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Roadway Vegetation Management: A CRR tool for the WUI

Why focus on road corridors? In early December, Teton Area Wildfire Protection Coalition (TAWPC) had the good fortune of having the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) present to us on their Camp Fire Progression Study. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. NIST noted the similarities between Teton County and Paradise, California (the town most impacted by the Camp Fire) which experienced nineteen (19) burnovers* in less than 24 hours. Nineteen. I encourage you to look at the burnover maps in the study, it’ll bring you to tears.

So, road corridor management. Could this be an effective tool to reduce community risk during an evacuation event? Our local Conservation District currently has a cost-share program to entice subdivisions to do work on their private roadways. They requested recommendations from TAWPC on how to assess and prioritize projects. Working with established layers within our GIS, our emergency management team, the conservation district, and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS developed criteria that could be used to define characteristics that would help rank projects: one-way access**, topography, fuel types, within the mapped WUI, etc.

As projects tend to do, this led to a discussion about leveraging public road work with private work. Would more subdivisions/HOAs take advantage of the existing program if there were established programs on the county-maintained roads that connect to the private roads? Teton County does not currently have a vegetation management program, so we started to look for models.

At this time, we do not believe a National Standard for Roadway Vegetation Management has been designed. Most projects we discovered in our research are occurring in California with the assistance of CAL FIRE Climate Investment Fire Prevention Grants.

Fortunately for us, attending FDX Santa Fe put us in touch with wildfire practitioners across the nation, and their insights will be one of the tools we use to assess which attributes will determine risks and priorities for roadways.

To develop standards for Teton County will require the cooperation of county engineers, emergency management, road and levee input as well as some state and federal agency partners. Fortunately, TAWPC has well established relationships with all desired participants.

While we recognize the importance of this big picture, we also know that it is somewhere down the road. The first bites that we are looking to take on this project are:

  • Use road capacity, vegetative fuel types and topography to prioritize road corridor projects.
  • Follow the Shaded Fuel Break model from Colorado State Forestry to set the initial scope and size of the projects. Remove all dead, damaged, down, and diseased plantings. Work with Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming State Forestry and Teton County Weed & Pest to further assess values and flammability of plant materials. Their guidance will determine spacing, liming, and sizes of tree and plants that remain.
  • Investigate if an evacuation/road capacity study for Teton County and Town of Jackson has been performed and if not acquire one. Determine if there are locations along the road corridors where we can implement safe zone as part of the scope of work.
  • Secure funding to complete and manage this work. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS has identified the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant as a potential funding source to hire a seasonal fuels crew to implement work.

We also recognize we need to gather public backing. Besides wildfire, community members also have concerns about wildlife accidents on roadways. Would we find extra support if we combine community concerns? The abundance of wildlife is a huge value for this community and there is a lot of planning being performed to study our impacts on the wildlife. Can we collaborate with the groups doing that type of work? Would reduced vegetation along roadways make wildlife more visible and reduce collisions? Can reduced vegetation discourage animals from foraging next to roads? These are contemplations that could be incorporated into this discussion and assessed by wildlife practitioners.

Recent incidents get the community’s attention, and it is our job to turn attention into action. In Jackson Hole we are trying to leverage our existing partnerships and forge new ones to implement big picture projects starting with meaningful first steps. Along the way we may find new paths and new partners, but we will be successful if we all share the same common goal.

*Burnover (from NWCG): An event in which a fire moves through a location or overtakes personnel or equipment where there is not opportunity to utilize escape routes and safety zones, often resulting in personal injury or equipment damage.

**According to a recent household survey performed by TAWPC and the Wildfire Research (WiRē) group, 95% of responding homeowners live on a road with only one means of egress. Further, Teton County has three routes out of the county. All three put you in a National Forest, two lead you over mountain passes, and the third splits with both directions taking you into narrow river canyons. Ideally work performed on county-owned roads can lead residents to safe zones where we do not have to direct them to these routes.

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