenge, said Skagit Conservation District Community Wildfire Resilience Coordinator Jenny Coe.

“There were a lot of lessons learned,” Coe said.

“Originally, I thought ‘This will be easy. I’ll just incorporate the new maps and updated processes and hand it off,’ but then when I read through it, so much had changed, and there were so many more examples I could draw from that would be more comprehensive, we ended up scrapping it and starting over,” she said.

For starters, the conservation district’s former forester, Al Craney, spent a couple years developing and vetting the science behind a new fire risk analysis method that focused more on soil data for the CWPP update prior to his retirement. This method was used to create more precise maps with targeted areas for treatment programs and was a key component to the updated CWPP.

In addition to the new risk analysis, Skagit CD recognized the need to incorporate the concept of fire-adapted communities throughout the document, update the maps, include new definitions of risk, record accomplishments since the 2008 CWPP, and incorporate information on the long-term success of CWPP implementation.

Skagit CD’s CWPP was first created five years after the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003. HFRA was enacted for communities to develop CWPPs collaboratively through planning, prioritizing and implementing fuels reduction projects that would decrease wildfire risk and create healthier, more resilient forests.

HFRA identified several strategies to include in plans, such as improving the management of insect and disease infestations; protecting, restoring and enhancing forest diversity and other ecosystem elements; and funding grants to improve the commercial value of biomass. The CWPPs also had to contain recommended steps for property owners and the community to take to help protect homes and other structures.

In the development of the original CWPP, local fire agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), State Departments of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and community members became partners in the process. That did not change this time around, Coe said.

Lessons learned from an experience like this are valuable to others who may be entering this process themselves.

“We had strong partnerships with all the different players who were involved in providing information and feedback on the plan,” she said.

“In addition to our local partnerships, I do a lot of statewide networking through the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and this is a hot topic right now among fire adaptation practitioners,” Coe said. “Lessons learned from an experience like this are valuable to others who may be entering this process themselves.”

“The most challenging part of the 2019 CWPP update was the process for incorporating our CWPP update into the NHMP update; it was very convoluted,” she said. Coe said a majority of the lessons learned during this process revolved around communication. The most valuable takeaways from this experience were the importance of clearly defining the CWPP’s role in the county’s mitigation plan; determining and detailing requirements for public meetings and outreach and education; pre-determining the approval and distribution process; establishing best practices for updating the document from a trusted source; and establishing future update timelines and processes.

“What it really comes down to is that you should have a clear plan worked out with partners before you update your plan,” Coe said.

While Skagit CD mostly scrapped their old plan and developed a new one, San Juan Islands CD did more of a revision of the original plan that was implemented in 2012.

“We’ve been working on a lot of forest health issues, and we’ve been recognizing significant changes since the last (CWPP) was finished and felt it was appropriate to spearhead some of the work we’re doing in the county to get current risk levels,” San Juan Islands CD Forestry Program Manager Kai Hoffman-Krull said.

Already this season, Washington has seen nearly triple the usual number of wildfires, so now is a crucial time to gather data, update and implement the CWPP on a new level. The updated plan will provide mapping analysis of the forest stands, identifying those with the greatest need for restoration and tree removal, as well as a new piece – a series of research findings on uses for the excess wood.

The conservation district is just beginning its CWPP updating process, Hoffman-Krull said, with a target launch date of spring 2021. San Juan Islands CD has been meeting with partners through Zoom, when possible. The CD is also working with Oregon State University and Wisewood Energy, examining the role of decomposing and charred wood, the role of micro-grid bioenergy, and the economics of local milling and lumber supply in the island forest ecosystems.

The previous plan identified 85,000 acres at moderate or severe need for fuels reduction, and as the drought season continues to expand, the conservation district is examining what additional challenges are beyond that. Biochar is being explored as a solution for the excess biomass.

“We’re in many ways trying to focus the document on what are the strategies for us to reduce our fire danger,” Hoffman-Krull said. “It was a really successful document in 2012, but I don’t think it had a succinct or systematic approach to what are the key strategies we’re going to be trying to implement to reduce this fire danger.”

The CD will keep some aspects of the original plan, citing the original in some cases in the updated version so people reviewing the document can view the goals and direction in a larger context, including the climatic condition of the islands and the fire variables surrounding those conditions.

Landowners have been surveyed to receive their input on strategies, outlook and programs along with planning future public Zoom meetings to garner input.

“It’s been a challenge with COVID,” Hoffman-Krull said, “But there was a need to expand on those tools and approaches from the last assessment. We really want to look at key strategies for how to utilize this excess biomass, which is economically crucial in an island environment; and coordinating the county around effective tools for forest restoration treatments.”

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