One conceptual idea that has been spurned by my travels and research is the need for linking and strengthening communities impacted by wildfire (and potentially other natural disasters). As important as global and federal efforts are to increasing our cumulative resilience to wildfire, action must also be local and ground-up to become fully institutionalized. Communities cannot be dragged into accepting wildfire as an ecological process, they will have to embrace the reality. One way to do this is to bolster the local recovery process following wildfires, to strengthen communities after they have been exposed to their stark vulnerability.
In November 2018, I watched from a far as my town burned down. I got back as soon as I could, but the wind-driven chaparral fire had already made its way to the sea. Taking with it 3 lives, 1,650 structures, and evacuating 300,000 people. At the same time, the community in Paradise was decimated and lost 86 lives. At home, the most surprising part to me were the reactions of people in the weeks following the fire. Shifting blame, general discoordination, confusion on how to maneuver insurance and rebuilding, and then the slow slide into forgetting all of the promises we made to do better next time. The year prior, Santa Barbara/Ventura experienced its record-breaking Thomas Fire; did we as a community learn anything from their communal experience? What lessons and promises did countless other communities make after the wildfire, and which ones worked and why? All of these communities are learning or forgetting in isolation, but they are all experiencing the same challenges. There are so many bridges that can be built.
The concept is an Impacted Community Wildfire Support Network. Linking communities that have undergone the recovery process, and are willing to share those lessons with those that have just experienced a wildfire. The impacts of wildfire are deep, the burns are emotional as they are physical, and people need others to lean on. I believe that those that have had the experience themselves will understand best, and be most willing to offer the necessary empathy.
However, the network would not only be an emotional support platform, it will have technical and practical application as well. The recovery process is hard to navigate - insurance, reconstruction, landscape architecture, environmental engineering - all of the essential pathways to “build back better”. The Network would provide expertise and advice on all of these elements, and they can be provided in forms such as recommendations from anyone that has undergone a wildfire up to professional consultation level services.
Another interesting part of the Network could be outreach into the unimpacted surrounding communities to raise awareness. If awareness is only being generated in those that have experienced the loss, its impossible to get ahead of the problem. Events and functions need to occur in areas that are close enough to observed the damage, but still possess their risk. Try and learn lessons before being forced to confront them the hard way.
Inspired by a conference poster about local Portuguese efforts to remedy severe burn environmental impacts, communities need support in understanding their natural resources post-fire and how to work together to conserve them. Sediment loss, revegetation challenges, water contamination, and mudslides may all be secondary concerns following an intense wildfire. An organization that can provide knowledge and potentially structure landscape restoration projects would contribute a lot to “building back better”. It is immediately following a disturbance when invasive species rebound, and it also the most challenging time to view alien vegetation as a priority. Ecological engineering is an important field that is not integrated well into disaster management, but it has a role to play.
Lastly, I think this concept could help unite a voice calling for climate change and proactive wildfire management action. The most powerful stories are those that are told from the ones that have been at the front of the problem, and born its brunt. The wildfire experience is a heavy and strong one, it should be harnessed and channeled so to achieve meaningful action. Do not let the stories told in California, Greece, Spain, Australia, Arizona, or elsewhere disappear.