Nov 02, 2017
Communicating Amidst Controversy: The Fire Learning Trail [An Interview with Jenifer Bunty]
Author: Jenifer Bunty, Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists
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Think back a few years, and tell us about the conversation around prescribed fire in your region.
In 2011, the Pisgah National Forest proposed a series of controlled burns in Linville Gorge, a Wilderness Area in great need of restoration work after almost a century of fire suppression. The project was collaboratively developed through the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network. Coincidently, Linville Gorge is also one of the most popular recreation sites in the region, offering vast rock climbing, hiking and backpacking opportunities. The proposal was met with strong backlash from the local community; in fact, an online petition was signed by more than 1,500 people. The opponents of the project were spreading misinformation about controlled burns, and about fire in general. People who love the area were consequently scared that prescribed fire would destroy the forest that they adored. As a result, the Forest Service tabled their proposal and recognized the need for more effective communication about what a controlled burn in this area would mean. They needed to convey how it would look, who would be performing it and why they were doing it. The controversy over burning in this area spread mostly through social media, which ended up working to our benefit because we (the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network) were able to see how the conversation evolved and pinpoint the false information that was being spread. Many opponents were transplants to the area and unfamiliar with controlled burning and the area’s natural fire regime. They were expressing that wildfires only happen “out West,” and there was a pervasive message that the Forest Service wanted to burn down the forest “for the money.”
How did you strategically change that conversation?
Most of the controversy occurred online through websites, online petitions and social media. I started forming a counter-narrative by doing a deep dive into (but not engaging in) these conversations, going back several years through comments and posts to better understand the fear and anger that had developed. I categorized the viewpoints opposed to burning into four categories of perception/awareness:
1) Not knowing who conducts controlled burns;
2) Believing fire would irreparably damage the forest and that fire intensity cannot be controlled;
3) Thinking fire is not a natural occurrence in this area; and
4) Not understanding why we were burning.
We then used those four categories to organize our efforts.
What did you do with those categories? What exactly is the Fire Learning Trail?
We knew from experience that beating people over the head with information is not effective. Debating would have only entrenched people even more in their opposition to controlled burning. So, we designed the Fire Learning Trail as a tiered approach to outreach. I like to think of it as breadcrumbs that draw people into a larger discussion. One component of the Fire Learning Trail was interpretive signs; they are the first breadcrumb. They give basic information, have nice pictures, and tie the information to the landscape. Each sign contains less than 500 words and uses an infographic type of style.
If people want more information, they can then opt to listen to the second breadcrumb, our podcast, “The Fire Learning Trail.” (To find it, search for “fire learning” on iTunes). This was a chance to get real fire professionals talking about what they do. A lot of people in this area don’t trust scientists and/or the Forest Service. This was a chance to introduce the people behind controlled burns and show that they are professional and passionate about what they do. The final breadcrumb was the larger conversation about fire on the landscape. Since the opposition to prescribed fire started out on social media, we continued the conversation on that forum. In other words, we took it to their turf.
We established the hashtag #goodfire, which has been an effective way to track these conversations and watch them evolve. One of the best things I saw was when an outspoken opponent posted something about how the Forest Service was “in it for the money,” and people began to reply with facts and lines that came directly from the signs and the podcasts. Since they had posted before using #goodfire, we could attribute their attitudes to our work. It was really cool to see that all of our work had empowered these people with information that they could use.
More and more people are using #goodfire on social media; anything to say about that?
My major goal with #goodfire was to link conversations about the role and history of fire on the landscape. Originally, I registered it on twubs.com, and used hashtracking.com and tagboard to see how it was being used. Registering it gave us a small insurance policy, to address initial concerns that folks who opposed controlled burning would use it out of context. Like most things social media-related, it has taken on a slightly different role, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s now used mostly by land managers to discuss controlled burns and safely managed wildfires. One of the fun things about hashtags is that they are also often used to say things implicitly. I see a lot of posts that use #goodfire to denote a sense of pride in prescribed fire work. We now use it for almost any post about fire, as long as it was a safe fire. That includes wildfire. It’s also used worldwide. I recently saw posts from Australia and South America, which was exciting. Our most recent numbers show that #goodfire is seen about 70,000 times a week. That isn’t huge with respect to the scale of all hashtags, but I think it’s an achievement, considering this all started with four educational signs in western North Carolina.
Tell us about how you vetted your interpretive signs.
I think our vetting process was the real key to our success. At the end, we had 16 people reviewing each sign, including two school-aged children. Most of the people editing and vetting, aside from the children, were communication specialists from partnering organizations, but some were foresters and fire managers. I think the language on these signs is effective because we combined so many organizations’ best practices. We were able to create a new way to talk about fire that was grounded in the best of the best. The collaboration also gave us access to great photos and information to include on the signs. Getting the kids’ perspectives was amazing too. We always try to write for a 5th-grade reading level, but making a sign that can actually be understood by a 5th grader is completely different. The kids also weren’t afraid to be critical of design elements. I spent hours working on this one infographic, and at the end, one of the kids said they thought it was kind of scary, so we cut it. I would have never guessed that without them.
A podcast sounds like a lot of time and money. Was that the case for your project?
One of the best things about podcasts is that they are super cheap to produce. You do need a microphone and some time because they are time-intensive to edit; you have to listen to it in real time several times over in order to adjust it. It’s free to put a podcast on iTunes or any other podcast hosting site. We made our podcast available as free CDs as well. Altogether, we paid about $300 for the microphone and the CDs, plus staff time. For that cost, we’ve had more than 2,200 downloads in the first 18 months. That’s pretty cost effective in terms of reach.
How can people in your region and elsewhere replicate this project?
We have two new Fire Learning Trails, one in Daniel Boone National Forest and one in Table Rock State Park in South Carolina, with signs in the ground and podcasts ready to be released. We have several other landscapes that are either in the sign design or planning process as well. My hope is that eventually, people who live or travel through the Appalachians will easily piece together that fire is a part of this landscape. We worked with the Oak Woodlands and Forests Fire Science Consortium to help them develop a similar trail and have given other groups advice on how to get started with podcasting. My work restricts me to this region, but I’m always happy to share advice and more information about our process with other groups and regions. Feel free to leave a comment on this post or contact me at jen[at]cafms[dot]org for more information.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to reframe the public’s perception on prescribed fire?
I think the best communication advice in any situation is “seek first to understand.” Always start by listening. That might mean engaging in conversations about controversial topics, which can be scary. It can also mean going online and doing research, reading comments and just paying attention to what people are saying. In the Appalachians, prescribed fire debates can look a lot like a custody battle. We have people on two sides of the debate that really care about the land; they just disagree on the best management method. I try to remember that people having passion about a conservation issue isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great starting point because so many conservation issues have to pull people to care. We just need to work to communicate the science, redirect that passion, and make sure that people understand what we’re doing and that they feel safe.
Jenifer Bunty is the public information coordinator for the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists. In general, this means she takes all of the great fire science research that is being produced and translates it so that it can be used by land managers and the public. Specifically, she manages social media channels and websites, and develops educational materials and publications. She works closely with the director to develop workshops, webinars and meetings as well. Prior to this position, she worked for The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network, which is where she first developed The Fire Learning Trail.