Warm days, cool nights, fresh mountain air: summer in the Northern Rockies. Right?

Not anymore. This season of traditionally lovely weather has turned instead into the annual onslaught of triple-digit heat, withering drought, and catastrophic wildfires.

At best, this new summer reality is uncomfortable and inconvenient. At worst, it is expensive for communities and unhealthy or even deadly for residents. That’s why representatives of Missoula, Montana, traveled to the Sonoran Institute’s Phoenix office in April 2015, looking for ways to better respond to and prepare their community for extreme weather events. Their city was one of two communities selected to participate in the Western Lands and Communities’ first Resilient Communities Workshop.

Western Lands and Communities (WLC) is a joint program of the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Part of its mission is to provide communities with the tools and training they need to increase their climate resiliency.

“The Resilient Communities Workshop is a two-day workshop that helps leadership teams from selected communities identify climate impacts, and sends them home with actionable plans for preparing for and building resilience to these events,” says the WLC’s director, Summer Waters.  Joining the four representatives from Missoula was a team from Jemez Springs, New Mexico. A second workshop in January 2016 included teams from Hurricane, Utah, and Silver Valley, Idaho.

The WLC encourages community teams to include a diversity of representatives, including a mixture of elected officials, technical staff, nonprofit organizations, and city and county leadership.

“With the involvement of high-level leadership, the action steps that come out of the workshop already have buy-in with decision makers.” Waters says. “Also, nurturing partnerships and cross-pollination of ideas between city and county officials is a hallmark of the Sonoran Institute’s approach because we know it can be a key ingredient for successful and enduring outcomes.”

Bringing the Starter Kit to Life

The workshop is based on the WLC’s Resilient Communities Starter Kit, which is essentially a guide for communities that want to tackle the impacts of climate change but don’t know where to begin. Developed with the help of a 17-member advisory panel that included local officials, urban planning and land use professionals from throughout the Intermountain West, the kit provides a road map of actions communities can take to prepare for increased wildfire, drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events. Communities can download the starter kit from the Sonoran Institute website and choose from among a broad spectrum of strategies to fit their unique needs.

During the first day of the workshop, teams go through the process of identifying the areas of their communities that are most at risk to climate impacts. On day two, they turn toward solutions, exploring specific actions they can take to address these vulnerabilities and learning how to convey climate issues to the public through a storytelling exercise.

Debilitating Smoke

Missoula is located on the western edge of Montana, in a valley where five mountain ranges converge. The steep hills surrounding the valley tend to stifle airflow on the best of days. When wildfires burn in the area, smoke blankets the city, sometimes for months.

“Missoula’s summers are getting noticeably hotter, drier, and smokier,” says Chase Jones, the City of Missoula’s energy conservation coordinator. “With forecasts for more extreme weather in the future, we realized we needed to do more than simply ‘hope for rain.’ We had various climate-related initiatives going on at the city and county levels, and everyone was looking to make the community safer and healthier, but we weren’t necessarily working together. We saw this workshop as a great opportunity to learn more and put the different pieces together.”

In addition to Jones, the Missoula team included a city council member, a county commissioner, and the leader of Climate Smart Missoula, a community-wide non-profit organization that fosters partnerships and actions to address climate change in Missoula.

During the facilitated discussion on the first day, the Missoula team realized that, while there wasn’t much they could do to control the weather or the wildfires burning outside of their jurisdiction, they could begin to address the health impacts on citizens. They recognized that heat and wildfire smoke in Missoula disproportionately affect the most vulnerable citizens. Children and elderly are more at-risk for health issues due to poor air quality and heat, while many elderly and lower-income citizens often lack the means to leave the city to escape the weather effects and are also more likely to live in substandard housing that may not have adequate air conditioning.

“The workshop helped us identify the problem as well as some steps toward a viable strategy for addressing it. When you get all of that work done as a result of a workshop, you are a couple steps ahead. That’s really helpful.”

– Chase Jones, Energy Conservation Coodinator, City of Missoula, Montana

Outcome: Missoula Becomes “Summer Smart”

The Missoula team returned from the workshop with plans for an initiative to help Missoulians be physically, mentally, and economically healthy and resilient amid harmful weather. To fund the program, they applied for and received a $45,000 nationally competitive matching grant through The Bloomberg Award for Partners for Places, a project of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. A community-wide effort succeeded in raising the required $45,000 match by the end of 2015.

Dubbed “Summer Smart,” the program will provide Missoulians tangible resources to “weather the weather” by helping identify safe, healthy refuges from the heat and smoke. The program will also offer tools to help people keep their power bills under control by providing shade, energy efficiency, and passive cooling education and resources.

“Our successful proposal was a direct result of the Resilient Communities Workshop,” Jones says. “The workshop was the catalyst that brought the partners together. We are so grateful for the WLC’s guidance and for the opportunity to develop Summer Smart.”

The education and resources that the Sonoran Institute and WLC provide, especially to relatively small communities like Missoula that have limited time and resources to work on climate-related issues, really make a difference, according to Jones.

“To go away for a couple days with people you wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to sit down with and really understand these issues from each of their perspectives and develop these projects—we would never have been able to do that if not for the opportunity the workshop provided.”

Multiplier Effect

Turns out, the workshop has catalyzed more than Summer Smart. The city and Climate Smart Missoula have remained very close, and the city and county are working together on a number of projects, including potentially developing climate indicators and collecting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. The city and county also collaborated in becoming anchor tenants to help launch one of Montana’s first community solar projects with the Missoula Electric Coop.

“The solar project has been wildly successful, and the Coop is already looking for a site for their next phase of community solar,” Jones says. “It’s another great example of how the workshop partners can team up now and in the future to drive climate resiliency and sustainability work.

Your support allows us to develop the tools communities need to adapt to a changing West.