Policy Pathfinding in Wildfire Impacted Communities

Policy Pathfinding in Wildfire Impacted Communities

By Willamette Partnership and Tess Malijenovsky


Willamette Partnership recently released two comprehensive guides covering what happened in the aftermath of the historic 2020 Oregon wildfires — what worked, what didn’t, and recommended actions that recovery workers, at both the state and community levels, can take to help communities rebuild faster next time. The recommendations draw from interviews with frontline wildfire recovery workers whose efforts to help Oregonians rebuild their homes and communities continue today, nearly four years later.  

“We’ve created an information repository so that the next time a natural disaster happens, communities and state agency workers will have a starting point with recommendations, and so we can at least stop the reinvention of the wheel,” said Jackie Brenner, a co-author of the Oregon Wildfire Recovery Toolkits.

The Oregon Wildfire Recovery Toolkits

When the wildfires in 2020 were finally contained, public workers became wildfire recovery managers overnight. In addition to the responsibilities of their full-time jobs, they were tasked with helping people experiencing traumatic loss navigate the bureaucracy of disaster recovery, with little direction, in a system that had never encountered such a large and multi-faceted catastrophe. Matt McRae, Lane County’s Long-term Disaster Recovery Manager, was one of those people. 

“Our state, our local governments, our communities have never experienced a disaster of this scale,” McRae says. “We’ve had to stand alongside people who are trying to rebuild, watch what they’re trying to do, try to understand the systems they are interfacing with, and then work within those systems to adjust them.” 

Frontline disaster recovery workers, like McRae, witnessed the misalignment between survivors’ needs and the government systems intended to serve them, improvising with temporary solutions when possible. Some strategies worked, like hiring a permit navigator with technical knowledge of land use and building permits and the emotional intelligence to help fire-affected communities. Other creative, community-based solutions to recovery have yet to find a path forward within Oregon’s existing policy framework.

It’s been a lot of trial and error and documenting our successes and obstacles,” says McRae, one of the many stakeholders whose experience is reflected in the Oregon Wildfire Recovery Toolkits. “The toolkit is a really solid distillation of key lessons from wildfire recovery in Oregon. I haven’t seen anything quite as concise and actionable as the toolkit that was put together by Willamette Partnership.”

The Toolkits explicitly emphasize how to fast-track the recovery of water infrastructure, including wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water. As Ethan Brown, co-author of the Toolkits says, water infrastructure is “the key to civilization” and getting people back in their homes.

“When groups of people live together, one of the very first things that you need to do is make sure that you manage the water coming in and the wastewater going out. Your ability to do that determines how big and how fast the place can grow,” says Brown.

Rebuilding water infrastructure, however, can be complex for communities to navigate – especially in a part of the state with dramatic elevation changes and massive amounts of flow from rain, snow, and rivers. Regulations around water discharge, for example, have been updated since many homes in fire-affected communities were first built, creating new challenges for rebuilding septic systems. Also, unlike electricity or other utilities regulated by a principal company or agency, water management comes in many forms, from private wells and septics systems to HOAs and public utility districts. 

“There’s really not a single agency or group that’s looking at stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water in the context of wildfire recovery for all system types, and that’s what we’re doing,” explains Brenner. 

Willamette Partnership has been working on the ground helping diverse partners with wildfire recovery, including the Lane County government. 

“What I found myself longing for six months after the disaster as we were starting recovery was people who had some skills and capacity, who could come alongside me and just help do things. Willamette Partnership came alongside us and said, ‘Hey, we see your problem, we think we can help find solutions, and we have already secured funds to help us be here. Just tell us what you need.’ That model is invaluable,” says McRae. “I think for anybody working in recovery or trying to support recovery, coming in with resources and capacity to help folks on the frontlines solve problems is especially valuable.”

The Toolkits were born out of Willamette Partnership’s efforts supporting fire-affected communities, like Blue River and Mill City, with technical assistance on “policy pathfinding.” Through these efforts, we heard a call from local partners to look back at the recovery from the 2020 wildfires and pull together lessons learned.

“People working together on community recovery efforts have these innovative, multi-benefit, collaborative solutions that they brainstorm together, negotiate, figure out, and then sometimes existing policies or institutions don’t have a lot of room for that innovative approach,” says Sara O’Brien, Willamette Partnership’s Executive Director. “For a community coming out of a traumatic event, running into policy or funding challenges at that point can feel like crashing into a brick wall. We need to find some creative ways for public partners to support the capacity for collaborative leadership at the community level. We’re trying to create some flexibility within those policies or regulatory systems – not to undermine the original intent of the policy but rather to help it work with creative, cross-sector solutions.”

“Because our staff have worked with multiple disaster-affected communities, we understand the seas that people are sailing through. Sometimes we can warn them of what’s ahead and help them navigate around it. We don’t tell people what to do; we present options, we talk through them, and we share information, perspectives, and relationships,” O’Brien says.

Emily Irish believes that in order to be good collaborators, we have to be good communicators. With this in mind, she brings technical graphic design and visual storytelling to Willamette Partnership's outreach and engagement. Managing the Partnership's digital and print content including the website, e-newsletter, Counting on the Environment Blog, social media, and design content.


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