Mar 12, 2020
Building Bridges Between Universities, Communities, and Fire: An Interview with Jennifer Fawcett
Editor’s note: We had the pleasure of connecting with Jennifer Fawcett, Extension Associate for North Carolina State University, to talk more about her role leading fire research, outreach and education work in the Southeast. In her role, Jennifer facilitates meaningful communication between scientists, managers, stakeholders and the general public and plays a vital part in providing on-the-ground fire-adapted education and outreach to the community. We were definitely inspired by Jennifer’s leadership across her work and are excited to share this interview with you!
Tell us about yourself! What is your role with North Carolina State Extension?
I have been working for NCSU Extension Forestry for more than seven years. A major part of my role as an Extension Associate has been to serve as the Coordinator for the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPPAS) Prescribed Fire Working Group, comprised of more than forty partners working together to increase the use of prescribed burning across the Southern region. In addition to this coordination, I also conduct wildland fire education and outreach for landowners, community members, professionals and others. More recently, I began serving on the leadership team for the National Extension Wildland Fire Initiative (NEWFI). The Initiative recognizes the importance of Extension professionals working with communities on wildland fire issues and has goals set up to promote and facilitate system-wide involvement, education and support.
What role does Extension play at the University? And in the community?
Extension was formalized in 1914 to apply research and provide education to address rural, agricultural issues. Over the last century, Extension has adapted to the change of fewer Americans living in rural areas. Today, the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) plays a significant role in rural, urban, and suburban communities, and there is an office in or near most of the nation’s approximately 3,000 counties.
The Cooperative Extension Service can be found in every state. It operates a bit differently in every state, but in general, it provides non-formal higher education and learning activities to farmers, ranchers, communities, youth, and families to address specific needs in the community. These needs range anywhere from improving local food systems to recovery after natural disasters.
At the University, experts in a certain discipline with Extension responsibilities (such as faculty members, researchers, Extension Associates, etc.) translate science-based research results into language that is appropriate and understandable for targeted audiences. In the community, regional or county-based educators can then take this information and work with local citizens and interest groups to solve problems and collect input to help prioritize future research.
A list of some of the national projects that Extension is working on can be found here.
What role do you think Extension has to play in fire adapted communities?
In some parts of the country, Extension already plays an important role in fire adapted communities. In other areas, it has yet to grow. But, operating for more than a century with staff who are trusted as non-biased experts in their communities, CES is well positioned to efficiently get important fire-related tools and knowledge into the hands of the people who need them. Since the county educators live in the communities that they are working in, they understand the local needs and can rely on existing relationships to respond to those needs and engage effectively with citizens. Extension is able to help with anything from hosting community meetings to delivering fire-related workshops. There are lots of great examples from around the country where Extension has played a significant role in fire adapted communities.
I recently helped to develop a publication called Wildland Fire Programming: A Guide for Extension and Outreach Professionals. This document provides examples of wildland fire programs that Extension could develop in their communities, a toolkit for implementing “Learn and Burns”, as well as a list of available resources. There are a variety of ways that Extension can become involved.
The importance of Extension’s potential role in wildland fire and fire adapted communities appears to be growing in recognition within Extension. In 2018, the National Extension Wildland Fire Initiative (NEWFI) was created. In addition, wildfire prevention and management was recently identified as one of nine critical issues as most relevant to natural resource management efforts in the Renewable Resources Extension Act 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. Among other actions, this Plan calls for the development of “relevant, research-based educational materials for WUI communities, home and land owners, and natural resource professionals on wildfire risk assessment, development of fire adapted communities, use of defensible space, and strategies in the maintenance of structures and property (e.g., fuels reduction) to minimize loss during wildfire.”
As a member of the NEWFI leadership team, I am excited to help disseminate and apply these fire adaptation action plans across our Extension communities.
Can you give us an example of some of the types of projects you work on related to FAC?
In the Southeast U.S. where my work is focused, many forest landowners already understand the need and importance of prescribed burning; however, they often lack the knowledge, training and experience to have it implemented on their land. Over the past several years, we have helped to support and conduct many “Learn and Burn” field days, where landowners and other community members can not only learn about prescribed fire, but also have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in putting fire on the ground while working with an experienced mentor. This program has been very successful in not only increasing the use of prescribed fire on private lands, but also giving participants and professionals the opportunity to interact and learn from one another, which would likely not have happened otherwise.
In some instances, neighbors have come together to form Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs), which are grassroots groups where members help each other burn on their properties. I strongly encourage and promote PBAs in areas with motivated landowners as they offer greater opportunity to get more fire on the ground and help communities become more fire adapted.
We have also worked with a variety of other partners to host educational field days where community members learn about wildland fire, meet professionals and agency representatives, and often get to watch a demonstration burn.
Having booths at Fire Festivals have been a fun way to share fire-related information with community members, including engaging activities for kids.
How can wildfire practitioners connect with their Extension agents? Can you give us an example of interesting partnerships you have?
As I mentioned before, every land grant university in every state has Cooperative Extension! This great tool allows you to discover the colleges and universities that make up the Land Grant University System across the country. At a county level, check out your County Extension website to find contact information of your local Agent, and give them a call! Your local agent already knows a lot of the local community members, and could be an excellent resource to help you promote and deliver your information. In addition, they may have some resources available for you to use in your outreach or education. For example, we often work with County offices to host landowner meetings since they often have meeting space available and have already identified target audiences in the area that support more effective community participation.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I really enjoy facilitating meaningful communication about wildland fire between scientists, managers, stakeholders and the general public, and connecting people to others who can help them. I also enjoy getting to work with a lot of really cool people with so much experience and knowledge! I feel like I learn something new from them on a daily basis. But my favorite part of my job is educating people about the importance of prescribed burning, and helping private landowners become more knowledgeable about how and why it can be used on their land. It’s really fulfilling to see someone put their knowledge to use on the ground.
Anything coming up in 2020 that you are excited about?
2020 has a lot in store! In a few weeks I am looking forward to serving as a Public Information Officer for the Women-in-Fire TREX, which will be held in Virginia this year. In April I’ll be presenting some of our Extension projects as part of an Extension webinar series. In May I will be attending a national Extension conference in Oregon where this year, for the first time, there will be a strong focus on wildland fire. And in October I look forward to helping with and participating in the 4th Annual National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Workshop in Asheville, NC.
Anything else you want to share with us?
I truly feel that Extension can play an important role in communities that are, or are striving to become, fire adapted. Thank you for the opportunity to share this information!
There are so many excellent wildland fire resources that have been developed by Extension professionals over the years, and many of them have been compiled into this site.
In addition, while it’s mostly relevant to the South, I’d also like to share our Driptorch Digest newsletter, which is a monthly newsletter dedicated to sharing news and information on prescribed fire.
In addition, the following may be helpful to learn more about Extension and our role in wildland fire:
- Extension Disaster Education Network
- Association of Fire Ecology 2017 Conference special session video recordings: “Exploring Past and Future Roles of the Cooperative Extension Service in US Fire Education“
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