Each resident in your community is more than a dot on a map or a seat at a community meeting. Check out these tips on how to leverage individual residents' values, interests and strengths to enhance your work. Credit: Preston Keres, USDA

Stop Winging It with Residents: What Works, and What Doesn’t

By: Allison Jolley

Topic: Communications / Outreach Defensible space / Firewise Preparedness Resilience

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Over the past several months, people who work with residents on wildfire resilience have shared several striking insights. Review their ahas and ensure that your approach to working with residents on fire adaptation is grounded less in “gut” and more in social science and time-tested best practices.

Remember, renters are stakeholders, too.

Line graphs showing an increase in both the total number of and percentage of renter between 1965 and 2016

These graphs show the change in number (top) and percentage (bottom) of homeowners and renters in the US in the past few decades. Designing programs that don’t integrate renters’ seems like a huge missed opportunity, and an inclusivity issue. Credit: Pew Research

One of the things that struck me the most about the Tubbs “Santa Rosa” Fire was that the fire destroyed huge swaths of rental units. I’m not saying that fire was “normal” (or was it?), but I am saying that ever since starting this work, I’ve heard a lot of talk about “homeowners,” and I think that mindset overlooks a huge group of stakeholders: renters. According to Pew Research, about 37 percent of homes in the United States are occupied by renters (as of 2016). Of course, that statistic may not translate to your particular community, and people often make the argument that it is homeowners who are most likely to invest in mitigation work, home hardening, etc., but fire adaptation is about more than just those actions. Evacuation preparedness, residential insurance, and recovery are all part of fire adaptation (as well as so much else!), and you don’t have to own a home to engage in many of these issues. I’d also argue that if you only expand your concept of stakeholders to include renters after their homes have burned, you’re going to be a lot less effective in reaching them. Further, expanding your concept of residents from just “homeowners” to “everyone” is an important aspect of inclusivity; the same article linked above reveals that the majority of African American and Latinx heads of households rent their homes. Missing over half of the African American and Latinx communities because your programs only speak to homeowners is simply unacceptable, especially since research shows that people of color face heightened risks from wildfires. Lastly, the Pew Research article also states that “72 percent of renters said they would like to buy a house at some point.” Why not start your outreach to those future homeowners now?

Think about residents’ recovery, and do so equitably.

Credit: Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group

What equity means and looks like is hard for a lot of people to put their heads around. Read Maria Estrada’s Equity in Action: Long-Term Disaster Recovery in North-Central Washington for a place-based example of a group who decided to make equity central to their community’s recovery process. Their mantras (“What does this person need to recover from this disaster in this community?” and “Everybody needs help, everybody”) powered astonishing, and equitable, results.

Stop making assumptions.

No matter how many years you’ve been working on wildfire issues, no two communities are the same, and your approach with residents needs to be tailored to those particular residents. Einar Jensen’s Fantastic Failure: Why Would Residents Refuse Wildfire Mitigation Money? recounts false assumptions that led Einar and a particular community to a mitigation stalemate. It wasn’t until he redesigned his mitigation program to reflect that group’s values that the community got on board. In this case, it was about an approach to fuels thinning that went from tree removal to tree pruning, but the lessons are applicable to just about any situation involving working with residents.

Carrot> Stick

In another great #Failforward piece, Fantastic Failure: Big Stick, Big Mouth, Eric Lovgren makes the case for why working with residents to develop mitigation approaches is a far better idea than flagging their favorite trees for removal while they follow you in protest.

Allow yourself to be a Pollyanna.

Fire adaptation attracts problem solvers. But, what if the solutions lay more in current strengths, i.e., assets, than the problems themselves? Allow yourself to take an optimistic approach, and check out Seeking and Finding Community Capacity for Wildfire Resilience by Jana Carp for a step-by-step how-to guide regarding community-based asset mapping (with fire adaptation twist, of course!).

A collage of three photos that portrays the diversity of community assets Jana discovered: Two bakers, five people riding horses down a city street and children watching an educational display of several flaming matches

What could you do differently to more fully integrate your community’s existing strengths into your fire adaptation work? Photo credits: Ree Slocum, Ree Slocum Photography (left); Jana Carp, Jana Carp Consulting (right, top and bottom)

Cultivate leaders.
Screenshot of the toolkit's coverpage

The Neighborhood Ambassador Approach Toolkit explains the structure and “how-to’s” nested in Wildfire Adapted Partnership’s Neighborhood Ambassador Program. Click on the image above to download it (PDF, 3.17MB).

Make sure you’re not just trying to change what residents do about wildfire. Empower them to help reach other residents. Ashley Downing’s Enhancing Fire Adaptation Through Active Volunteers: The Neighborhood Ambassador Approach explains how Wildfire Adapted Partnership’s “Neighborhood Ambassador Program” generated better wildfire outcomes during the 2018 wildfire season. And it’s more than a story; it includes a toolkit that you can use to tailor a similar program for your community.

What else?

This list of best practices certainly isn’t exhaustive. What works in your community? What doesn’t? Tell us about in the comment section below.

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