Lessons in Community Engagement from North Lake Tahoe

Authors: Forest Schafer Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team

discussion

A community meeting is a great way to get input on a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), and can also build new personal connections and recruit community leaders. The community meeting we held last week gave us the chance to share our “After Action Review.” We’ll provide some tips for the things that worked for us, as well as some things we can do better next time.

We’ve hosted wildfire prevention and fuels reduction events in the past that were not well-attended. We knew our next meeting needed more than just a few people to meet our goals of getting community input on our CWPP, and recruiting leaders that can bring FAC concepts to their neighborhoods. This is especially important as we work with the Living With Fire program to rebuild organizational support for fire adapted communities.

The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District includes Incline Village and Crystal Bay, Nevada. Our first CWPP was approved in 2004. Since then, we’ve had a great run implementing the prioritized fuels reduction projects in that plan.

Now, 10 years later, our CWPP needs new projects and a new focus on fire adapted communities. We especially see the need to reaffirm the roles and responsibilities of both the public and government agencies.

What was planned?

Using GIS and the county’s tax rolls, we worked with a local printing company to send individualized letters of invitation to 2,500 homes in our district. We also worked with property management companies and association boards to get the word out to HOAs, and advertised on our website and in the local paper.

We hoped at least a few would RSVP, and that those who didn’t would know a bit more about what’s going on in the community, just by receiving the letter.

A few days after sending the mailer, we had over 20 people RSVP. In another week, we had nearly 80. This meant we needed a change in venue from our small classroom. We also needed a new format that would allow us to receive meaningful input from a large group. We settled on a modified version of the World Cafe facilitation method. This method works well for large groups by encouraging small group discussion that gets synthesized to a larger group discussion at the end. It also rotates participants to new tables with a new group of people to meet each round. This worked great for emphasizing the “community” aspect of FAC.

Based on FireAdapted.org’s Know Your Role and FEMA’s Your Role in Fire-Adapted Communities, we decided to center our meeting around four questions:

1: What are the roles and responsibilities of the public (residents, homeowners and community leaders) that are the most important for preparing your community for wildfire?

2: What are the roles and responsibilities of government agencies (land managers, fire services and regulatory agencies) that you feel are the most important for preparing your community for wildfire?

3: How can government agencies best help the public achieve their roles and responsibilities?

4: How can the public best help government agencies to achieve their roles and responsibilities?

What actually happened?

At check-in the attendees provided their names and e-mail addresses. We had a large-format map of the fire district, and asked everyone to draw on the map to show where they live, and to highlight any particular areas of concern. This helped us identify areas that were not well-represented by the group, and some initial places to prioritize for fuels reduction projects.

After a brief presentation, lunch and two rounds of discussion we brought it back to the larger group to collect what each discussion group thought were the most important responsibilities of the public and the government.

discussion_lunch

Unfortunately, we underestimated our time constraints and weren’t able to complete the last two rounds of questions. Thankfully, the first two questions were broad and allowed us to get the answers we needed to move forward with our CWPP. We also provided worksheets to collect individual responses to ensure that all concerns were heard.

Why did it happen?

Strong attendance: After three years of drought in the Tahoe Basin, timing played an important factor in getting strong attendance for the meeting. We also feel that the signed individualized letters stood out from the junk mail and got people to read and consider the contents before tossing them out.

“Lunch will be provided”: By scheduling the meeting for mid-day on a Sunday and providing lunch, the meeting became one part formal meeting and one part social gathering. It boosted attendance, and set a positive tone for the rest of the proceedings.

Positive input and constructive criticism: The overall tone of the meeting was positive, with less focus on blame and more on personal responsibility. It’s usually our role to educate the public, but we made clear to the participants that this was our opportunity to learn from the community. Our partners at TRPA provided facilitation, which helped us immensely in assuming the role of the learner, rather than the educator through the course of the meeting.

What can we do next time?

Set up alternate venues: Even if we don’t expect a big crowd, we’ll be ready with alternate locations in case of a big response. Acoustics become challenging with a large group and without a purpose-built facility. A PA system can be very useful when asking community members to speak.

Cover the essentials first: Group facilitation took more time than we expected. We’ll make sure to always cover the essentials first, and cover the rest if time allows.

Prepare for post-meeting workload: Organizing information from 80 individuals and 12 discussion groups takes time and effort. It’s important for us to follow up quickly after the meeting with notes and next steps. We’ll also be prepared for increased demand for services like defensible space inspections and curbside chipping, because the volunteers at the meeting get to work right away educating neighbors!

Some responses from participant evaluations:

“An educational three hours the community needed.”

“Very good to express ideas – the trick is to turn it into actions and results.”

“Great, useful and informative, but very difficult to hear.”

“The discussion was directed (which it needed to be) and didn’t seem too loaded to come up with the answers or the outcome and conclusions ‘someone else’ wanted.”

“Well moderated. Good questions. Tabling encouraged engagement. Lunch helped.”

“Gave me hope that a coordinated, cohesive strategy to prepare our community is seriously underway.”

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