Crossing Lines to Promote Wildfire Awareness: Multi-State Wildfire Policy Initiative
Author: Sonya Sistare
Written by: Sonya Sistare, Co-Manager, Living With Fire Program, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Wildfires don’t respect boundaries, whether they’re regarding fire protection jurisdictions, county and state lines or ownership boundaries. Our wildfire awareness efforts, therefore, shouldn’t be restricted to boundaries either. In the spirit of multi-jurisdictional wildfire issues, 2017 marks the ninth year that Nevada Division of Forestry and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Living With Fire program has coordinated a collaborative, multi-state proclamation effort to promote wildfire awareness.
It all began in 2009 with a phone conversation between myself and Mary Ellen Holly, who at that time was president and chief executive officer of the Keep Oregon Green Association. Mary Ellen invited me to participate in her state’s planning meeting for its 2009 statewide wildfire awareness week. It was during that first conference call that we came up with the idea of a multi-state governors’ proclamation as a way to put a spotlight on the growing problem of uncharacteristic wildfires in the West.
Crafting the Language
That first year, we developed the proclamation’s language through phone calls and email exchanges, and it has changed very little since. The goal was to focus on issues that all the participating states face, ultimately encouraging individual and community-level actions to mitigate wildfire risks. For example, the first line is highly relatable throughout the West:
Wildfires increasingly pose a threat to homes and communities throughout the West, as more people move into the wildland areas of our states. Most of these fires are human caused.
The proclamation continues with statements about long-term climate trends, the build-up of forest fuels and how those fuels increase the risk of wildfire and the need for citizens to take steps to better prepare their homes and communities for wildfire. The final “Whereas” brings the focus back to the spirit of collaboration:
The local, state and federal wildfire agencies of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington, in partnership with fire prevention organizations in those states, are working together to increase awareness of wildfires.
We carefully word the proclamation to demonstrate collaboration among states, while not going into specifics that don’t apply to all of the participating states. That space allows individual states the opportunity to raise awareness around state-specific wildfire issues in an individual state proclamation from their governor, if that option is available to them. Check out last year’s full proclamation here.
Increasing Participation and How You Can Get Involved
Initially, five states wanted to participate, but only three were able to pull it off the first year – California, Nevada and Oregon. Over the years, five additional states have joined the movement, and we currently have eight states participating. Below is a graphic summarizing state participation over the years.
Others who are interested in participating should reach out to me, or Kristin Babbs at the Keep Oregon Green Association, before the end of 2017.
How to Garner Your Governor’s Support
States that tend to have the most success securing the governor’s support approach the project as a multi-agency collaboration within their state, typically led by the prevention and outreach divisions. I recommend that interested parties discuss the idea with their federal, state and local partners; designate a lead agency that has the best direct line to the governor’s office; and then let us know that you would like to participate. It’s important to note that the lead agency varies from state to state. In Nevada, we partner with the Nevada Division of Forestry since they have a close connection to our governor; in Washington, the lead is the Department of Natural Resources. Idaho’s lead is their Firewise program coordinator, and South Dakota’s effort is led by their Wildland Fire Division. You will know best who should take the lead in moving this idea forward in your state.
Coordinating the Signatures: Quite the Ordeal
Kudos goes out to Rod Nichols, public affairs specialist with the Oregon Division of Forestry, who was in charge of orchestrating the proclamation that first year. Since then, the Keep Oregon Green Association continues to take the lead in coordinating this effort. In Nevada, we cap it off by packing and mailing the completed proclamations to each state usually by or before May 1. Each state receives three original proclamations and requires each state’s seal and an original signature from the governor. That translates to 24 original copies that must be signed and sealed. This is a logistical nightmare, and there have been some real nail biters!
Our first year, the initial challenge was to secure confirmation from each state’s governor well in advance so that the needed number of copies could be prepared and sent on their journey from state to state. The lead agency representative from each state took on this task. The process for securing confirmations became more complex as additional states joined, while the time remaining for shipping the copies from state to state and acquiring signatures grew shorter. We made an attempt to secure all of the signatures during the annual Western Governor’s Conference last year, but their packed agenda would not allow it. To accommodate the growing list, we have shortened the deadlines on securing confirmations.
Once the local representative receives the proclamation, it is up to local partners and their respective governor to coordinate publicity of the signing. For example, in 2015, Nevada’s Governor Sandoval signed a ceremonial copy during his annual fire season briefing, being surrounded by representatives from Nevada’s federal, state and local firefighting agencies. It made for an excellent media opportunity and helped increase the publicity of our Wildfire Awareness Month outreach efforts.
Worth the Work
We have had some challenging years, such as when the proclamations arrived in Nevada looking like a truck had run over them, and another year where all the signed copies simply disappeared! Thankfully, California kept a copy, and disaster was averted. In spite of these challenges, we all feel it is a worthwhile project. Not only have we received national recognition from Associated Press, National Fire Protection Association and Firewise newsletters, as well as many social media channels, but we have also built a wonderful collaborative community with the agencies and organizations that participate. We share ideas, commiserate with one another regarding challenges and learn from each other. For example, South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Division recently borrowed many of our Wildfire Awareness Month events when they began their statewide effort, including our “Junk the Junipers” event. We are planning a conference in the fall where we can all get together face-to-face to brainstorm about moving forward. We truly are part of a great fire adaptation effort that crosses lines and knows no boundaries.