New Community Assistance Program Helps Communities Plan for Wildfire

PROGRAM OPERATING IN FIVE COMMUNITIES SO FAR. The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire Program is currently underway in five communities across the country. Image courtesy of Headwaters Economics.

by Molly Mowery, AICP, Littleton, Colorado

Successfully reducing community wildfire risk relies on a number of strategies, including good land use planning. The new Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program assists communities in planning for the challenges associated with the wildland-urban interface.

Throughout the country, wildfire-prone communities engage in many strategies to reduce the likelihood they’ll experience devastating wildfire disasters. Fuel management, prescribed fire, outreach and education programs, Community Wildfire Protection Plans—these terms may sound like foreign concepts to some of us, but for wildfire practitioners these initiatives often serve as the backbone for any good local community wildfire mitigation program.

Now there is a new program offering an additional avenue for communities to further reduce community wildfire risk: The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program. CPAW provides land use planning and risk mapping expertise to help local planning and fire departments in wildfire-prone communities address their current and future risk.

CPAW began as a pilot project in Summit County, Colorado in 2014. Headwaters Economics—a non-profit research organization, based in Bozeman, Montana—spearheaded an initiative to determine whether land use planning policies and strategies could be improved to further strengthen wildfire risk reduction within a community. Summit County, CO was an ideal candidate due to their engaged leadership, proximity to the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and motivated county staff.

Headwaters Economics recruited experts in WUI planning, land use planning and zoning, and fire behavior and forestry (Wildfire Planning International, Clarion Associates, and Wildland Professional Solutions, respectively). The project team worked closely with Summit County Planning Department staff and other stakeholders to undertake a review and analysis of county documents, including the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, Comprehensive Plan, Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, and Land Use & Development Code.

CONFLICTING STANDARDS. This image from Summit County’s Snake River Master Plan, Appendix C is intended to illustrate visual quality and design standards, however, they are largely in conflict with defensible space standards.

What did the team find? Although the county was already engaged in many mitigation activities, numerous opportunities were identified to better integrate wildfire and land use planning into short- and long-term development approaches. For example, several subarea plans encouraged viewshed protection by recommending that any development on slopes be screened behind trees. However, this inadvertently increases wildfire risk to the property due to the close proximity of the flammable vegetation and the placement of structures on a slope. The team, therefore, recommended that future development on slopes require an on-site assessment to ensure both views and wildfire risk are accounted for through appropriate setbacks and landscaping.

Other recommendations focused on creating consistent wildfire hazard criteria for development reviews, connecting wildfire risk to the future land use map, and adding policies to the Comprehensive Plan that elevated the importance of wildfire in topics such as open space and the natural environment.  A copy of the full report, as well as a companion Lessons Learned document, is available from Headwaters Economics (

The Summit County pilot project prompted the official launch of the CPAW program in 2015. Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International teamed up to co-manage the program, which is now being implemented in five communities: Austin, TX, Bend, OR, Missoula County, MT, Taos County, NM, and Wenatchee, WA. Each community has a dedicated team providing planning and/or risk assessment assistance. Outcomes will include wildfire planning and regulatory recommendations, implementation guidance, and wildfire risk assessment maps. Current funding from the US Forest Service and private foundations enable each team to provide expertise at no cost to the communities.

In addition to these five communities, CPAW also aims to support local planners in taking action within their own communities to reduce wildfire risk. To this aim, CPAW has planned outreach and training activities to engage local planners and fire practitioners in peer learning exchanges and trainings. This August, members of the CPAW program team will conduct a full-day pre-conference training at the Western Planner Conference in Great Falls, Montana. Presenters will dive deeper into wildland-urban interface planning concepts and share initial insights from CPAW communities. The training is intended to help planners and related professions understand and apply wildfire planning tools within their community. Learn more about this exciting training at:

Molly Mowery, AICP is founder and CEO of Wildfire Planning International, where she currently leads the management of multi-team projects including the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire Program. Prior to founding WPI, Molly served as senior program manager for the National Fire Protection Association Visit

Published in the July/August 2016 Issue of The Western Planner

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