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Three steps to approaching the future of wildfire – A Conversation with Anne Zimmermann

Anne ZimmermanFlagstaff didn’t just look at their forests and think, “This is land that’s not being used and is wasted. And look at the money we’re losing from the tax rolls and all that.” They said, “Wait a minute, natural infrastructure is as valuable, and more valuable, than the built infrastructure for our water supply.”

– Anne Zimmermann, Retired USFS National Wildlife and Water Division

No matter the actual numbers – and the jaw dropping projections for the next decade – we know that the traditional responses to wildfire suppression aren’t going to work in the time of a rapidly changing climate.

Carpe Diem West sat down and talked with Anne Zimmermann for some smart steps to get us headed in the right direction. We had just two questions: What do we need to do in the next few years to deal with catastrophic wildfires in the American West? What are some of the smart steps that will get us headed in the right direction?


There are many reasons we got to this state and how this problem of catastrophic fires developed. There is no silver bullet. We need multiple solutions and a coalition of people who will work towards solutions that everyone can understand and support. Right now, people are not seeing the problem in the same way, they are only seeing certain aspects of it.

The first, and probably most important solution, is to begin to develop a deeper understanding that we in the West live in a fire landscape. We need to make peace with that and get informed about that across a much broader spectrum of society.

I read a newspaper story about a place that has burned four times in the last 100 years. I read that and I think: this is a place that is supposed to burn, and yet we keep rebuilding in the same place. That doesn’t make sense. Our emotional reaction of “we will overcome this, we will rebuild” is admirable and understandable because, as Americans, we value overcoming adversity, yet in these areas this rebuilding is misguided. And will only cause more heartache.

New Orleans is a great example of how we need to start thinking about the environment’s role in protecting against natural disaster. I’m finally hearing people say, “We need to be restoring the natural wetlands, because they do a much better job than levees can. Because levees will break and wetlands don’t.”

One practical step we can take with understanding wildfires is to emulate what’s been done with floodplain mapping. People have gone out, and they’ve mapped. They can’t guarantee you it will flood in any given year, but we know enough now that we can map and put a risk level on it. That’s exactly what should be happening in making peace with fire landscapes. Fire mapping does exist, but we can and should do more comprehensive and more coordinated fire mapping all over the West. This will allow us to let people know where it makes sense to build, or rebuild, and where it doesn’t. And they can make informed, albeit difficult, decisions.

As human beings, and particularly as Americans, we take a lot of pride in not letting things stop us. We’re very proud of our ability to engineer our way out of problems, to change the landscape in ways that we want to live with it. And we have found, over and over, that as smart as we are and as good as technical answers are, we don’t know everything. So making peace with the fire landscape doesn’t mean giving up, it means getting smart about what we do and where we do it.

It’s about getting people to understand that yes, you can live there, but your house is likely to burn, not just once but multiple times, and we’re not going to put firefighters’ lives at risk to protect it once we’ve given you this critical information. Getting insurance companies, homeowner groups, and others on the same page will be critical to shifting this conversation.

The second solution that I think is key, is to build new coalitions and strengthen the existing ones we have, like the ones we’re building through Carpe Diem West.

The ability to get a diverse group of leaders in the room together to start sharing these innovative solutions and a common language to communicate them is absolutely key. That’s how change occurs, spreads, and helps catalyze a critical mass. When we get the utility folks, state leaders, USFS, local leaders, and others who have a stake in the same room, we see good things happen. We also see that small-scale successes can be brought to scale, because leaders learn about them through their networks, and they want to create some of those same successes. So whether it’s the Northern Arizona Forest Fund, or the forest bond in Flagstaff, or the Hayman Partnership in Colorado, we can share the successful elements of multi-benefit approaches

One action step that would be great is to further develop and implement several USFS/community joint projects in different landscapes, fund them such that they can actually work, and then amplify those stories with smart communications and storytelling. Community leaders need to know that it’s possible to build these solutions, and piloting projects is a great way to demonstrate that.

The third solution is to really get serious about changing our accounting rules and practices to account for the true benefits of well-functioning forests for our water. A great example of this is in Flagstaff, Arizona where the city leaders understand that the forest is their water infrastructure. They created and the people passed a bond to restore those forests. That kind of understanding generates a tremendous shift in how we can protect and restore forests, and we should think about how to bring that to scale across the west.

Flagstaff looked at the entire economic picture. They didn’t just look at their forests and think, “This is land that’s not being used and is wasted. And look at the money we’re losing from the tax rolls and all that.” They said, “Wait a minute, natural infrastructure is as valuable, and more valuable, than the built infrastructure for our water supply.”

So it gets back to the concept of natural capital accounting and putting a value on things that the average person doesn’t know has a value. The forest, just being there and being healthy, provides a lot of quantifiable dollar benefits to the people living around it, as well as to the taxpayer who doesn’t. Every forest that’s well-managed and does its job in filtration, in addition to all those other ecosystem services, won’t burn the way another place would.

It’s more than just people getting that thinning and fuel reduction might prevent a big catastrophic fire. It’s the fact that you can actually quantify the benefits that healthy, sustainable and functioning forests provide with them just standing there doing their job. And if that isn’t happening, it can cost you money.

This translates to us understanding that if this watershed goes, our water goes, and it will cost us a lot as taxpayers to bring the water back. So lets create new and innovative ways to make the right financial and societal investments to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Anne served as the Director of the USFS’s national office for Watershed, Fish, Wildlife, Air and Rare Plants from 2005 to 2013. Her career with the agency spanned almost 35 years, beginning with work as a wildlife biologist in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.  She went on to hold biologist positions as well as other natural resource positions in the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana and National Forests in Alabama. On Montana’s Lolo National Forest, she served as a deputy district ranger and later as a district ranger. She then returned to the southeast as deputy forest supervisor and then forest supervisor of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. She joined the Healthy Headwaters Leadership Team in 2012.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock – Jim Parkin

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