University of California Master Gardeners talk about fire resistant landscaping at a wildfire awareness month kick-off event. Photo Credit: Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team

Topic: Communications / Outreach Meetings / Events Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Public Information Working Groups Create Wildfire Awareness

Author: Susie Kocher, University of California Cooperative Extension

Wildfire is a critical issue in the Lake Tahoe basin, an alpine resort area in the Sierra Nevada of California and Nevada. The area supports around 60,000 full-time and 40,000 part-time residents, along with hundreds of thousands of tourists attracted to the area for winter skiing and summer recreation around the unique lake. Surrounding lands are primarily forested and owned by the USDA Forest Service and state agencies, along with private lands around the lake where residential and commercial developments are located.

In 2007 the 3,100-acre Angora Fire burned 250 homes on the south shore of the lake. Afterwards, the governors of Nevada and California created a commission whose report recognized the need for multi-jurisdictional collaboration through the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team to plan and implement fuels reduction and fire prevention projects, and to provide the public with consistent and coordinated notification and educational messaging.

The aftermath of the 2007 Angora Fire. The highlighted area shows the location of a forest thinning project, where the fire changed from a crown fire to a lower-intensity surface fire. Nearby homes were still impacted by embers. Photograph from R5-TP-025, USDA Forest Service.

The aftermath of the 2007 Angora Fire. The highlighted area shows the location of a forest thinning project, where the fire changed from a crown fire to a lower-intensity surface fire. Nearby homes were still impacted by embers. Photograph from R5-TP-025, USDA Forest Service.

To deliver coordinated messaging to the residents and visitors of the Lake Tahoe Basin, local organizations formed the Fire Public Information Team (Fire PIT). This standing working group consists of public information and education staff from local fire departments, regulatory agencies, state forestry agencies, the Forest Service, and Cooperative Extensions in both Nevada and California. The goal of the Fire PIT is to proactively inform and educate the public on how to protect lives, communities, property and the exceptional natural resources of Lake Tahoe. Team products include annual wildfire awareness events, coordinated media releases and outreach campaigns.

Annual Wildfire Awareness Events

The Fire PIT has been promoting Wildfire Awareness Weeks (or Months) since 2010. Volunteers and staff from over 20 organizations have collaborated to host outreach events, and conduct a media campaign to promote different aspects of fire adapted communities.

Each year, the Fire PIT chooses a theme that will inspire actions to reduce wildfire risk to homes and communities. Themes have focused on defensible space, ember preparedness and community involvement. Planners also give presentations on wildfire awareness to 6th graders during the same period. In the last five years, over 60 events have been held, reaching more than 6,500 participants.

Tahoe Resource Conservation District staff members explain the fire triangle to 6th graders at South Tahoe Middle School. Photo Credit: Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team

Tahoe Resource Conservation District staff members explain the fire triangle to 6th graders at South Tahoe Middle School. Photo Credit: Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team

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A brochure for Lake Tahoe Wildfire Awareness Week

Promotion and Education Campaigns

The Fire PIT holds coordinated media campaigns, with publications, newspaper and radio public service announcements, TV and radio appearances, direct mail, banners and posters. All promotions direct residents to the Living with Fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin website maintained by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE). Outreach materials developed by UNCE are used by all basin agencies to deliver a consistent message on fire adapted community principles.

Examples of Fire PIT campaigns include: The “Get Defensive” defensible space campaign, the Lake Tahoe Fire Adapted Communities Guide and the “Healthy Forest, Healthy Lake” series of interpretive trail signs.

Examples of Fire PIT campaigns include:
The “Get Defensive” defensible space campaign, the Lake Tahoe Fire Adapted Communities Guide and the “Healthy Forest, Healthy Lake” series of interpretive trail signs.

Coordinated Media Releases

The Fire PIT develops monthly themed press releases that are shared widely on individual organizations’ social media.

Recently, collaboration has expanded in the form of joint messaging on prescribed fires. More than 10 agencies conduct burns in the Lake Tahoe Basin, making it difficult for the community to know who’s burning where, and when. To address this, the Fire PIT acts as a clearinghouse for prescribed fire information. Weekly press releases provide details on the location and plan for all prescribed fire activities in the Lake Tahoe Basin, across all land ownerships and jurisdictions.

A standing working group of public information and education staff in the Lake Tahoe basin has facilitated interagency cooperation, and has strengthened communication and support between agencies and the public. By working together to synthesize wildfire mitigation, information and education efforts, teams like the Fire PIT can help protect and create healthy, vibrant fire adapted communities. For examples of publications and press releases, visit the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team website.

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