Photo Credit: Community Liaison Program in action: fire team and community members discussing tactics during the Butler Fire. Photo by Pete Banks

If you’ve lived in the rural West for very long, chances are you’ve been affected by at least one major wildfire. Nearly every year a large number of communities are experiencing the real impacts of large wildfires in their backyards, and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Add drought and climate change to the mix and we have a seemingly ever-increasing fire season, in duration, area burned and intensity.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to learn to live with fire, and it is critically important that we figure out ways of creating best outcomes for communities during wildfire events. Along with the important steps of becoming better prepared for wildfire, it is essential to come up with better tools for living with fire when it is actually upon us. One of the most important aspects to creating positive outcomes during wildfire events is making sure that communities, agencies and fire management teams have a clear understanding of what to expect, and that they have a means of honest communication throughout the event. We have been addressing this issue through the creation of a community liaison program.

The Salmon River Community Liaison Program was born out of the ashes of the 2008 wildfires, a particularly long and hard fire season for the communities of northern California. Wildfires burned over 80,000 acres on the Salmon River, threatened numerous neighborhoods and towns, and smoked out the region for four months. Through this long-campaign fire we endured a six Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions! These turnovers led to dramatic changes in strategy, communications and suppression tactics, which in turn resulted in strained communications and tensions that mounted throughout the campaign.

As a result the Salmon River Fire Safe Council (FSC) requested an After Action Review of the fires. The main issues brought up were the inadequate and inconsistent two-way communication during the fires, and the need to get place-based knowledge to incoming IMT’s in a form that they could trust and use. The Klamath National Forest leadership listened to the community’s concerns and supported the FSC in creating the Salmon River Community Liaison Program.

Sample Community Liaison Program coordination flow chart. Provided by: Karuna Greenberg

Sample Community Liaison Program coordination flow chart. Provided by: Karuna Greenberg

The purpose the of the Community Liaison Program (CLP) is to facilitate timely and transparent communication and information exchange between the incoming IMT’s, the local Forest Service staff, and the communities affected by the fires and firefighting activities during and after a wildfire. Liaisons are often trusted community members with ample fire, natural resource and/or community knowledge who can be effective at getting real-time information out to local and interested audiences, ensure that accurate place-based information is available for teams, and ease tensions as they arise in this stressful environment. When embraced and skillfully implemented, Community Liaison Programs can have huge benefits to communities, governing agencies like the USFS, BLM, and CalFire, and Incident Management Teams.

Community and fire personnel watching the Whites Fire blow up while they assemble for a community fire meeting in Sawyers Bar, CA. Photo Credit: Karuna Greenberg

Community and fire personnel watching the Whites Fire blow up while they assemble for a community fire meeting in Sawyers Bar, CA. Photo Credit: Karuna Greenberg

Since its creation the program has been tested in the 2013 Salmon Complex and the 2014 July Complex. The results were profound. Despite the fact that these fires threatened several towns and neighborhoods, residents felt listened to and had access to more accurate information, and important local knowledge was integrated into fire management strategy. Local Forest Service leaders set the stage for open, honest communication and mutual respect and liaisons worked directly with IMT’s to share information and ease tensions when they arose. Liaisons embraced social media, helping to create and manage the Salmon River Orleans Complexities Facebook page, which served as an important source of real-time information and also provided a safe space for dialogue during the fires. Due to its success and utility, the Klamath National Forest has requested that all communities within and adjacent to the forest apply the CLP model.

The program’s success is perhaps best summed up by community members and forest leadership themselves:

Communication used to be adversarial, but has improved greatly in last 10 years. This fire was night and day compared to 2008, we did not feel talked down to, and felt informed.

-Creek Hanauer, local resident.

Folks living in the Salmon River have seen as much firefighting in their lives as seasonal Incident Commanders. Residents know the winds and microclimates, and have done a lot to fire-safe their homes and property. They are true partners when it comes to community protection from fire.

Klamath National Forest Supervisor, Patty Grantham

There was a feeling of true mutual respect. We felt informed and listened to!

-Sue Terence, community member.

The role of a trusted translator is a critical link as we navigate the reality of enduring increasingly large wildfires. If we are going to learn to truly live with fire we need to find ways to improve communication across traditionally rigid boundaries between the professionals and the locals. The Community Liaison is one effective tool in bridging these gaps and creating better outcomes for everyone involved. With growing interest in the program, I am hoping to make this model applicable to a wider audience. I am creating a toolkit to help other communities set up liaison programs of their own.

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