When it comes to better wildfire outcomes, what's with all the error messages?

Can You Hear Me Now? Why We All Need a Refresher on “The Imagined Public”

By: Allison Jolley

Topic: Communications / Outreach Defensible space / Firewise

Type: Research Synthesis

I just moved to Marin County, California, right at the base of Mount Tamalpais. If you know much about the San Francisco Bay Area and wildfire, you just shook your head. It’s one of those places that CAL FIRE employees refer to when they talk about their worst nightmares in terms of wildfire risk. A ton of traffic, tiny, windy roads, and dense, flammable vegetation. It’s also insanely beautiful and the birthplace of mountain biking, depending on who you ask. And, the move cut my husband’s commute down from 75 minutes (with traffic) to 12. So, we’re stoked to be here, but equally concerned to have moved into what feels like the belly of the wildfire beast. That said, you better believe that I was at the recent “Living with Wildfire on California’s Coast” symposium, hosted by the California Fire Science Consortium. Meeting fellow practitioners, learning about the latest in fire science, better understanding the North Bay Fires of 2017 …  it was a great way to channel my angst regarding where we now call home.

Allison in her bike gear, with the Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean in the background

I think I’m going to like it here. But… Credit: Allison Jolley

Practitioners and the public at the end of driveway, where instead of a house, all they see is burnt soil and large rocks

With a rock outcropping like this, you’d think the group just reached the end of a hike. But no, this is my field trip group on the third day of the symposium, where someone’s house once stood. The homeowner explained that before the Tubbs Fire, the vegetation was so thick that he didn’t even know there were boulders there. I wonder how many of my neighbors (one county South of where the Tubbs Fire occurred) have boulders on their property that are currently hidden by dense, flammable vegetation. I’d venture to say the answer is, “lots.” Credit: Jana Carp, Jana Carp Consulting

One of my favorite parts of the symposium was talking to Sarah McCaffrey. As Sarah noted, after a day and a half of talks about different aspects of fire ecology and technology, she had about 20 minutes, at the end of the second day, to “cover social science.” (She, of course, gave a shoutout to the wonderful presentation on indigenous burning, delivered by Chuck Striplen, and the few other social/cultural presentations that we got along the way, but her point was that there was an imbalance.*) She certainly made the most of those precious 20 minutes, though. Backs straightened and ears perked up when she called it like it was, saying, “So, a lot of what I’ve heard yesterday and today is similar to what I’ve heard during the last 15–20 years.” She went on to suggest that maybe why we are having such a hard time generating better fire outcomes is that we keep focusing on gathering and disseminating more biophysical science, seemingly on the assumption that information is all that we need to change, rather than gathering (and using the existing) social science.

*I am delighted to report that the California Fire Science Consortium was eager to integrate more social science and tools related to behavior change into future symposiums, especially because they have five social scientists on their staff.

If you know Sarah, you know about her research regarding “the imagined public.” It’s about the misconceptions many biophysical scientists and wildfire resilience practitioners have of the public, and the, therefore, ineffective approaches many folks take when trying to catalyze behavior change.

“They don’t understand the risk. They don’t realize that their house could burn down.”

“If we give them more information, they’ll take action.”

“They think all fire is bad. They don’t understand the science.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Well, maybe not always; there are certainly nuances, and of course, there are instances where we or the public** don’t fully understand something.

**Regarding this perceived disconnect between “us” and the general public, I’d like to quote Jana Carp: “Wait, we’re the public, too.” Jana’s insights were another symposium highlight for me. Check out her post, Community Magic: Community-Based Asset Mapping Establishes New Connections for Fire Adaptation to learn more about her approach to resilience and behavior change. 

Sarah’s been sharing syntheses of research — her own, and that of others in the field — and preaching her own counternarrative for 20 years now. Still, practitioners continue to assume the opposite of what dozens of social science studies have found (for example, check out Sarah’s 2008 and 2006 papers).

Her candid presentation, peppered with other comments she made throughout the symposium, got me thinking. And then it dawned on me — maybe the same misunderstanding of “we just need to better educate them,” applies to our own community of FAC practitioners. Maybe we are the “them” in that statement. After all, it seems to me that educating the wildfire resilience community about “the public,” isn’t really changing how all practitioners go about their business.

So first, I’m going to contradict myself regarding the principle that addressing an information deficit will solve the problem and ask you all to watch this presentation.

And then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on a question that’s been on my mind since seeing Sarah a few weeks ago: What needs to happen for us, wildfire resilience practitioners, to change our approach based on the social science Sarah presents in the above webinar? Is there truly an information deficit regarding how we can best cultivate behavior change? Or do we have the information, but need something else?

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2 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now? Why We All Need a Refresher on “The Imagined Public””

  1. Thanks very much for this post. To put it bluntly, knowledge and education (particularly didactic approaches) avail nothing in a community without corresponding action and accountability. However, I don’t believe firefighters and emergency personnel are able by themselves to call on a community to change its ways. It takes an organized community for action to occur and be effective and for (positive) accountability to be the case.

    My husband and I have been working since the Valley Fire (Sept 2015 California). initially to bring aid for disaster recovery but more significantly to help with community organizing efforts. We had been gone several years since we last lived in the area although we had visited very often and maintained close local friendships. In the meantime, we’d also picked up experience implementing national, regional, and county initiatives at community levels elsewhere in the country.

    Back in Lake County, we found many thoughtful, concerned, and active residents who knew firefighting personnel on a first name basis, as well as some conscientious large-landowners who could take advantage of disaster and other grants to clear fire debris and other remaining fire fuels. All these people along with the local American Red Cross volunteers clearly welcomed or promoted education about fire prevention and emergency preparation. However, no single individual or organization seemed to be in a position to call on the community as a whole in order to instigate and support large-scale action–there were too many other communities that needed the education as well as their services. For the first year and a half after the wildfire disaster, especially while survivors tended to the all-consuming tasks of re-settling and putting their lives back together, fire prevention remained largely the subject of hand-wringing and head-shaking in private conversations.

    In the meantime, while we also tended to our survival needs, we convened and met with several long-standing community leaders and together drafted a resolution for submission to the county Board of Supervisors to establish a local municipal advisory council at the epicenter of the Valley Fire. In short to date, the council and our nonprofit have pressed the community’s attention on large-scale hazardous fuel reduction at a local resort owned by outside interests; inaugurated an annual Cobb Safe fire prevention event (200 attendees) where neighbors got to to talk and plan with their immediate neighbors; instigated a Neighbors Helping Neighbors program each year (to clear lots) with the help of the local fire safe council; partnered with the local time bank to expand lot-clearing efforts; delineated six areas to organize into Firewise Communities, and have begun shepherding the latter efforts forward. One of the local fire chiefs then asked our nonprofit to consider applying for a CalFire grant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through fire fuel reduction – and we’ve just completed the submission. Throughout, the fire safety folk and other emergency responders have always made themselves very available as they are able (we’ve had a serious wildfire in the county each year). And I find it such a pleasure to just present them as the knowledgeable people they are while the community steps up as itself in the room and with each other as neighbors. Although clearing and managing large swathes of land still feels like it’s going to be a long haul on our end, it’s safe to say that community leaders are now looking forward to becoming a fully fire-adapted community.

    1. Allison Jolley says:

      Thank you so much for weighing in with your experience. It sounds like your community is making tremendous progress despite significant challenges. I will follow up with you via email. -Allison

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