Eyes Wide Open: One Community`s Efforts to Face the Future of Fire

As wildland fires in the west consume more acres and resources and environmental changes brings dryer weather to places like Texas, the Great Lake states, the coastal northeast and the forests of the southeast, the future of the fire service is, in fact, a future of fire.

They may be called wildland fires, brush fires, grass fires, forest fires, field fires or even swamp fires, yet the risks to residents and resources are the same. Even in urban settings, risks to conservation and open-space land—by fires started from both natural and manufactured causes—pose threats to property and to fire service personnel accustomed to structural-response protocols.

The National Association of State Foresters estimates that more than 70,000 American communities are surrounded by hazardous fuels that leave lives and property vulnerable to wildland fire. In the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions, initial attack will be engaged by the local fire and emergency service—both career and volunteer. So, what should a fire chief consider?

  • What do wildland fire and its threats to lives and property mean to your jurisdiction?
  • How do your department and your residents view wildland fire?
  • What is the local citizen's understanding of preparation and the local response capabilities?
  • What is your wildland-urban interface?
  • Is local economic growth moving housing developments into areas of higher risk that local public safety hasn't needed to respond to before?

In Columbus, Mont., Chief Rich Cowger was faced with this last challenge. Many residents were new to the area, having bought properties in an increasingly popular retirement area.

Many new residents didn't understand the capabilities and makeup of local fire departments, having brought with them a perception of the fire service influenced by the urban and suburban areas they moved from. These perceptions include response times, roles of the resident, wildland-fire threats and equipment capabilities that represent significant differences between rural and urban departments.

To address this challenge, Cowger focused on public education and the creation of a localized educational video, realizing new tools and assets at his department's disposal. The department also joined the Ready, Set, Go! (RSG!) Program.

The challenge of public education is gaining the public's attention and—more importantly—their interest. Cowger realized that a traditional print-material appeal is almost archaic these days: people choose the information they want online and their attention is often available only for a short time.

Public-education outreach can also be difficult for a department already strapped with fiscal, time, resource and personnel constraints. RSG! helps departments meet this charge and the chief identified assets in his department to advance the effort.

Developing the video built new relationships between the department and local insurance agents. While they already knew each other, this was the first business effort they engaged in together. The department also reached out to the local and larger market of Billings, Mont., television stations for help; they had interacted with the stations before for general interviews, but this new partnership brought the department new outreach capabilities.

The TV stations scripted the video and provided filming, while the department combined local fire service representatives to ensure the video reflected the local environment, covered the local wildland issues that were important and succinctly delivered their intended message.

The six-minute video opened up a number of departments in the area to the common wildland threat and it's still used on local websites, at local HOA presentations and at civic events. It's also been edited by the local television stations into a series of 30-second PSAs that run during programming.

As homes are built in areas that were once undeveloped, the threat of fire and the risks to lives and property will increase. Fire chiefs should consider their local risks and identify local levels of understanding. They can identify the assets they already have to face this challenge and adopt outreach efforts that fit within existing department abilities, but also build local partnerships and advance the fire department in a future of fire.

Lucian Deaton is the wildland-fire program manager with the IAFC.

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