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Flagstaff, AZ Wildfire Programs

Planning for wildfire is more than preparing your landscape. Many communities have developed innovative programs to help them prepare for, mitigate and thrive after a wildfire.

Posted: April 18, 2024

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During Wildfire Awareness Month, join Neil Chapman, Wildland Fire Captain, as he shares some of the programs Flagstaff, AZ implemented to help the community live with wildfire.

Photo of the Flagstaff, AZ area

Listen online 28:52

Photo of the Flagstaff, AZ area


Estimated 18 min reading time.

Teresa Neal

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I'm your host, Teresa Neal. On this podcast, we like to highlight programs at the local level to help you understand what is possible and connect you with people who can help you achieve more in your community. Today we'll highlight some of the programs in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Our guest is Neil Chapman, wildland fire captain. Neil lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Joseph. He began his career in fire-adapted land management with the Nature Conservancy and worked in several areas throughout the United States. In October 2019, Neil became the Wildland Fire Captain for Flagstaff Fire Department and Summit Fire and Medical District. He leads the Forest Health Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation Functions for the department's Wildland Fire Management Program.

In 2021, Neil led the implementation of Arizona's first prescribed fire training exchange and created the state's first HEPA air purifier donation program and recently served on the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. Thank you for joining us, Neil. I'd like to talk to you about some of the initiatives you have in Flagstaff. But first, can you tell us about the Wildland Fire Commission, your role in it, and some of your takeaways from it?

Neil Chapman

Sure. Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat today. Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, I applied for that back in early 2022 and was appointed to represent municipalities on that commission.

And it was just a wonderful experience working with a room of folks that was so committed to solving some of these wildland fire challenges that we're seeing across this country. And so, although I was just there to represent municipal government-level operations, really, as a first responder, as a wildland firefighter, as a forester, and all these roles, really was in a position to contribute a lot of knowledge and experience in that space.

And really make sure that as we were working through these challenges, we really looked at the communities and the landscapes and what we need to be doing to make sure that our relationship with fire in these spaces is transformed.

And it's one that — we understand that we protect our communities and our landscapes with fire, not from fire. And so, really being able to make sure that message comes through loud and clear, and all of the recommendations and all of the topics that we worked through over the last year, was basically my hope for that effort.

Teresa Neal

What were your big takeaways when you did it? I mean, I know you enjoyed working with everyone and you guys did a lot of great work, but did you see something? Because you were talking to people from all over the United States, government officials to ranchers, you know, it's a — really a wide area of people.

And so, was there something that you saw in those rooms when you were together that you're like, ah, okay?

Neil Chapman

Well, one thing that came across loud and clear was, even with the diversity of people in the room, politics never changed what we thought was the appropriate path forward. So, moving to develop findings and the recommendations to address those findings never became kind of a political space.

It was always just problem-solving and information gathering. And again, it was so positive with all those different people in the room to get there. I think one of the more controversial topics for us to work through as a commission and as the work groups that were framed to kind of be the horsepower of this effort, the individual work groups would work through things and then bring these topics back to the whole commission.

Smoke came up quite a bit and because the commission process was consensus based, meaning that every recommendation that a work group came up with had to have a hundred percent support of all work group members before we could move it to the full commission. And then the entire commission had to support every recommendation, a hundred percent that some of these topics were very difficult to push through and get to that consensus basis.

And so, smoke was a big topic. In my mind, when I say beneficial fire, we're also saying beneficial smoke, and we know that emissions from prescribed burning, emissions from cultural burning, emissions from beneficial wildfires are not helpful for the community, but we do know that this is a real impact of the work that we're proposing.

And so, as we talk about scaling up beneficial fire, we're really saying we're going to be putting more smoke into the air and potentially into our communities. And so, those conversations around smoke were really balanced by saying things about how we need to be better at mitigating smoke impacts to our communities.

Now, when we do a burn or in our burn planning efforts, we work really hard to make sure that we're doing things that are not smoking out our community in inappropriate ways. So, we have a lot of those mitigation strategies built into our operations. Where we don't have really good mitigation strategies is in our public health spaces.

So, for example, talking about how we can get more air purifiers out to our communities. You know, the city of Flagstaff has been putting some funds together and getting some really powerful grants from partners. We've distributed over 250 of these filters, and these tools are specifically designed to be able to plug into a room and make sure that you can get clean air in that space.

And they're just completely designed to remove those smoke particles, those PM 2.5 particles, out of the air. So, we know the technology exists to help people with indoor air quality while we're having these impacts from this beneficial fire; we're just struggling to connect the funding sources so we can apply for grants to do hazardous fuel reduction to do prescribed fire.

Very rarely do those grants also align with a line item for air purifiers. We're also looking at municipal buildings and realizing that we could be developing clean air hub-type spaces in our communities. So, we haven't done this yet, but we're exploring funding and operational plans. For example, how could we take a library and give it a hospital-level HVAC system?

So, you know, we have a lot of folks that are inconvenienced by smoke in the air from beneficial fire. But we do have some folks that are really negatively impacted due to air quality issues. So, whether it's asthma or other lung conditions, we want to make sure that as we're advocating to scale up our work of beneficial fire, we're also making sure that they have the tools and the spaces that they can go to to get that clean air.

So, you know, if we're doing a prescribed burn, and we know there's a chance that some smoke is going to linger in town for a couple hours. And maybe a HEPA filter at their house isn't just enough. What can we do as a community to make sure that we're not just fire adapted, but we're smoke adapted, and have places for them to go and get that assurance that you're going to have clean air in this space that's designed specifically to recognize your needs as a community member?

So, that was in the commission process, really recognizing some of the subtle language changes when we talk about the need to better organize around our clean air initiatives, we frame those discussions, recognizing that we need to do it because we need to scale up our use of beneficial fire.

So, really looking at, making sure we're accelerating acres treated with beneficial fire and framing that clean airspace value around that, not saying we need to reduce the work we're doing that's putting emissions in the air. I think we really, for the first time, we're able to prioritize beneficial fire and public health in a positive way.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, that's awesome. And so, kind of moving on to what you all are doing in Flagstaff. Can you tell me about the Flagstaff Watershed Project?

Neil Chapman

Sure. So, our Flagstaff Fire Department has had a wildland fire management program since 1997, and it's changed quite a bit over time. Our community here has wonderful partners from the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry and the Ecological Restoration Institute and just all the folks in our community here that have been working for over 20 years to really reduce wildfire impacts.

It's really been led from our fire department here at city hall and Flagstaff. And in 2010, we had a pretty rough experience with the Schultz Fire. And so, that was 15,000 acres of fire. A lot of it moderate to high severity. And it was on the side of the San Francisco Peaks here in town.

And then there was rain afterwards that fell on that fire scar that created some catastrophic flooding events. Huge catastrophe for people living in the community below it and even caused 1 fatality for a young child that was caught in some flood events. So, massive catastrophe for our community, the — where that fire started was in a location that had been planned to be treated with some thinning and some fire.

There was delays. It didn't happen. And then this big fire happened. So, it was really unfortunate because we know what the solutions are in our community. It's just it's difficult to get them in alignment at all times. And so, that incident of the Schultz Fire really was our management action point.

And in 2012, the voters approved something called the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. And so, that was a 10-million-dollar bond that passed with 74% support. And the majority of that funding has gone to federal lands. So, we use that investment to ramp up our collaborative program out of the fire department here.

And really started pushing hard for going after not just easy acres, but hard acres. Going after some complex areas of forest service land around our community that, we now know, when they burn in ways we don't want them to burn, there's all kinds of ongoing impacts. We are still experiencing flooding events from the Schultz Fire scar every year.

And so, that 10-million-dollar investment was a game changer for us. At the local level here, we can now point to over 4 dollars that we've been able to bring in from partner contributions to every 1 dollar that we've invested through that bond. So, over 40 million dollars, the majority of that coming from our partners here on the Flagstaff Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest to really make a difference to our community.

And every year we're catching fires in treated areas. And we're keeping them out of the newspaper. And so, we'll jump on an illegal campfire on a red flag day, and we'll keep it to three acres. Where in an untreated acre, untreated site, who knows what that's going to turn into.

So, we definitely see the investment benefits of this every year. And then over time, our wildland fire management program has evolved greatly, as the majority of that bond funding is used up in treatments. We've transitioned our program into a local fee here, so a small fee on municipal water bills now funds our wildland fire management program.

We have 8 full-time staff of many different skills that are working to really create an increase and maintain wildfire resilience for the city of Flagstaff. And you know, it's always hard to measure things that don't happen. But we, on an annual basis, are really seeing a huge return on investment in making sure we have more beneficial fire acres than undesirable fire acres.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, that's awesome. So, you talked a lot about beneficial fire or prescribed fire. So, you also have a prescribed fire training exchange network, which I just think that that's probably something that many people need to know about.

Neil Chapman

Prescribed fire training exchanges are unique opportunities.

It started through the Nature Conservancy. A good friend, Jeremy Bailey, this was something he'd started many, many years ago. And really, it's turned into one of the premier training opportunities that I can think of for anybody who wants to really be a true student of fire. And so, that's a workforce bottleneck that we've identified in the commission report.

Diversifying skill set and experience within our fire service is very important. So, we can take some of these people who have a focus in wildfire response and suppression and give them organized training in management and prescribed fire. And so, these training exchanges are really local events that are designed to bring in nonlocal partners and help increased capacity for local areas to achieve some of their fire goals.

So, in 2021, we organized one here in Flagstaff in partnership with the Nature Conservancy's North America Fire Program and the International Association of Fire Chiefs as well. And so, we were able to offset some of the costs for municipal and volunteer fire department employees that wanted to come to participate in this.

So, that was kind of a targeted audience. It was open to anybody. But we were really developing some components of this TREX that were incredibly valuable for people working at that local level. And so, we ended up getting multiple fire departments from Arizona, across the West, sending folks out here, basically on a TREX. On non-burn days, we have learning days.

And so, we were out testing new databases for structure protection planning. We were assessing the firewise efforts on different properties. We were learning about fire ecology and fire behavior from local experts. We were doing staff rides of things we've seen in our community. And at the same time, we're able to do some really cool burns here in the city and with our partners on the Forest Service.

And then again, it's all based on task books as well. And so, we were able to get an RXB2 signed off. We had safety officers. We had firing bosses. We just had a whole bunch of folks, GIS specialists, getting signatures through this process and really just building relationships and helping empower the beneficial fire workforce.

So, in our commission report, we really get into this. We have things that work really well in this country. And you know, I feel our ability to mobilize and respond to catastrophic wildfires, whether it’s initial attack or extended attack. I mean, we have some amazing systems in place and being able to transfer those skill sets and those processes from what works really well in the suppression world into the prescribed fire world, is really a priority for us.

So, making sure that people get those experiences in both environments, and we don't silo people into, oh, I only do suppression, or I only do prescribed fire. Because as we see so many more opportunities for beneficial wildfires, we really need to make sure our workforce is comprehensively trained and experienced in both of these disciplines.

Teresa Neal

So, when you talk about training and learning, you also have a Fire Adaptive Communities Learning Network.

Neil Chapman

Yes, we've been a core member of that network for a couple of years now, and really the inspiration from being able to be part of that network and working with these people across the country who are trying to solve similar challenges, are trying to make sure their communities can better learn to live with fire.

You know, none of these things can be done alone or in a vacuum. I mean, the ideas — we got the idea for this HEPA filter program from some folks in Oregon and New Mexico who were doing similar things. The prescribed fire training exchange was something we learned from lots of other folks in different areas working on these projects.

And so, being able to share ideas that are working is incredibly beneficial through that network. I think we also at times can get ideas on things that aren't necessarily working so well, and those are just as important in the lessons learned department for us as the success stories. And really thinking about how we're providing a level of service through our Flagstaff Fire Department to our community.

Because we're not serving just 1 community, there's many communities within our area of response from some fairly rural areas to some fairly high-capacity urban areas here in the city. And so, really thinking about what we're able to do to customize our level of service to meet those needs, I can't think of a network that's better informing us of these skill sets for us to be working on than the Fire Adaptive Communities Learning Network.

Teresa Neal

That's awesome. So, I come from a prevention background. And so, I kind of wonder, how do you discuss all of these things with your community? Like you said with the smoke, I know that every time you talk about beneficial fires, prescribed fires, that people say, it's the smoke, it's a smoke, and I know that you and I have a mutual acquaintance.

Well, she's your friend, my acquaintance, but Margo Robbins, and she was explaining about cultural fire, and she was really talking about smoke and that when you burn in a place that's pure, the smoke is way different than if you have a house fire or the fire moves and destroys a whole neighborhood — the plastics and all that, it comes up in the smoke.

And so, that's kind of one of the ways that she also — I mean, there's tons of ways. She's a very smart lady. But one of the ways that she was talking about, you know, we can help people understand about smoke and you know, your program for the HEPA filters to help people who do have a severe problem when it comes to smoke.

But besides that, when people are worried about burning and, in general, I mean, how do you address this with your community?

Neil Chapman

We have many opportunities for public engagement and communication in Flagstaff. We're very fortunate from, again, the over 20 years of public education that's been going on from our predecessors here in this fire ecology and fire effects space that we have a very engaged public.

And so, through groups like the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, we're able to organize very well collaborated communication initiatives. There's a great group in town called the Flagstaff Festival of Science that every year hosts a festival in the park where we will have a booth and we will talk to folks, diversifying our messaging through city programs like our city's sustainability division.

They are really good at getting out in the community and getting some of these messages out there. And then, you know, we just take advantage of when we're out meeting people in the community and letting them know that they have a pathway to ask questions or just provide concerns through us that we're here for that level of service.

You know, we provide Firewise inspections. So, somebody will call us and say, "Hey, I'd love to chat with you a little bit about things I can do at my house to reduce my wildfire risk," or lately, we're getting a lot more calls of, "Hey, my insurance company needs me to do some work out here. Can you come help me?"

And so, we mobilize and we start to build that relationship. And we really think of it as more than a conversation that, you know, we're going to come out, we're going to stand in your driveway and your personal space, and we're going to talk about these things, and it's not going to be a one-time event.

We're going to be ongoing with you in this relationship to talk about how you can protect your property, how you can partner with us to protect the landscape, how you can mitigate your health impacts of what we know are the essential fire programs that need to be taking place and make sure people don't feel like they're alone in this space.

I think another message that we're working on that I don't have a whole lot of experience with because this is, you know, coming from conversations I've had with Margo Robbins, who's just fantastic. Thank you so much for bringing her up. And a lot of other folks that, you know, there are ecological benefits to the smoke from the burning that we're doing that we don't really understand.

And in a couple examples that have come up over the last few years, working through the commission process and talking to folks. You know, indigenous cultural burning in Northern California that was specifically designed for thousands of years to put smoke in the air and potentially cool the water of the rivers during salmon spawning, which resulted in more salmon, which resulted in healthier people, recently learned about prescribed fire in Central New Jersey Pine Barrens, significantly reducing the tick population.

And hopefully over time can show some trends in reducing tick-borne illness in the community. So, there's these little things that keep coming up that are showing us public health benefits of doing the beneficial fire.

And so, we've got to get better at understanding some of these things. I mean, I know anybody who's been on a firing operation on a beneficial fire, later in the day or, you know, on night shift or something, the radio starts to go quiet, the pumps are turned off and you just kind of stand there and you're watching the smoke drift through the forest.

There's an ecological process happening there that we may not fully understand. But it's happening. I mean, that's — the trees are absorbing this smoke. And if you're — especially for us in a ponderosa pine forest — and you haven't figured out a way to benefit from that exposure, you're probably over the last 10,000 years not going to survive as a plant species.

And so, there's got to be a lot more opportunities for us to better understand the positive impacts of the smoke on our ecosystem and aligning that as well with better mitigating those smoke impacts for the communities around it. I think there's a lot of space for us to better understand all of these interactions.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, that's awesome. So, is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

Neil Chapman

Let's see. Can we get into like the specific Fire Administration recommendation in the report here?

Teresa Neal

Yeah, go ahead.

Neil Chapman

Okay. One of my favorite recommendations out of the hundred plus recommendations that came into this report, specifically recommendation number 56 — and I'll take a second to read it.

" Congress should increase support for the U.S. Fire Administration to provide expanded community-based wildfire training and engagement of the nation's nonfederal fire service, promote fire-adapted communities to build community resilience and improve coordination with wildland fire management as a critical and necessary partner in wildfire risk reduction. And so, through this commission report process, we spent a good amount of time talking about workforce and some of the numbers that have come out of this effort. We're really identifying who are the people responding to wildfires and implementing prescribed fires and cultural burns across our country. And so, some of the numbers that we came up — through our research — there's a 2022 Government Accountability Office report that came up with about 20,000 federal wildland firefighters."

This includes both year-round and seasonal. It certainly undercounts other federal employees whose skills and time contribute to wildfire response. You know, lots of folks jump into potential non-operational roles, but that was the number that we found — about 20,000 operational wildland firefighters.

Getting some numbers from the National Wildfire Suppression Association, we're seeing approximately 24,000 private contractors. Wasn't quite able to figure out how many of those were operational versus support roles, logistics roles, but 24,000 there. When we're looking at municipal career, volunteer or paid-per-call firefighters, we're looking at the FEMA website.

We're seeing 1.2 million people. So, that's a lot. And so, let's break that down a little bit further and think about, well, how many of them are actually responding to wildfires? Because, you know, there's a lot of areas that just may not be in the WUI, or they're just departments that aren't dealing with response for wildfires.

But according to the FEMA website of the registered departments, 63% have reported responding to wildfires. So, that's a lot of people, and we traditionally think about wildland fire management and response and prescribed fire implementation as a responsibility of land management agencies.

And I think that is changing and it's trending in a very positive direction. We have a lot of municipal departments these days, building programs like we have in Flagstaff and that idea that it's just, you know, the problem with the Forest Service or the BLM. You know, that's likely to be going away and realizing there's a lot more folks that need to be contributing to this solution. And we need a lot more folks to be better equipped and empowered to not just be responding to wildfires but doing comprehensive community risk reduction work and doing the prescribed fires as well.

And so, that's really where, as we're looking at this 1.2 million-person workforce, that's where the U. S. Fire Administration, which is playing a really crucial role right now, has some robust engagement in this space. But we'd like to see that increased. And so, that's again this recommendation about expanding the community-based efforts of the Fire Administration to support what is by far, in a way, the largest component of the workforce who are responding to wildfires and could be potentially a huge increase and adding prescribed fire capacity as well to these landscapes.

And so, we're really excited about some of the traction we're getting around that recommendation and really looking at, you know, how can we put the Fire Administration and, you know, Dr. Lori in a position to really ramp up the support for this 1.2 million workforce. And really take some of that capacity off the shoulders. It's not just the Forest Service that we're expecting to do this alone. I mean, here in Flagstaff the tones go off, we get in the truck, and to be honest, we're not worried about whether it's city or Forest Service or state land.

We go and we collaborate, and we do what we need to do. And really that ethic of working together and collaborating and not leaving it just to the land management agencies to try to solve these problems alone is one of the big takeaways from this wildfire commission report. And so, that's where we really want to try to focus on that recommendation of empowering the Fire Administration to increase its capacity in this space alongside the other traditional agencies.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, and that is such a big priority that it's part of one of our national initiatives, is that we need to have structural firefighters who, they don't think they live in the WUI, or they don't think that there's gonna be a fire, that they need to be cross-training, they need to be trained well, they need to be outfitted the proper way.

So, it's a recommendation from the report, but it's also part of the national strategy for the Fire Service, is that this is something that is important. It's, you know, wildland is a place, as Dr. Lori always says, — fire is something else. You can have fire in many places. And so, we really need to get some of that funding. Everything back to our structural firefighters who are also responding, but might not know exactly how they should be responding because they've never been trained.

Neil Chapman

Correct, and after recently spending a 3-week engine assignment role in Texas last summer, there wasn't a large federal presence in that area.

So, we unfortunately had a wildfire start that took out 16 homes one day in Central Texas. That's not something that empowering the Forest Service crisis strategies is going to solve. That's not something that, you know, a top-down approach from the USDA or DOI is going to solve. And so, there's a lot of challenges across this country that we need to face that requires a more diverse approach.

And we're really excited about the opportunity to find ways for the Fire Administration to take the charge in that space.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, we're excited too. Well, I think our time is running out, so thank you, Neil, for joining us today. And if listeners want to learn more or get in touch with you, what is the best way they can do that?

Neil Chapman

Oh, well, you know, we always tell people don't hesitate to call our fire admin shop right here at the city of Flagstaff. I'm more than happy to chat with folks about our program, share our info. If you Google the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, we have a website set up that folks can read.

We put updates up there about once a year and track our progress and have lots of success stories listed in there. And then our fire department website here through the city is there as well with a list of our staff and the different services we offer. So, please don't hesitate to reach out to us, either to learn more about our program here in Flagstaff, but also if any folks want to chat about this commission report. It's been a big lift over the last year and right now our focus really is on outreach and making sure people feel that they understand how we designed this report, how we came to the recommendations that we did — and happy to chat about some recommendations that maybe didn't reach consensus — and some of the pushing the envelope out there on some of these recommendations that weren't quite ready for prime time. But we need some help to think about more.

So, these are our community challenges, and we need community solutions. So, please feel free to reach out to myself here. And if I don't have the answers, I probably know somebody who does.

Teresa Neal

That's what I always say too. Thank you so much.

Neil Chapman

Well, thank you, Teresa. Always great to be part of the Fire Administration work.

Teresa Neal

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