Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on March 4, 2014.

IT'S BEEN SAID THAT A TOURIST brings home with him, while a traveler learns about a new home in every place he visits.

The same idea can apply to public education programs. They can project what they see as ideal onto new places, or they can enrich their perception by learning what people in each new place consider ideal.

I recently joined NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division team, where I manage the Firewise Communities/USA and Fire Adapted Communities Programs. I come to NFPA after eight years with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the last three spent developing the national model of the successful Ready, Set, Go! Program. The program was created in 2008 by California’s Ventura County Fire Department and Orange County Fire Authority as a way to better connect their firefighters with the residents they serve on wildfire preparedness outreach. The challenge was to take a model that worked well in Southern California and ensure that fire departments anywhere, regardless of size or type, could enjoy similar outreach success. I met with state agencies, fire organizations, and individual chiefs in all 50 states, learning what the risk of wildfire meant to their residents and what that experience could teach the program.

Among the things I learned is that the best way to hear how residents connect with preparedness messages is to sit down with them at a local diner and listen. They’ll also share with you why they live there, what their environment and community mean to them, and how they want to play a part in the wildland fire solution. They didn’t move to the wildland/urban interface to pave it over; they make their home there in the deeply human desire to connect with this great creation around us and to enjoy their little piece within it. They like the pine tree nestled against the back of their house so much that they wrapped their deck around it — they have no desire to cut it down.

We see in the national press every day that, from the prolonged drought in California to the emergence of the pine beetle in New Jersey, the risk of wildfire is a nationally shared threat. Programs like Firewise act on the principle that residents desire empowerment over direction, along with effective tools to help them understand the role they play as a community. It takes longer, but when a resident sees that pine tree as an extension of his home, he’ll trim its base to protect it from ground fires and check the home’s roof for tree debris. The resident combines who they are with what the preparedness world wants them to become.

That sense of responsibility is essential. Mandating mitigation does work — and local regulatory efforts are important — but it will only get you as far as the rod you use to enforce it if those residents act out of obligation instead of responsibility. Wildfire preparedness programs must respect the resident, acknowledging the reality of private home ownership while working tirelessly to ensure the resident understands and acts upon the responsibility they have assumed.

As for that treasured pine tree, a good friend of mine in the insurance industry likes to remind folks that the tree means a lot of leaf cleaning, potential water damage, and the probability that wind will one day topple it onto the roof of their home. So you may want to reconsider how close you build to that tree.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA’s  Wildland Fire Operations Division.