A Proactive Approach to Metropolitan Wildfire Risk 2

By Chris Barney

From the PBI Performance Products, Inc. e-Newsletter, sponsored by

Read Part 1.

The FEMA Grant

Natural hazard mitigation has always been a concern for Portland. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and flooding are some of the issues it has had to plan for. But all city bureaus involved recognized the need for a new preparation model. The impetus for a more proactive approach came in 2000 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Mitigation Act,1 which requires cities to develop and implement a Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. Without such a plan, cities would not be eligible for certain federal assistance, including predisaster mitigation grant monies, or post-disaster federal assistance. This strong message requiring proactive planning brought about Portland’s own mitigation plan in 2005.

The process of developing the Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan for Portland finally consolidated many individual efforts by different city bureaus into one distinct plan. One effort was a 2002 Wildfire Hazard Map, created by Portland Fire & Rescue and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), in response to the Willamette Bluff Fire and the need for greater understanding of the wildfire threat to the city. Of great concern were three distinct areas of the city identified by the map where dense vegetation, homes and businesses, and people came together: the remaining, unburned areas of the Willamette Bluff; Powell Butte Nature Preserve, a 600-acre park surrounded by homes and a favorite for many recreational users; and Forest Park, the largest urban forest within any U.S. city.

Once Portland’s Plan was approved and granted by FEMA and the Portland City Council, the three city bureaus with greatest involvement in management of and incident response to these specific areas gathered to develop and propose a plan to reduce the chance of future wildfires. Joining Portland Fire & Rescue were Portland Parks & Recreation, who manages all areas identified as public parklands within the city, and the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), who among other tasks, is in charge of protecting the city’s natural environment. From the beginning, these three bureaus chose to work collaboratively in submitting a grant proposal to FEMA to mitigate the wildfire threat posed in the three areas. This would become the Wildfire Fuels Reduction project.

Through discussion, the three city agencies were able to identify project goals that would reduce the risk of wildfire within the city’s parks and natural spaces. The greater success of this collaboration was the understanding that by working together to achieve one goal, other additional goals that would have positive effects within each city agency’s area of responsibility would also be met. Wildfire fuels reduction planning and implementation would also achieve Park’s goals of vegetation management work; and BES, because of its city charter, could work with private landowners to propose and assist in implementation an invasive weed reduction plan. Had the city followed a more typical approach, each agency could have been working on similar goals without knowing it. Instead, the shared input allowed for a more proactive planning process.

Powell Butte Nature Preserve

The first project tackled by the grant was the Powell Butte Nature Preserve, a 600-acre extinct cinder coned volcano in southeast Portland. Surrounded by neighborhoods of single-family homes and apartment buildings, this former dairy farm is now grassland (Photo 1) surrounded on three sides by an equal amount of forest. Not only is the Preserve considered an urban treasure by its neighbors, but it also houses the resident populations of deer, birds, and the occasional bobcat.

(1) Photo by the author.
Click to enlarge

Although the Project Management Team was made up of members from the fire department, Parks, and Environmental Services, all members agreed that the group lacked the necessary expertise to guide and manage the project. After announcing a request for a proposal and selection process? to the professional landscape architecture and forestry management communities, the Trout Mountain Forestry consulting firm was hired to guide the development of a site analysis plan.

Because a primary focus was to involve the community in all levels of planning, a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed from the Powell Butte neighborhood. The CAC was composed of members from groups with a direct investment in the park: the immediate neighbors, the Butte’s Citizen Advocacy Group, citizen emergency volunteers, and environmental activists. These members were given an equal voice in creating the future of the park, thereby helping to achieve community consensus on the project.

To create a successful wildfire fuels reduction plan, issues of fire science, biology, forestry, and ecology had to be addressed. While members of the Project Management Team, the consultants, and the CAC may have had some background in these areas, it was imperative that such expertise come from sources not already invested in the project or the site. A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was the last group of the Powell Butte’s Project Team formed to provide guidance and knowledge on these topics. The TAC ensured that impartial and accurate information was provided throughout the process. These experts were gathered from local fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and local foresters.

To kickoff the site analysis process and introduce the site and its corresponding opportunities and constraints, all participants spent a day touring the site. The consultants arranged for a “Rapid Assessment” tour of the Butte so that everyone could see the problems facing the site. For many, it was a first chance to see the area and allow the TAC to talk about what they saw. After time was spent discussing the relationships between the natural and surrounding built environment, the group sat down to discuss their observations.

For the citizens involved, many concerns were expressed about the close proximity of forest vegetation separating their homes from the inner grassland. Numerous varieties of invasive weeds were encroaching on their property from the forested areas. This realization coupled with the problem of homeless camps in the dense forest, brought fears of small campfires accidentally causing a larger incident. Fortunately, the initial observations from the TAC downplayed the threat of a fire in the forest growing beyond a small, easily manageable ground fire. The array of ground vegetation species present, coupled with their arrangement, posed a very small chance of causing a larger fire.

The TAC’s greatest concern was the inner grassland area and its wildfire potential. The combustibility and rapid fire spread characteristics of the grasses (including the increasing problem of invasive, nonnative flammable weeds) and ladder fuels, coupled with difficult fire department access, posed the greatest risk of causing a difficult fire incident that could lead to a larger fire in the forest.

Based on this new understanding of the site, the second meeting of the Project Team was coordinated by the consultant to discuss possible long-term desired future conditions (DFC) for the site. Since the chance of a large fire in the forested areas of the Butte would be slim but catastrophic, the focus was put on a proactive approach to limiting this chance, as well as limiting the more moderate fire potential posed from large stands of invasive Himalayan blackberry patches. The dead canes underneath each blackberry patch had posed a problem in the past for Portland Fire, so plans were developed to remove this source of potential fire nearest to the surrounding homes.

Parks & Recreation expressed its concerns with the large Hawthorne tree stands in the grassland. Although these trees are fire resistant, their presence is not native to this region, and its berries are distributed rapidly throughout the meadow by the birds, causing spread of an invasive plant species. The group sought to find an alternative fire resistive trees native to the region.

(2) Photo by Trout Mountain Forestry.
Click to enlarge

Several DFC options were developed and discussed in a collaborative process. All agreed on one that met the fire concerns of the site while providing other ecological benefits. (Photo 2) Since the grassland and its views were identified as a value to be preserved, despite the fire potential, the group chose to proactively reduce the wildfire potential by enhancing the buffer between the fire prone grasses and the forested areas. Instead of relying on a non-native, noxious tree such as the Hawthorne, a transition area was designed at the edge of the grassland.

The buffer of an oak savannah, a dwindling plant ecosystem in Oregon, would provide a fire resistant vegetation area between the grassland and mixed deciduous/coniferous forest and promote this ecosystem’s survival. Creation of the buffer would mitigate any chance of an intense grassfire’s initiating a larger type fire in the surrounding forest with which Portland Fire would have difficulty. In addition to the buffer area, a “park-like” area was proposed for the exterior forest edge that bordered residential properties, alleviating the invading weeds and cover foliage for homeless camps.

Once the preferred DFC was developed, other citizens invested in the site but not directly involved with the project had to be told of this idea. Public involvement had taken two forms during this grant: neighborhood association visits, during which literature that introduced, summarized, and updated information on the project, and public was distributed, and Open Houses, where anyone from the region interested and not already directly involved with the project could come to comment.

We introduced the DFC at a large public Open House and allowed the public to comment. Ultimately, this event proved very successful because of the participation of the CAC members. Portland, like many cities, has a population that cares very deeply about its hometown. Although this is a benefit, it can lead to many different opinions about how to resolve an issue. However, the level of citizen involvement throughout the process, especially at the Open House where CAC members spent time instructing and answering questions. satisfied most Open House attendees, as they felt that this project was not forced on them by city officials.

The public approval led the Powell Butte team to begin to create a list of projects that would accomplish the chosen DFC. The challenge of this process was to accomplish projects in the short term with the finite grant monies while also setting a future course of action to achieve the long-term goals of the DFC. A matrix was created to identify the most pressing issues, based on proximity to homes, ladder fuels, fuel buildup, wind prone, and access. Results focused on removing blackberry near homes to reduce those flammable dead canes, implementing the new transition area to the forest, and implementing an annual prescribed fire program to reclaim the native grassland and limit the growth of these fine fuels.

Willamette Bluff

The sites identified in and around the Bluff Fire posed different challenges for the Project Management Team. The Bluff, technically a geologic escarpment running along the eastern shore of the Willamette River, offers some of the best views of the river valley and, as such is home to some of the most prime real estate in the city. Its 12-mile length is characterized by steep slopes and overhead flashy fuels and dead blackberry canes, all interspersed among residential, commercial, and various local and state-owned properties. Because of the attention drawn to this area because of the 2001 fire, various efforts to mitigate the wildfire dangers had begun prior to receiving FEMA’s grant monies.

(3) Photo by Steve Lannigan.

These sites were ideal areas for the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) to address. By its charter2, BES is a fee-for-services agency, allowed to perform contract work on private properties, something Parks & Recreation cannot do. Plans were developed to reduce the fuel loads on the city properties along the Bluff. Work had begun to cut back the thick blackberry bushes and other invasive vegetation.

Additional attention was paid to the ladder fuels, low hanging branches, and other vegetation that could potentially spread a fire upward into the conifers. Herbicide treatments were applied, and a reseeding plan was implemented using native grasses in an attempt to create a more “park-like” setting that could greatly inhibit and slow any surface fire that did occur. When the FEMA monies were awarded, the scope for the project site was widened, allowing BES to address the private properties as well.

In the effort to increase the acreage mitigated against wildfire along the Bluff, BES augmented its plan by expanding the program to pursue the project goals on private property. BES field crews offer to implement fuel-load mitigation strategies on private land free of charge in exchange for a good-faith effort to maintain the work over the long term. At this point, we drew on the experience of community involvement gained from the Powell Butte process. Community members in and around the sites were invited to serve on the Willamette Bluff CAC. This group, with the same purpose as Powell Butte’s CAC, worked with the established TAC to guide BES in the mitigation goals and identifying private properties that pose a concern to their community. The result was a refined project that was then offered to the private landowners along the Bluff.

The response from these landowners was overwhelming and positive. Who wouldn’t want the city to work for free weeding their property? Only large landowners, such as corporations or hospitals, posed a difficulty, since their decision-making process to accept such an offer is lengthy, time-consuming, and hindered by legal responsibility and litigation fears. But this surge in interest also became a stumbling block that further emphasized the enormity of the work to be done. Because the whole Project was tackling three sites throughout Portland with a finite amount of grant money, the interest, and thus cost of implementing the work on so many properties, not only exceeded expectations but the budget for the Bluff sites as well.

Communicating this issue to an excited and energized citizenry is difficult; no one wants to hear they won’t immediately be receiving the no-cost work. However, this constraint was turned into an opportunity by galvanizing public support for the project and encouragement for citizens to contact the City Council to ask for future city funding of the remaining sites.

In June 2007, midway through the second season of project work on the Bluff sites, successful results were seen in mitigating fire risk to the neighborhoods along the Bluff. A Federal Express delivery truck traveling along a major arterial at the base of one Bluff site, crashed, sparking a fire (Photos 3 and 4). Fortunately, the characteristically thick, flammable invasive vegetation had previously been cut. Had this not been the case, the responding fire companies could have faced a repeat of the 2001 Bluff Fire. Instead, fire behavior and rate of spread were lessened, thereby decreasing the threat to the uphill communities and aiding in fire suppression.

(4) Photo by Steve Lannigan.

Read Part 3.

Chris Barney started with Portland (OR) Fire & Rescue in 2003; he is a firefighter in Engine/Squad-24. Before that, he worked for South Metro (CO) Fire & Rescue and throughout the Rocky Mountain Region as a wildland firefighter.

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