After the FAC Ambassador Workshop in Spring 2019, Firewise Resident Leaders began gathering quarterly, providing an opportunity to learn from regional experts, and to get updates from Ashland Fire & Rescue. Photo courtesy of Ashland Fire & Rescue

An Ambassador by Any Name Doth Broaden Wildfire Resilience

By: Rebecca Samulski

Topic: Collaboration Defensible space / Firewise Meetings / Events Preparedness Wildfire risk assessment

Type: Impact Story

In 2012, the 10,000+ acre Weber Fire blew through a wilderness study area and into the canyon of a neighborhood where I’d been supporting wildfire preparedness through neighborhood ambassadors. The residents’ defensible space and roadside thinning enabled firefighters to protect every structure and build a fire line along their dead-end road and defensible-spaces, a feat which would not have been possible a few years earlier. 

We ALL had been collectively thinking about THIS fire for a long time.  I have told many people that there have been a lot of dedicated folks who have been fighting this fire in their mind, on paper, and on the ground for a decade or more,” wrote Philip Walters, Wildfire Adapted Partnership Neighborhood Ambassador.

Weber Fire

The home of Philip and Linda Walters who were serving as Neighborhood Ambassadors when the Weber Fire approached their home in 2012. Note the red retardant line just above the house and the mitigated area between the house and the road. Photo by Rich Graeber, Division Chief in East Canyon on the Southwest Colorado Incident Management Team during the Weber Fire.

Firewise Resident Leader! FAC Leader! Spark Plug! Firewise Ambassador! Road Ambassador! Fireshed Ambassador! Neighborhood Ambassador! A volunteer neighborhood leader by any other name would smell as sweet… or deserve as much acclaim anyway! 

Volunteers who lead wildfire preparedness in their neighborhoods and beyond by any name can provide great benefits. A wealth of knowledge, skill, tools, and social capacity exists within most neighborhoods, official or not, and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) neighborhoods are at a critical scale to work within to improve fire outcomes. Residents in many WUI neighborhoods see firefighters and professional foresters as reliable sources of information; however, these professionals have limited capacity and  must focus in high-risk areas where their efforts are likely to yield results. Enter the neighborhood leader, by any name, because neighbors notice what their neighbors are doing and will often listen to their neighbors as sources of information  and ideas.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast

Since Wildfire Adapted Partnership (formerly FireWise of Southwest Colorado) was adopted into the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network in 2015, leveraging limited capacity through Neighborhood Ambassadors has been a key strategy for the organization’s growth as well as a strategy to share with other wildfire mitigation professionals. It is well known that when it comes to community fire adaptation, ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ It took several years to move from sharing anecdotes of how Wildfire Adapted was supporting volunteers and maximizing professional capacity to creating a FAC Ambassador Approach Guide (the guide), toolkit, and workshop, and establishing a connected group of professionals investing in neighborhood volunteer approaches. The outcomes of this knowledge transfer and ongoing support are starting to blossom across the nation.

Ashland Fire Adapted Communities

Katie Gibble, FAC Coordinator for Ashland Fire & Rescue, summed up their achievements with volunteer coordination so far when she said,“We have shifted from one-on-one coordination between a Firewise Resident Leader and the FAC Coordinator to assembling all Firewise Resident Leaders at once in a quarterly meeting, which alone has increased the capacity of the FAC Coordinator by decreasing the time spent working with 35 Firewise Resident Leaders individually.” 

Ashland Firewise leaders

In February, 2020, Ashland’s Firewise Resident Leaders gather to learn from the Oregon Department of Forestry how to apply for grant funds to conduct wildfire fuels reduction work within their Firewise Community. Photo courtesy of Ashland Fire & Rescue

When funding that had consistently been granted to each Firewise USA® site in Ashland for the past decade suddenly became unavailable, staff were able to find an opportunity for an Oregon Department of Forestry crew to provide mitigation on competitively selected neighborhood projects. Sixteen of Ashland’s Firewise Resident Leaders applied and six were prioritized for work in the 2020 season. Katie also reported that “the large workload of identifying, writing and submitting an application to complete fuel reduction work was shifted from the FAC Coordinator to the Firewise Resident Leaders, distributing the workload and increasing the capacity of the FAC Coordinator to spend their time on other important work.” The approach in Ashland represents a concerted effort to maximize the effectiveness of their neighborhood volunteers with an efficient use of fire department staff time. A plan for making this transition was built during the February 2019 FAC Ambassador Approach workshop in Durango, CO.

FAC Ambassador Models Take Many Shapes

In sharing the Ambassador approach, wildfire mitigation professionals have been encouraged to leverage their community wildfire resilience assets through their volunteers, which has encouraged flexibility and creativity in determining the best ways to support community fire adaptation in every community. These local assets are shining through as this approach takes shape across the country. 

The Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities is leveraging California’s Fire Safe Council model and the Nevada Network of Fire Adapted Communities. In northern Minnesota, some neighborhoods coordinate their efforts within homeowner associations while other WUI neighborhoods are organized along a shared road or with a lake association. Firewise Ambassadors in Missoula County, MT, are organized by a handful of Firewise USA® sites as well as other homeowners’ associations and drainage geographies. They’ve enlisted their local volunteers with the primary duty of engaging neighbors in chipping days and signing them up for home wildfire risk assessments. Missoula’s Firewise Ambassador Coordinator, Max Rebholz, explains that, “one ambassador went to over 200 homes talking to [his neighbors] about how they can get a wildfire risk assessment. This resulted in 100 homes assessed in one drainage last year.”

With over 1,500 Firewise USA® sites, it is not surprising that wildfire mitigation professionals from Oregon, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, and New Mexico identified these resident leaders among the initial volunteers around which to build support and efficiency. The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Firewise USA®  program can be a great framework to build upon, and localized support allows volunteers to engage across a broader spectrum of commitment, from those who initially want to find out how to prepare themselves to those who are ready to help develop and implement a CWPP for their community or beyond.

Ambassador Approach Workshop Attendees: How the Mega-Ambassadors Are Progressing 

Among workshop participants—originally targeted toward professionals who wanted to support neighborhood volunteers—there were a dozen volunteers themselves. These ‘mega-ambassadors’ demonstrate the exceptional levels of leadership that can come from motivated residents. These participants included leaders from two NFPA Firewise USA® Sites of Excellence and other neighborhood volunteers who serve on boards of regional or state wildfire preparedness groups in addition to their neighborhood leadership roles. By sharing their experiences  with each other and neighboring communities these volunteer leaders are helping to replicate their success. Coordinated support of resident leaders often shows dividends well beyond their neighborhood success stories. 

Wyoming: In Jackson, WY, where the Teton Area Wildfire Protection Coalition hosted the October 2019 Ambassador workshop, a few of the initial ‘Ambassadors’ in the area participated and showed a willingness to help design, lead, and coordinate their coalition of neighborhood volunteers moving forward. 

Jackson Wy approach

Ashley Downing works through developing a volunteer approach with the Jackson team during the workshop hosted in Jackson, WY in September 2019. The Teton Area Wildfire Protection team pictured includes the Fire Chief and staff, three initial ‘ambassadors’, USFS District Ranger and Staff from the Forest Service, County Emergency Management, and Teton Conservation District. Photo courtesy of Wendy Fulks, TNC

New Mexico: In Santa Fe, one Fireshed Ambassador leads a local organization assisting seniors to age in-place, resulting in connections through AARP, new leaders from high-risk neighborhoods, and volunteer capacity to plan preparedness events within the Santa Fe Fireshed. In the foothills East of Albuquerque, Tim Kirkpatrick spurs neighborhood action and engages with other New Mexico FAC Leaders to expand resident level action. 

Washington: On the dry side of the Cascades, Flowery Trail’s site leader, Dan Holman, shares his subdivision level success through participation in Firewise USA® Sites of Excellence and the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Porfirio Chavarria

Porfirio Chavarria shares a fire scenario with a neighborhood. A Fireshed Ambassador did all of the work to bring neighbors together to learn about their wildfire risk and what they can do to reduce their risk. Photo courtesy of Sam Berry, Forest Stewards Guild

Colorado:Workshop participants have included resident leaders from El Paso County’s Community Emergency Response Team, the Spanish Peaks Alliance for Wildfire Preparedness, Fire Adapted Bailey, and the Tri-Lakes area, including Sites of Excellence leaders in Red Rock Ranch. In addition to being exemplary ‘ambassadors’ for their own communities, each of these volunteers is successfully expanding resident-led wildfire preparedness actions in their neighboring geographies, one new ‘FAC Ambassador’ at a time. 

Most of these volunteers are also bringing local foresters, volunteer fire departments, and other local leaders further into the wildfire preparedness fold as they progress. Other places are very fortunate to have highly motivated wildfire mitigation professionals developing support for volunteer neighborhood leaders, regardless of whether the volunteers have started asking for support..

Workshop Attendees: What are the professionals doing?

Wildfire Mitigation professionals who attended a workshop are utilizing the launch plans they developed in numerous ways, including: reporting back to local partners; building their place-based strategies for supporting neighborhood ambassadors into annual work plans and Community Wildfire Protection Plans; recruiting ambassadors; developing volunteer training programs; and hosting initial meetings or inviting previously independent volunteers together to multiply efforts. They have also found the collection of resources in the provided toolkit to be valuable, a few of them sharing the entire folder of resources directly with their volunteers to run with them.

Most professionals I’ve worked with are pursuing an ambassador approach as a collateral duty to all of their other professional duties, with the endgame in mind. They recognize that investing in coordinating neighborhood volunteers will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of all their other wildfire preparedness efforts.

With or Without a Volunteer Coordinator

In the guide and workshops, we identify a handful of key enabling conditions for supporting volunteers including:

  • a volunteer base,
  • a dedicated coordinator,
  • engaged partners,
  • regular communications including meetings, and 
  • an ability to track outcomes

With many professionals pursuing an ambassador approach, the importance of dedicated volunteer coordination stands out as paramount for local approaches to successfully engage their neighborhood leaders. Those who are moving forward without a designated volunteer coordinator are struggling to provide the framework to meet the needs of their volunteers. Many Wildfire Mitigation Specialists have backgrounds in natural resource management or wildland firefighting, so volunteer coordination requires new skills and time dedicated to coordinating people. Without dedicated staff time for volunteer coordination, many of the FAC Ambassador workshop participants have indicated that they:

  • haven’t developed their initial training yet,
  • are struggling to recruit the right people, and
  • don’t have enough time to support the needs of their volunteers

However, they continue to plug away and seek opportunities to support volunteer coordination.

In Ashland, OR; Island Park, ID; Lake Tahoe, Lake & Cook Counties, MN; and Missoula, MT, volunteer coordination is a specifically designated job duty of a local wildfire mitigation professional. Several of these communities have recently received Action & Implementation for Mitigation (through the Colorado-based Coalitions and Collaboratives organization) program awards to support development of their local neighborhood ambassador approach. For those with clear and dedicated coordination roles for volunteer neighborhood ambassadors, the challenges are different. In Tahoe, as they start getting substantial participation, the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities  has identified the need to clarify volunteer commitments and geography. In Missoula, the coordinator senses that the infrequent, stand-replacement fire regime adds to the challenge of communicating risk and he sees an opportunity to expand the roles of his volunteers. In Island Park, ID and northern Minnesota, it has been challenging to move their approaches forward with coronavirus stay-at-home orders going into effect just as the coordinators were ready to bring their initial volunteers together.

Continued support for the Ambassador Approach

Ashley Downing (Wildfire Adapted Partnership), Pam Wilson (Coalitions & Collaboratives), and I (Rebecca Samulski, Fire Adapted Colorado) are all continuing to offer one-on-one support to those who are building the ambassador approach where they work. We recently initiated bi-monthly calls for workshop participants and others who have sought direct support, to share their challenges and strategies with each other. The community of professionals who are motivated to effectively multiply their efforts through FAC Ambassadors has grown across the country. We all look forward to the huge strides that are possible as more and more wildfire mitigation professionals become proficient at recruiting, training, engaging, retaining, and celebrating the volunteers who can lead the way to better wildfire outcomes in their high-risk neighborhoods.

To get on the FAC Ambassador Support list to participate in peer assist calls, to receive future workshop announcements, or to help support or host a future workshop, please contact Rebecca Samulski at fireadaptedco@gmail.com.


Background:

In 2019, Ashley Downing, Executive Director of Wildfire Adapted Partnership, and I presented two in-person workshops supporting forty-five professionals across nine states to develop launch plans for neighborhood volunteer efforts. Pam Wilson (former director of FireWise of SW Colorado) was the primary developer of the FAC Ambassador Guide and has been instrumental in sharing this approach with other wildfire mitigation professionals. A team from Missoula, MT scheduled a special visit to southwest Colorado for on-site peer learning after being introduced to the approach by a Community Mitigation Assistance Team, and a few professionals have sought one-on-one advice for their volunteer programs (New Jersey and Tahoe).

Determined to build an ambassador approach around Santa Fe, N.M., Porfirio Chavarria provided the link to transfer knowledge from the Wildfire Adapted Neighborhood Ambassador program to the Santa Fe Fireshed and the Fire Adapted New Mexico Learning Network. In 2016, Porfirio and Pam, then Director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, were co-leading the FAC Learning Network’s Homeowner/Landowner Engagement Community of Practice. Pam presented on what Neighborhood Ambassadors can do with a group of volunteers that the Forest Stewards Guild had gathered in northern New Mexico. Then Porfirio drove to Durango to meet with Pam and me (I was coordinating Neighborhood Ambassadors for FireWise of Southwest Colorado  at the time) to hash out what entails an effective volunteer neighborhood ambassador approach, forming the basis for the FAC Ambassador Guide.

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2 thoughts on “An Ambassador by Any Name Doth Broaden Wildfire Resilience”

  1. From local to national, ambassador approaches are working! Great article Becca!

  2. Dennis Page says:

    Great Article – it’s great to see momentum and the progress!

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