Rejuvenating FAC Outreach in the Wasatch Front
Author: Brianna Binnebose
The five counties of the Wasatch Front, (Morgan, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele and Utah), located in northern Utah, are home to nearly 70 percent of Utah’s entire population. The majority of our residents live in high density, wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas on small lots adjacent to steep slopes, so we really put the U in WUI! Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL) has been administering community fuel reduction projects and outreach efforts for quite some time, but it wasn’t until a perfect storm of hiring in 2014 that our efforts had more consistency and kick. This included a focus on getting me (the Wasatch Front WUI coordinator), our fire management officer and the fire wardens to work more cohesively. Our strategy was that through showing our communities that we could count on each other, they would realize that they could count on us.
To better understand our WUI communities, we mailed surveys to a randomized sample of residents living in areas that had a Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan (CWPP). We also sent an electronic survey to individuals who had at some point provided us with their email address through either the CWPP process or an educational event. Some of the comments we received from the randomized respondents included:
“This is the first communication that we have received about wildfire management. We are pleased that we are on your radar and look forward to learning how to reduce wildfires in our neighborhood.”
“No idea what the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] is doing re: wildfires; thought you just worked with hunters.”
Suffice it to say, we had some work to do in terms of establishing ourselves in new areas. Fortunately, we also had some great relationships with a few communities upon which we could build. For example, someone we already knew stated in her survey:
“Love the help from DNR, BLM [Bureau of Land Management], UFA [Unified Fire Authority] for our annual fire cleanup and chipper day. You all are great and we respectfully appreciate all your input for our properties.”
Overall, the responses made our primary task clear: more outreach. Even our fuels projects needed to ramp up their educational focus, because if our community partners didn’t know what we were asking of them or they didn’t have a solid relationship with us, not a whole lot was going to get done.
To get the ball rolling, we started reaching out to our existing community partners (including residents, municipal and county governments, fire departments and Home Owner Associations) through hosting more in-person meetings and attending more of theirs. We also focused on updating the CWPPs already in place, finding that many of them needed to be completely overhauled due to long time lapses from when they were first completed. As we started reconnecting with some communities, and getting to know others, we found that it wasn’t just about scheduling chipper days. To help us assess our efforts (beyond the hugs and handshakes), we sent another survey to both our contact list and to a randomized sample of residents living in communities that had a CWPP.
As we started attending more community preparedness days, we realized that in the past, a lot of the effort at these events had been targeted towards adults. That meant we were missing out on the opportunity to interact with the communities’ children. We knew we needed to make a connection with our youth and that we needed to do it with some style. So we obtained a small amount of funding to improve our presence. At county emergency preparedness events, community Firewise Days, city public safety fairs and fire department open houses, we began incorporating children’s games (such as a fire suppression station), helping us become the booth that people wanted to stop at, instead of the one they walked past on their way to the free ice cream.
With the addition of new displays, games and videos to our booth, continued surveying, as well as increased personal and email contact, it’s been really rewarding to see that two years later, we have started getting more comments like:
“I hope you realize that none of these communities could have reached CWPP completion without you.”
“Love this opportunity to help our community be more ‘Firewise.’ It’s amazing to get to know the wonderful people who live here!”
Our area staff has made it a priority to continue to meet (or exceed!) our attendance at community events that address wildfire preparedness, and we’re looking forward to some upcoming events. Last year we participated in a mock wildfire evacuation with one of the private communities in our western region. That exercise was an excellent learning experience for all involved, so we are working toward doing a similar drill with one of our eastern cities. We are also continuing to improve our outreach displays with more interactive games and multimedia components, like videos of the fuel reduction projects in action. We’re even (hopefully) re-purposing a Hummer with a new paint job to haul our displays to events.
The transition from passively being on a partner’s email list to actively performing face-to-face community outreach has not only improved our effectiveness, it has reminded all of us in our field office why we do this job.