Editor’s note: Ashley Downing is the Executive Director of Wildfire Adapted Partnership. Since 2019, Ashley has worked closely with Becca Samulski, Executive Director of Fire Adapted Colorado, to develop and expand the FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Approach through workshops and other resources. The Approach has been adopted by a variety of Fire Networks members and sites across the country. In this blog, Ashley offers resources for launching the Approach in new areas, and maps the Approach onto the FAC Wheel – highlighting the utility of the program across all fire adaptation categories.
Wildfire Adapted Partnership (WAP) in southwest Colorado has been coordinating volunteer neighborhood ambassadors through the FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Approach program since 2004. Read more about how the program works in our 2018 FAC Net blog post here. WAP is a small organization of five staff members, covering five counties. WAP has been working hard to protect lives and property from wildfire, with the invaluable help of committed volunteer neighborhood ambassadors. The ultimate goal of the neighborhood ambassador program is to ensure communities are prepared for fire – and the program has seen successes worth noting.
Applications Across All FAC Categories
When looking at the FAC wheel, neighborhood ambassadors fall within the category of “Community and Partner Engagement,” but WAP has seen volunteer ambassadors increase efforts in all areas:
Resident Mitigation – Ambassadors set an example of resident mitigation on their own properties, plan and carry out community workdays on common property or road easements, and participate in other WAP mitigation incentive programs (such as defensible space cost share, chipper rebate program and Kickstart grants for community projects). All of these activities can work toward Firewise USA® recognition for individual communities.
Evacuation and Safety – Ambassadors have added reflective addressing, shared evacuation planning resources (such as Ready, Set Go!) with neighbors, worked with neighboring landowners and public land administrators to open up alternate evacuation routes, reduced fuel loading along main and backup evacuation routes, and conducted evacuation drills with partners as events for Community Wildfire Preparedness Day and Wildfire Preparedness Month. One community even completed a virtual evacuation drill where they sent a text to all residents, and they had 15 minutes to grab what they could and meet at the designated meeting place. Then they shared lessons learned (i.e. grabbing dog food but forgetting the folder with all the important papers).
Regulations, Policy and Planning – Ambassadors support Community Wildfire Risk Assessments and some have even led Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) efforts for their neighborhoods, guiding them in their fire adaptation efforts and helping to secure grant funding for implementation.
Landscape Scale Treatment – Many of WAP’s neighborhood ambassador communities are adjacent to public land and ambassadors have been a point of contact when agency partners are looking to treat parcels that are difficult to access. In one community, the ambassador was able to work with neighbors to allow access for Bureau of Land Management crews to treat their adjacent parcel, protecting the community at large and also building upon the defensible space work that had been completed within the subdivision. Ambassadors also help with education and that can be helpful with buy-in for prescribed fire activities on neighboring land.
Recovery – After the 416 Fire, the Falls Creek Ranch community saw flooding and debris flows from where the firefighters were able to stop the fire’s progression right outside the subdivision. In 2019, WAP held a field tour for ambassadors to see the work the community was doing. This is another example of neighbors learning from neighbors, allowing other ambassadors to consider recovery planning along with their mitigation efforts. The East Canyon community in Montezuma County also experienced a major wildfire in 2012, faring well in the fire, but residents then had to deal with post-fire erosion, flooding, and noxious weeds. Residents of the two subdivisions shared lessons learned and incorporated them into an updated CWPP.
Prevention – Many neighborhood ambassadors have taken on sharing prevention messages, updating wildfire risk message boards, and supporting safe burning in their neighborhoods.
Infrastructure & Business – The mitigation contractor industry has grown significantly with the mitigation activity spurring WAP programs and activities in ambassador communities. Some local contractors often participate in bi-monthly wildfire council meetings alongside ambassadors and support mitigation workshops. Many residents are also business owners, and they benefit from sharing resources for wildfire preparedness for their businesses shared through neighborhood ambassadors.
Public Health – Neighborhood ambassadors share resources on where to find air quality information, prescribed fire notifications and notifications for good smoke dispersal conditions in their own neighborhoods.
Wildfire Response – WAP’s ambassadors have served important roles in response by preparing maps including resident, fuel breaks, and private access points, contact lists, adding turnarounds and dry hydrants, and serving as local fire lookouts. Two neighborhoods even worked with their fire protection districts to train and equip volunteer crews as first strike resources to respond in accordance with the fire service needs and the resident capabilities.
Workshops and Additional Support for Ambassadors
To help bring this model to others, WAP launched its FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Guide in 2018, and has since held 6 workshops for 135 attendees (many in partnership with Fire Adapted Colorado [FACO]). These workshops walk through all aspects of launching a similar program so that practitioners can empower even more local residents to be catalysts for wildfire adaptation in their neighborhoods and amplify existing efforts in communities. The FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Approach is meant to leverage existing efforts and can build capacity around other programs. It is also versatile in that practitioners can decide which aspects may be the most successful in their areas and start implementing there. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
The FAC Ambassador workshops focus on all aspects of launching similar programs:
- Enabling conditions for program success
- Training & Ongoing Recruitment
- Working with Partners
- Recognition and Support
The ultimate goal is to come out of the workshop with a “90 Day Launch Plan” for some aspect of the FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Approach. We stress during the workshops that baby steps are the way to build successful programs of committed volunteers. There have been successful launches throughout the country (see examples from WY, NM, WA, and CO here) and many more are just starting on their paths.
Additionally, WAP and FACO offer ongoing resources and support for workshop attendees. We understand that the workshop is only the initial step and that building successful programs can take time, so the additional support we offer includes:
- Facilitated quarterly community practice calls that allow for past attendees to stay connected, share challenges or hurdles, and feedback from others who are doing similar work.
- Access to the Ambassador Approach Online Toolkit that provides volunteer coordinator job descriptions, templates for ambassador resource notebooks, orientation PowerPoints, examples of volunteer investment trackers, etc. We also encourage participants to upload their resources for others to use.
- One-on-one mentoring is also available to those who have attended a workshop to help them work through specific challenges. Through WAP and FACO, we can provide guidance from individuals who are doing this work every day and can share what has been successful for them.
Wildfire Adapted will be offering a virtual FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Workshop this fall. If you are interested, please reach out to Ashley Downing. For additional information on this approach or to discuss how it could be implemented in your area please feel free to reach out to either Becca or Ashley.
Ashley Downing, Wildfire Adapted Partnership, firstname.lastname@example.org
Becca Samulski, Fire Adapted Colorado, email@example.com
Learn more about the program through these additional resources: