Photo Credit: During a wildfire, evacuated families are in need of basic supplies — food, water, shelter. It’s critical that shelter staff communicate effectively with residents during (as well as before and after) such emergencies. Photo by Michael Rieger, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Imagine being caught in the path of a fast-moving wildfire, unfamiliar with the area and without enough language proficiency to understand the first responders. You see a few signs in your language, but they make no sense. Miraculously, you survive — but lose your livelihood and the place you called home. Your hardship is compounded by authorities and shelter staff unable or unwilling to help you.

During the 2014 and 2015 wildfire seasons in Washington, there were, sadly, too many accounts of migrant workers experiencing this terrifying scenario. Why? Because they lacked equitable access to wildfire preparedness information and resources. (For more on this, see Nagler 2017.)

This is a tragic, preventable failure that we must learn from.

Equity and Inclusion are Essential for True Resilience

We know that disasters affect some groups — racial and ethnic minorities, and particularly the poor — disproportionately (Lippman 2011,  Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety position paper). These vulnerable community members may be rural, many are farmworkers, and some are recent immigrants and refugees who are linguistically isolated and/or politically excluded. A legacy of mistreatment has created a fundamental lack of trust of authority.

The result is that vulnerable communities are often denied the resources and relationships to cope with natural disasters, including wildfire. But fire adaptation requires the entire community. Therefore, equity and inclusion are essential for true resiliency.

FEMA employee explaining a written resource to a resident

Communication is critical during emergencies. Here, a Federal Emergency Management Agency employee helps a resident impaired by a natural disaster understand the resources available to him. Credit: Andrea Boohe, Federal Emergency Management Agency

To explore opportunities in this field, last year, FAC Net began working with Maria Estrada of The Nature Conservancy’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative. The work so far has included the translation of resources in a way that is linguistically and culturally accurate, that considers socioecological context and cultural sensibilities, and that provides clear and accurate information that resonates with the intended audiences.

For example, the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC) recently created a FAC outreach video. To signal inclusion to the Latinx* community, they wanted to name one of the firefighters Manuel. I discussed the project with them and pointed out that, given that the constituencies they wanted to reach were mostly migrant workers, a Latinx firefighter would not have been culturally or contextually responsive.

Economic data revealed a trend in the growth of small, Latinx-owned businesses in Washington, so we instead created a character named Lupe, the owner of a small panaderia, or bakery. We explained a variety of fire preparedness issues through her eyes, making sure the panaderia and Lupe were recognizable to viewers.

Animated character, Lupe, in her panaderia

To signal inclusion to the Latinx community, the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network featured a Latinx character in their recent wildfire preparedness video as an example of how a local business owner could prepare for wildfire. Credit: Screenshot from WAFAC wildfire preparedness video

How Can We Ensure All Community Members Are Involved?

Moving forward in our partnership for at least another year, we are also exploring community engagement methods from other fields that have proven effective with diverse communities. One example is the promotora model, used by the health care industry, which recruits community members with cultural backgrounds, language and economic challenges similar to the target audience.

Promotoras are provided with the necessary technology and training to bring critical information to their communities. Trust and access, as well as cultural and linguistic competence, become the most important ingredients in empowering communities to navigate challenges.

In this case, we’re exploring a model to work with Latinx communities in preparing for wildfire. The goal is to have trained promotoras impart knowledge to community members so that they, in turn, can work more effectively with disaster relief staff, shelter staff and others when a fire occurs.

What’s Next?

As WAFAC and FAC Net enlist more partners, we hope to improve community wildfire adaptation in diverse communities by advancing an equity and inclusion approach.

We are in the early stages of this work, and we have a great deal to learn. We intend to use FAC Net to solicit ideas and disseminate what we learn with the larger community of FAC practitioners. Please contact us or comment below if you have suggestions, ideas or questions, or if you’d like to get involved!

* Latinx is the gender-neutral term commonly used instead of Latino/Latina.


Please note that comments are manually approved by a website administrator and may take some time to appear.