Lessons learned on wildfire communication and community initiatives
Isabeau Ottolini is a PhD candidate from the Open University of Catalonia (Spain) and the European project, PyroLife. She is researching Community-based Wildfire Communication, and has recently done her research stay at NFPA’s Wildfire Division. In this blogpost, she takes us along her visit across the USA, and shares lessons learnt on communicating about wildfires.
Recently NFPA hosted me for a research stay to allow me to learn first-hand about community initiatives on wildfires, and specifically NFPA’s communication activities in the USA. I started my journey in California, with Bethany Hannah - founder of The Smokey Generation and the American Wildfire Experience. Together, we visited recent wildfire sites such as the 2021 Caldor Fire and the KNP Complex Fire; met the Division Chief of Prescribed Fire and Fuels at Yosemite National Park to learn how prescribed wildfire is used in one of USA’s most emblematic national parks; and observed the impact of the recent wildfires in the Sequoia National Park. At the IAWF Fire & Climate Conference in Pasadena, Bethany and I also presented together on Fire Stories: a case for Community-based Communication.
Creating viewscapes across Yosemite with the help of prescribed burns. Photo: Isabeau Ottolini
In Colorado, Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan and Aron Anderson from NFPA’s Wildfire Division took me on field visits to Boulder and Colorado Springs. We visited the Sites of Excellence site, Red Rock Ranch, as well as diverse other Firewise and Wildfire Partners communities, to learn which wildfire prevention and mitigation activities are happening at the community level. We also visited diverse areas affected by wildfires in the past 30 years (from the Berry Fire in 1989, the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, to the most recent Marshall Fire), to learn how ecosystems and communities are impacted and recovering after wildfire disaster.
Lastly, I had the great opportunity to present her research at the NFPA C&E in Boston. Here I shared Lessons from the US and Europe on Wildfire Communication with Communities at Risk. During my last days in the US, I partook in the day-to-day of the NFPA office, and together with Michele Steinberg visited a recent wildfire-affected area in the Blue Hills as well as the Six Ponds Firewise community in Plymouth.
On my visit, I crossed the USA from west to east, observing very different fire landscapes and being inspired by many great community-based wildfire initiatives – including Firewise, the Sites of Excellence, Fire Adapted Communities, and Wildfire Partners – that make wildfire mitigation and prevention possible on the community level. Here are four lessons on how to communicate about wildfires and support community-based wildfire initiatives.
- There are no silver bullets nor quick fixes to prevent and mitigate wildfires. Wildfire communication needs to be adapted to local contexts, and this requires actively engaging with communities, listening to them, and reading the room. For instance, if a community has just lost homes to a wildfire, it is likely not the best time to talk about good fire.
- As wildfire communicators, we need to meet people where they are at. Take the time to first learn about their needs, knowledge, and interests, and then jointly develop wildfire actions that are most feasible, relevant and rewarding for each community.
- Sharing responsibility: the wildfire issue is too big to be addressed only by certain groups, like the fire service or public administrations. Experience shows that community-led initiatives can achieve so much in mitigating and preventing wildfire disasters, so it is crucial to involve and empower them to take action. In addition, recognizing and celebrating community achievements helps maintain motivation, such as by making visible their efforts (e.g. by putting up Firewise signs, sharing success stories in the media, etc.) as well as providing support (e.g. how to get grants for fuel reduction efforts).
- Lastly, it is essential to build trust and mutually beneficial relationships between communities, fire departments, public administrations, etc. Especially in informal settings, people can genuinely listen to each other, understand each other's challenges, find ways to help one other, and build great collaborations. Because at the end of the day it is all about building this human connection and working together on creating a more hopeful wildfire future.