Photo Credit: This summer’s “Living with Fire” workshop was a big success. Find out why! Photo by Screenshot of the “Living with Fire” workshop flyer

“Loved this!!!!”

“Best use of my time!!!!”

“Field tours were great!”

“Presentations were informative; presenters were engaging.”

These are the kind of comments you hope to receive on participant evaluations after an event. Especially, after putting your heart and soul, and a lot of time, into organizing that event. I’m referring to the “Living with Fire” workshop that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Firewise Program sponsored in Ely, Minnesota, two months ago. Above are just some of the comments provided by the full house of participants who dedicated a summer Saturday to making their community more fire adapted. How did we pull it off? Continue reading to find out!

The key ingredients that went into creating this event began with gathering a great planning team, determining the audience we wished to reach and identifying the messages we wanted to convey. Next: incorporating those messages into a thrilling event.

Developing the Messages

Our planning team decided that our event would have two purposes. First, to be an outreach effort for seasonal and permanent residents and visitors. We wanted to create a story of why we should care about wildfire and what steps private landowners can take to live safely in a fire-dependent environment. The second purpose was to create a vehicle to encourage and enhance greater collaboration between agencies (federal, state and county), local volunteer fire departments, and organizations that assist landowners in fuels reduction and forest stewardship planning. These folks were our storytellers.

The story began with why we should care. (A presentation on fire ecology and behavior, and the history of fire in the Ely area.) Then, what.

Group discussion while observing a sandtable simulation

Krys Nystrom of Wildfire Network (and also a member of FAC Net) hosted a Simtable wildfire modeling session during the event. Credit: Keith Vandervort, Timberjay Newspaper

What can we do as landowners? (A Firewise best practices presentation.) What is the role of our emergency management team? What is the role of our wildland and structural volunteer firefighters? What is our role in creating personal evacuation planning? What is the role of our local emergency management in the event of an evacuation? And finally, what are some of the tools and resources available to landowners to support a resilient forest? This included discussion on “good fire,” or controlled burning.

The Event

Firetrucks and chipping equipment on display at the outreach event

Fire trucks gave a good visual when discussing access issues. In Ely, chippers can be rented at the local hardware store or you can hire a contractor to operate one for you. Credit: Linda Gormanson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Firewise Program

The workshop was a full day event. The morning consisted of presentations given by multiple agency experts in their respective fields. The afternoon included field tours that supported and portrayed the concepts presented in the morning. Throw in a noon hour of box lunches, big fire trucks, chipping and mulching machines, games and of course, a visit from Smokey. In addition, various organizations (vendors) were poised and ready to speak to landowners about their particular services, such as forest stewardship planning for wildlife, timber sales and recreation.

What We Learned

We learned that people do care. Landowners want action plans that they can implement to create a healthy and resilient forest on their property. 23 seasonal and 32 permanent residents attended. The most important takeaways, as reflected in the meeting evaluations, were:

  • “I need to work on my driveway and property regarding accessibility to make it safe for my local emergency personnel.”
  • “I need to have an evacuation plan.”
  • “Controlled fire is a good thing.”
  •  Or, as one 13-year-old young woman said, “fire can be used as a tool instead of an enemy.”

Participants also wanted more! More in-depth workshops, more discussion, more field tours. I have a laundry list of future topics. They appreciated “seeing the local faces from agencies and our local fire departments,” and “the wonderful collaboration we have across agencies.” We also didn’t shy away from the technical details fire ecology, research findings, etc. There was no need to gloss over things, and participants found it good to see the level of expertise that exists around these issues.

Our presenters and vendors enjoyed seeing the engagement and genuine enthusiasm of the participants. Sometimes, as agency land managers and emergency personnel, we can get a bit jaded regarding private landowners. People do care; they just need tools and action plans to get going. It feels like a very slow process, but, we are making progress. We are all in this together. That’s what fire adaptation is all about.

Recommendations and Opportunities for Improvement

Do not underestimate the power of advertising. Start early, especially if it is a summer event. For our July event, we started our planning in January and launched our promotions the weekend before Memorial Day. Have a healthy advertising budget for newspaper, radio and maybe even television ads. Use social media. Get on Chamber of Commerce and community organization websites. For us, Lake and Road Association sites were important, as well as flyers around town. Still, the most effective form of promotion, at least in our little town (population 3,400), was word of mouth. Neighbors telling neighbors, presentations and booths at local gatherings, talking to people.

Have a good venue. We held the workshop at our local community college. Great parking. Handicap accessible. A classroom with electronics available. Nice lawn area for games. Room for vendors.

Engage and hire businesses from the local community. This puts money back into the local economy. We contracted with a local event planner, graphic designer, caterer, transportation provider, etc.

What could we have improved? We didn’t get the online pre-registration running until late in the game, and it would have helped to establish that right when the advertising started. Also, I recommend setting up an online method of pre-registration payment, if you are charging for the event. We could have provided more room for vendor tables. And lastly, we packed a lot of information into one day; some suggested we make it into a two-day event.

The most consistent suggestion we got: “Make this an annual event!!!” So, as we say on “the Range,” you betcha! See you next year!

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