Photo Credit: Imil Ferrara, who has participated in a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), and Chris Baldo trade stories about using prescribed fire as Jana Carp listens. Photo by Mary Huffman, The Nature Conservancy
“We need to work together if we are going to meet the threat of wildfire in our community.”
I heard this said time and time again — with either conviction or reluctance — while working in rural and wildfire-prone communities over the last two years. I heard it from natural resource agency staff, wildland firefighters, lumberyard owners, ranchers and foresters, young farmers, tribal members, artists, small-business owners, HOA directors, cafe workers, aging hippies, retirees, social service providers and drifters. Just about everyone I talked with knows that no single agency, or even constellation of agencies, can do all of the work that needs to be done, from fuel treatments and defensible space to water storage and evacuation practice. People seem to agree that fire agencies need community partners and also that communities need to be internally motivated and organized for that partnership to flourish. But how can this happen if a community doesn’t seem interested or appears to lack organizational capacity?
“I had no idea there were so many assets right here.”
My story begins in rural northern California, on the FireSafe Mendocino landscape, with a situation assessment of community engagement concerning wildfire. The initial assessment kicked off a year of strengths-focused organizing around wildfire in two counties. Starting with a list of eight contacts, I gathered stories from more than 60 people and documented a treasure trove of 375 local “assets” they mentioned. These included individuals and organizations contributing significantly to wildfire readiness, burned area recovery efforts, and prescribed fire in 13 counties near Mendocino National Forest. The end result was surprising to many, especially fire professionals. More than one person said, “I had no idea there were so many assets right here.” Perhaps this is because the people I talked with noted many assets outside of traditional fire, natural resource and emergency response professions. Or, perhaps it is because the remote and dispersed communities in this region are often considered to be “low capacity,” though usually not by the residents themselves. Their deficiencies — e.g., relatively high levels of poverty, violence, drug use, mental illness and distrust — are thought to prevent residents’ interest in or ability to organize on their own behalf around issues, such as participating in wildfire resilience. Nevertheless, the stories I heard involved an abundance of existing, wildfire-related assets. Now, we wanted to know: Could these communities proactively connect and mobilize these assets as a foundation for wildfire resilience?
During the next year, I explored how residents might respond to a strengths-based approach to community fire adaptation if I offered to facilitate it. Throughout the spring and early summer, our conversations started to bear fruit. More and more often, we shared significant moments when we caught a hopeful glimpse of a resilient, collaborative fire future. We found further community strengths — and challenges — as well. My favorite memories of the process are when something important shifted. The dominant narrative that prescribed fire was impossible changed during a learning exchange. A group of young adults showed up at the meeting of a group that had been previously sustained by a handful of old-timers and retirees. An inholder decided to pursue prescribed fire on her land on behalf of her neighbors and the wider community. A ranger and a tribal elder ended their first meeting by affirming mutual interest amid their cultural differences. A grazing permittee sketched a map locating potential burn projects that neighboring inholders had discussed. A couple of times, fire professionals’ imaginations “clicked on” and ideas started to flow regarding how to involve their fellow community members in new ways.
Stick to the Basics When Things Go Wonky
As you may find in your community, I learned that many people I met were fully aware of wildfire threats and though they haven’t done much about it, they wanted to. Also, I met numerous people who immediately recognized the importance of using the strengths of their neighbors, volunteer associations, and local organizations, even if that wasn’t how they normally thought. A couple of times, a community member had already started compiling “wildfire resources” on their own — which provided a great opportunity for me to suggest that they work with others to map their community assets in a more inclusive and semi-structured way.
Then, I learned the hard way that while some community members want to follow a step-by-step process, others do not. My own “fantastic failure” occurred when some community members didn’t want to follow the asset-mapping process I put in front of them. (They “don’t like meetings.”) That was an important learning opportunity. Reflecting on stories I’d heard, I realized that their fierce self-reliance was already based on the capacity to mobilize their assets when the need arose. The principles of asset-focused community work held true there as much as anywhere else, but in this situation, my expectation that they would follow a pre-set program threatened to alienate them. In a way, that was when our work together truly began. From then on, I concentrated on bringing community members’ attention to the basics but making sure to not be prescriptive — focusing on assets, not deficits; working from the inside of the community outward; letting relationships drive the action. I also needed to convince them that I was there to work with them as an equal, not as a professional expert “helping” or “educating” deficient rural folks. We began to talk about ideas for working together proactively. These were ideas I never would have imagined on my own but I immediately recognized them as both asset-based and uniquely appropriate to their community. In other words, I did not present them with solutions; instead, we talked over their ideas for potential steps toward a better fire future. A couple of residents told me that my outsider perspective helped them activate their latent capacity to work together, keep in mind their fire-related strengths, cross accustomed social divisions on behalf of the common good, and remember to enjoy themselves all along the way. They didn’t know, and they didn’t need to know, that these are all community-based asset mapping principles. But I needed to have them firmly in mind.
Working Together from the Inside Out
In strengths-based approaches to community engagement, working “from the inside out” refers to the observation that effective community-based action comes directly out of the quality of relationships within the community. Things may not always work out like you planned, like my learning moment above, and what does work may occur slowly. Good things happen when you encourage people to do what they do best and also when you recognize, appreciate and utilize one another’s contributions to the collective life of the community. No matter what kind of professionals we may or may not be, we all live in our own local communities, some of which need fire for their ecological health. We have much to offer to our neighbors, and much to receive from them, in making fire adaptation a reality.
When asked where to start, I always encourage people to look within their local community and find its existing strengths. You can start simply by making a date to have coffee with someone you have always wanted to meet (again, see the situation assessment resource). It is essential to make time, regularly, to talk informally with new people about their interests in wildfire resilience. Doing this, while focusing your attention on developing connections in your community, will illuminate previously unrecognized capacities. You will very likely find enjoyable new people with different professions and interests who thrive on working with others. Not only does this build the relationships needed for collaboration, it also encourages all kinds of people to envision a positive fire future, which triggers exactly the creativity wildfire resilience calls for. Your community’s capacity gets stronger by utilizing the assets that make it up, not by substituting resources from elsewhere. Still, once your community is confident in an inclusive vision that is built on its unique character, access to outside resources will probably become important.
Take a second look at the people who are pictured in this blog post. Each of them is a unique asset concerning wildfire resilience in their local community. Who are the assets for a better fire future in your community?
Please note that comments are manually approved by a website administrator and may take some time to appear.