Florida, Prescribed Fire, the National Association of State Foresters, and Risk Mapping: Meet John Fish

By: Florida Forest Service John Fish

Topic: Communications / Outreach Evacuation outreach/planning Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Interview

Editor’s note: If you work in the realm of controlled burning, wildfire risk mapping, outreach or forestry, John Fish is someone you should meet. John is the fire chief of the Florida Forest Service, and he has represented the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s WUI Committee and currently on the national Fire Adapted Communities Coalition.

In 2017, we interviewed John to learn about the largest prescribed fire program in the nation, his take on NASF’s priorities, and the evolution of the Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal. We think his insights remain valuable, so here’s an updated question-by-question account of our conversation.

What should our readers know about the National Association of State Foresters’ priorities related to community fire adaptation?

NASF remains committed to providing national guidance for identifying communities at risk from wildfire, conducting planning efforts that are consistent with national initiatives, and reinforcing the organization’s role in setting priorities, affecting progress, and measuring success toward the reduction of wildfire risk for America’s communities. To achieve these challenging goals, the NASF focuses on:

  • Developing guidance for identifying communities at risk from wildfire;
  • Utilizing technology for wildfire risk assessments to accurately and consistently assess wildfire risk;
  • Encouraging community wildfire protection planning through CWPPs or other wildfire mitigation planning tools;
  • Providing guidance on accomplishment tracking of risk reduction practices;
  • Encouraging collaboration across jurisdictions to effectively plan and implement risk reduction measures on a landscape scale; and
  • Promoting local community involvement and increased awareness of responsibility by developing and implementing CWPP processes that are appropriate for the level of risk and capacity in the community.

NASF relies on the power of policy, communications and partnerships in all areas of its work, and WUI issues are no exception. More people living in fire-prone landscapes, high fuel loads, drought, and unhealthy forests are among the factors that have led state foresters to identify wildland fire as a significant priority issue in their Forest Action Plans.

Florida leads the nation in controlled burning (in terms of acres burned/year). Tell us about it!

Wildfire occurrences and acreage burned over the past 25+ years in Florida are showing a general downward trend; however, wildfires occurring in the expanding WUI are increasing in both number and complexity. To address these challenges, the Florida Forest Service continues to work closely with our federal, state and local cooperators to build and enhance wildfire prevention, education, mitigation and response capacity to provide the best and most effective coordinated preparedness possible when wildfires do occur.

Despite the sharp increase in Florida’s population over the past 10 years (just over 21 million currently), the acres treated with prescribed fire continue to increase. Last year alone, the Florida Forest Service issued approximately 88,000 open burning authorizations, and with our partners and landowners, applied prescribed fire to more than 2.1 million acres across the state. We continue to focus our partnerships and efforts on prescribed fire practitioner training, highway safety and smoke management, prescribed fire education and messaging, and burner liability protection.

People in other states often reference how high “the license to burn” is in Florida. Tell us about one of your outreach campaigns.

The southeastern United States is comprised of ecosystems that require frequent fire to remain healthy. Failing to inform citizens, decision makers, new residents and visitors of the importance of prescribed fire will likely lead to a decline in the use of this critical tool. A public education campaign, consistent across the region, was needed to effectively raise awareness and understanding of our natural lands and the role that prescribed fire plays in them. From this, the “One Message, Many Voices” campaign was born.

What makes this project unique is the use of focused research and innovative social marketing tools and techniques.

The Southern Group of State Foresters received a grant through the USDA Forest Service to develop this campaign and quickly partnered with Tall Timbers Research Station to coordinate the research, design and evaluation of effective messages and approaches that would increase the public’s understanding and acceptance of prescribed fire. The research revealed that we had been using the wrong approach all along! In many cases, we were actually scaring people by showing the dangers of fire and then trying to convince them that more fire on the ground would help protect them. The research clearly indicated that most folks have a heartfelt appreciation for the forest, but we were framing our messages with a fire focus instead of forest focus. People are not really seeking an acceptance of prescribed fire; however, they are seeking a close relationship with forests and other natural lands. Framing our messages around people’s relationship with the forest, and briefly interrupting ourselves to point out that prescribed fire is an important tool in keeping forests and natural lands healthy, is a much more effective approach. This was a hard sell for those of us who enjoy pictures of fire on the landscape … but we are the minority!

The project has resulted in a variety of educational products that we marketed on social media. The products are focused on encouraging people to “Take a Forest Break” and include two websites, television and radio announcements, an educational video, bumper stickers, billboards and other printed materials. The websites, VisitMyForest.org and GoodFires.org, provide information about local forest recreation opportunities in the viewer’s area and the benefits of using prescribed fire as a management tool. The project has been implemented by state agencies in 13 southeastern states, and the use of social media to promote the message has shown good success.

Flyer for "One Message, Many Voices" campaign flyer

The “One Message, Many Voices” campaign was created to raise awareness and understanding of our natural lands and the role that prescribed fire plays in them. Credit: Southern Group of State Foresters

Many of our readers are involved in wildfire mapping efforts. Tell us about the history of Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (SouthWRAP).

Florida created the Florida Fire Risk Assessment System, or FRAS as it was affectionately called, back in 2002. This was a powerful GIS tool that helped emergency managers, planners, government officials and others understand spatial wildfire risks and mitigation opportunities. FRAS evolved into the regional risk assessment tool, Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (SouthWRAP), which was developed by the Southern Group of State Foresters and is used by 13 states in the Southeast. The South was the first region of the country to develop this web-based tool, and through SouthWRAP, wildfire mitigation specialists, prevention planners, community leaders and citizens can generate maps and download data that represent specific areas of interest. General users utilize the “Public Viewer” feature and those needing more advanced risk assessment tools and subsequent plans can register for access to the “Professional Viewer” feature. An added feature is a “Communities at Risk Editor” which allows select mitigation professionals to edit and better define communities.

The biggest benefits of this new tool are its accessibility through the web and its ability to provide different user types with wildfire risk information specific to their area(s) of interest. In addition, the information provided in the assessment can be used to:

  • Identify areas and communities that are the most prone to wildfire and/or may require additional tactical planning, specifically related to mitigation projects and CWPPs;
  • Justify resource, budget and funding requests;
  • Allow agencies to work together to better define priorities and improve emergency response, particularly across jurisdictional boundaries;
  • Increase communication with residents and the public to address community priorities and needs;
  • Plan for response and suppression resource needs across all fire response agencies; and
  • Prioritize hazardous fuels treatment programs.
How else is the Florida Forest Service helping communities live with wildfire?

Wildfire is a reality in Florida. During an average year, we experience more than 3,000 wildfires that burn more than 163,500 acres. Approximately one-third of the acres that are susceptible to wildfire in Florida are located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Due to these realities, wildfire mitigation and prevention are a part of our everyday work at the Florida Forest Service. In addition to several wildfire-focused personnel, we have four wildfire mitigation teams that work statewide on hazardous fuels reduction projects (primarily through the use of mechanical fuel reduction treatments and controlled burning). This work is coordinated by field supervisors and field unit wildfire mitigation specialists, who also function as our public information coordinators. These individuals engage local WUI stakeholders, media outlets, landowners and homeowners. This program has proven to be extremely successful in transforming community information and education efforts into actions that directly enhance fire adaptation in communities at risk from wildfire.

Aerial view of a home buffered by defensible space but otherwise surrounded by a burned landscape

Fire adaptation efforts work. Here’s a view of a home in central Florida home that survived a recent, fast-moving wildfire due to its defensible space preparations. Credit: Florida Forest Service

In addition to hazardous fuels reduction efforts, our personnel actively participate in the NFPA-Firewise USA ® and Ready, Set, Go! programs within several at-risk communities. Florida currently has 51 designated Firewise USA sites and over 100 Ready, Set, Go! fire departments and emergency response partners. Much of the success of those programs relies on our local personnel working with partners. One statewide success is the partnership that was formed to implement the Ready, Set, Go! program. This program was developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), with support from a host of public and private sector partners, to help communities become more fire adapted. The Florida Forest Service led the effort to develop a statewide partnership to promote this program. The collective goal is to sign up, equip and empower Florida’s fire departments and other emergency service agencies to work together at the local level to prepare residents and visitors to be wildfire aware and prepared. There are three steps that we want Florida’s residents and visitors to take:

  1. Prepare their homes and have a plan before a wildfire strikes their community Ready,
  2. Improve their situational awareness when a wildfire is nearby Set, and
  3. Leave promptly and safely when informed to evacuate Go!
Two rangers talking with a homeowner on his porch

Florida Forest Service rangers doing door-to-door outreach to homeowners as part of the Ready, Set, Go! initiative. Credit: Florida Forest Service, Withlacoochee Forestry Center

Partners who joined this effort include the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association, the USDA Forest Service, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, and the American Red Cross. The program continues to expand throughout the state. Recent enhancements include a toolkit for participating departments and the development of Florida-specific videos that promote fire adaptation in English and Spanish.

One additional area of emphasis is the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) and work with local governments on incorporating elements of their CWPP into their Local Mitigation Strategy (LMS) and County Comprehensive Plan. Fifty-six of Florida’s 67 counties have completed CWPPs, and four more counties are in the process of developing theirs. Our local wildfire mitigation specialists, along with their field unit leadership, assist local governments in incorporating applicable elements of CWPPs into the plans listed above and into county ordinances, building codes/standards, and land development regulations. This remains a work in progress with encouraging success so far.

Can you tell us about someone who has influenced your thinking regarding wildfire adaptation?

I have worked with many high-quality folks in my work; one of them is Sarah McCaffrey, a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service. Her body of work is focused on the social dynamics of fire management and more specifically on understanding public beliefs and actions relating to fire and fuels management. She has been involved in dozens of studies across the country, examining a range of topics including the acceptability of prescribed fire (something near and dear to my heart!), why people do or do not implement defensible space practices, and social issues around post-fire restoration.

I must admit that as a “fire operations guy,” I initially struggled to accept the important role that social science research plays in effective fire management, but I’m a believer now! Having a clear and accurate conception/understanding of the public’s views, we as land managers and wildfire mitigation professionals can more effectively adapt our approaches to motivate stakeholders to take action. With the limited resources available to public land managers, we can’t afford to use a trial and error approach in determining the best practices to most effectively accomplish our objectives; this research helps us take the guesswork out of it.

John Fish with a drip torch. John is the chief of the Florida Forest Service, and has represented the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s WUI Committee and currently on the national Fire Adapted Communities Coalition.

John Fish assisting with a prescribed burn on the Withlacoochee State Forest in Central Florida in 2016. Credit: Florida Forest Service, Withlacoochee Forestry Center

John Fish is the fire chief for the Florida Forest Service. In this role, he is directly responsible for the Florida Forest Service’s forest protection and emergency response programs, which include wildland fire prevention, mitigation, detection and suppression on over 26 million acres, Incident Management Team coordination, and the largest prescribed fire program in the nation.

John has worked in Florida and throughout the United States in emergency response and incident management in numerous command staff and operational positions. In addition to being a certified wildland firefighter, John is also cross-trained as a structural firefighter/paramedic and remains actively involved as a fire-rescue volunteer in his home community. John holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from Iowa State University and earned the Certified Public Manager designation through the Florida Center for Public Management at Florida State University.

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