Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on January 3, 2017.

Backyard Smarts

Addressing the global wildfire problem by understanding local needs

During a trip to Chile in November, Michele Steinberg, NFPA’s Wildfire Division Manager, shared an observation that struck me. “Everyone in the world at risk from wildfire should know what they can do to be safer,” she said.

Across the planet, people are working to achieve this knowledge through countless wildfire preparedness programs and strategies. At times we may trip over how to pronounce their titles, but the real challenge is to understand how these programs work and what their impacts are on their communities. Seeing firsthand the challenge communities face with wildfire and the efforts underway to confront it strengthens NFPA’s knowledge and furthers its work to spread more life-saving information and knowledge across the globe.

Over 2016, NFPA’s Wildfire Division worked hard on this effort, and that work will continue in 2017. The division’s international efforts are part of the larger NFPA goal of understanding our stakeholders’ needs. Issues such as residential growth in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) and wildfire risk take on new meaning when you learn about the needs of stakeholders, not from a lecture or a book, but by standing with them in their own backyards.

On our trip to Chile this fall, the effort to understand stakeholder needs took on new meaning for me when we visited the Mapuche community of Isla Huapi. The Mapuche are an indigenous ethnic group in Chile and Argentina. Standing on an island hillside accessible only by a 45-minute ferry ride into the middle of a lake, an Isla Huapi resident shared with me his connection to the land, his understanding of wildfire, and his people’s efforts to keep their ancestral homeland safe from potentially destructive development. Development in the WUI has significant meaning and consequences for them.

Stakeholder needs emerged again on a visit to Juan Antipi, a Mapuche community near Galvarnio in central Chile. We walked around the community, surrounded by hillsides and plantation forest, as local leaders explained their struggles with continual years of drought. They told us how the effects of climate change have increased their wildfire risk as the soils dry and fire seasons grow longer. We learned about a longstanding relationship the community had with a local saw mill and how this partnership has led to positive steps being taken to blunt the risk and impact of drought and fire. It was a great lesson in community partnerships.

Invaluable interactions like this are why NFPA’s wildfire team spent 2016 visiting stakeholders around the world, including South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Canada. It’s why we’re working with new partners in Spain and Lebanon, and it’s why the Wildfire Division is aligning its international messaging with the work of NFPA’s Field Operations. All of this offers us new ways to understand wildfire stakeholders both domestically and abroad.

As we learn important lessons from these trips, we also find other ways to help. In Chile, for instance, representatives from CONAF, the country’s national forestry agency that works with communities to prepare for wildfires, told us that they are trying to figure out how to sustain community action over time and were happy to learn how NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program model can help them achieve that goal.

It’s as guests in the backyards of others that we can truly begin to understand our stakeholders’ needs and the challenges presented by their distinct fire landscapes. Getting out and seeing these programs, people, and communities firsthand also makes us more aware of opportunities to help within NFPA’s existing resources to make everyone safer from wildfire.

LUCIAN DEATON is a project manager in NFPA’s Wildfire Division.