Editors’ Note: Jen Haas is a Wildfire Preparedness Coordinator and Forest Program Manager for Mountain Valleys RC&D in Western North Carolina. She studied geography and GIS at the University of Montana with a focus on cartography and using maps to tell stories. Here Jen shares the power of storytelling and map making and how these tools can help communities better understand and adapt to wildfire.

Throughout my career, I wouldn’t call myself a writer or speaker. I’m more interested in gathering information and organizing it visually for others to absorb and enjoy. My favorite way to display information and carry a message is through the use of maps, a communication tool that goes beyond the written or spoken word. Maps connect to our sense of place and invite us to look more closely and explore. 

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years – from fireside folk tales and cave art to music videos and blogs. Stories are part of what makes us human. They tell us how the world works. We gravitate towards stories because they give us a sense of togetherness and connection. When we connect with a story it empowers us by making us feel we’re a part of something bigger and that we matter. Telling our story gives others (and ourselves) a greater understanding of who we are and how we interact with the world. 

Group of adults sitting at a picnic table outside

A lot of us get our stories from around the dinner table. Here, residents share their insights at Buck Mountain Community, Wilkes County, NC. Photo credit: Jonathan Hartsell

Stories can be a powerful tool in our tool belt as wildfire adaptation practitioners. We can use stories to spread awareness, increase exposure and gain support. A lot of community members have stories deep within them that influence how they behave. They may have a voice inside them saying, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Sometimes it’s our job to help them expand and evolve that story, ideally shifting their internal narrative toward “The world is changing and we must adapt.” Stories can help people understand what to do but most importantly, why. 

Here in Southern Appalachia, we have been empowered to tell our unique story of community wildfire adaptation. Our fuel types and fire behavior can be different from the western part of the country. Our people and cultures can be different in how we interact with fire. We even have a different “fire season” – typically spring and fall. In this way, we are uniquely positioned to share insights on fire management and community resilience in the southeast. 

Our partners within the Southern Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition have begun collecting regional stories and displaying them geographically for public view through a Story map. Our online Story Map displays the Coalition’s activity data and how it relates to the land and people in our region. It uses geography with graphics, photos and words to tell a story. The Story Map is interactive so readers can navigate the story by scrolling, clicking and tapping. They can pan and zoom on the map, clicking points of the map for more information. The data is constantly being updated to reflect the activity in the region.

Screenshot of StoryMap showing mountains and text overlaid

The first page of our Story Map contains a slide deck with information about the Coalition: who we are, our history and activities that we facilitate. We’ve also listed contact information and media links to workshops, presentations and activities we’ve led.

A key component of our Story Map is showing who we are as a partnership including the areas each RC&D organization serves and why we work together. We display our outreach activities such as workshops and presentations, and mitigation projects including defensible space work and prescribed burning demonstrations. We include partners who participate, such as local agencies and community members, along with documents, videos or pictures that compliment the story. We share lessons learned, accomplishments and strategies on how to get work done. 

Screenshot of Storymap showing map with a photo overlaid

The Story Map has an activities map with points on it identifying where communities are located and activities that have taken place there. The map is interactive – when you click on a point a pop-up window appears with a description, stories, pictures and links to more information.

Ultimately, we want to share our experiences, places and people in Southern Appalachia and how they have shaped our communities. Our story map aims to acknowledge the people who do good work and recognize them for their efforts. Further, it is a useful resource for community members looking for ways to get started with wildfire adaptation or to try something new. In addition, it showcases our work to partners looking to collaborate and supporters interested in progress. The ability to align our work with geographic points on the map makes the work come alive, it showcases the people, the places, the scale and most importantly the impact of our projects and efforts. 

So you want to tell your story with a map? Here are a few key items to consider:

  • Think about what story you are trying to tell. What is the key message? Who is your audience?
  • Pick a geographic scale. Are you telling stories in a region, county, fire district or neighborhood?
  • What things do I need to tell my story? Can I tell my story with a single map? Do I need two or more maps? How will I set the stage for my story with text? It’s helpful to take a moment to sketch out a storyboard that diagrams the basic elements of the story map and how the users will interact with it.
  • Highlight people, places and specific resources. Share successful projects but also failed projects and what you learned.
  • Ask multiple partners and community members to contribute their experiences, insights, motivations and lessons learned (with photos, videos, media). Try to capture different perspectives, i.e.: business owners, foresters, dozer operators, students, structure firefighters, biologists, parents, church members. Everyone has a story.
  • Develop a maintenance and review strategy to ensure the stories are still relevant to the message you’re trying to share through the story map.
  • Keep sharing stories!

There are many platforms you can use to share your stories. The Coalition uses ESRI’s Story Map applications and collects stories from partners using Survey123 forms (you must have an ESRI account to access these platforms). The Survey123 forms can be filled out with information, descriptions, pictures and geographic data that is automatically added to the map once they are submitted. Another platform you can use is the Projects tool on Google Earth Web. You can easily input your content including photos and then draw lines or shapes on the map to illustrate story features. 

The way you tell your story is up to you. What’s important is finding ways to connect with others and showcase the variety of people and places in your community. Listen to your community and discover what is important to them. Find out how they connect to information – some may connect with social media, blogs, live presentations or videos. Incorporating the use of a Story Map may be a perfect way to reach your community where they are and connect to their sense of place while also furthering the conversation around wildfire adaptation. 

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