|7. Fire Education|
Wildland fire communicators are charged with helping a variety of audiences understand the role of
wildland fire. With a society that has been taught that all fire is bad and that suppression is our only
Your message must range from basic resource management to very detailed fire ecology concepts.
The message begins with both unplanned wildland fire and prescribed fire as background. Wildland
Prescribed fire is a well-established practice on public and private lands throughout the world, and is
By carefully calculating meteorological factors, fuels, slope of land, and other relevant conditions, resource managers can control and direct their fires. Their charge is to ignite, hold, monitor, and extinguish their prescribed fires. The extensive bodies of knowledge of wildland fire science and wildland fire ecology provide excellent standards of practice for those charged with this stewardship. The science behind the flames also underpins your message. Because the American public highly values and supports science, the crafting of wildland fire in the context of science increases the chances of message acceptance and impact.
Fire tragedies and extensive fires as seen in Florida, Mexico, and elsewhere in 1998 brought the issues to the forefront of national and international news. Likewise, prescribed fires that have escaped control lines and turned into a destructive wildfire have made headlines. All too often the news reports are restricted to tight time slots and sound bites. However, there are windows of opportunity for opening in-depth dialogues with your audiences about the need to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations and restore certain fire-dependent ecological processes. Audiences need to understand that an immediate need exists in many places around the world to reduce fuel load to prevent extreme fires and to both restore and maintain the health of fire dependent ecosystems. The reduction or treatments include manual, mechanical, biological, and chemical methods in addition to fire. While most prescribed burns are relatively small, the plan for periodic burning must be made and presented to the public as strategic landscape-scale plans to restore health and vigor to vast regions. Often this is the primary reason for prescribed fire.
To do this requires addressing the following:
Messages must convey that wildland fire is very much a societal problem, and that both human interventions and human acceptance of naturally occurring fire are often the best solution, but they are not universal solutions.
Public support is not only required for the concept of wildland fire
management but also for institutional support. While this is not a
dominant message, audiences need to understand that stewardship
of the land, including wildland fire management, requires
resources. In situations where organizations are downsized,
Overshadowing all of this is the risk factor - the risk that a prescribed fire will escape. While land
Unfortunately the impacts and public perception of escaped prescribed fire either from poor planning or from uncontrolled events are the same. Thus internal communications and training must prepare managers for the risk associated with prescribed fire.
The same can be said for wildland fire use. More and more fire organizations are allowing wildland fire use and other modified suppression techniques to be used. Explaining the why and how and when of these actions is an important step in the public and management acceptance process. Sometimes not putting the fire out immediately is the appropriate thing to do.
Wildland fire management agencies and organizations share common goals: to enhance personal safety and reduce loss of life while preserving and enhancing the health of forests, rangelands, prairies, and wetlands. Though communication of fire issues is extensive throughout the wildland fire community, our messages have not been consistent. For the public to truly understand the role of wildland fire, we must communicate clearly and consistently across all agencies.
To that end, the NWCG has approved the following key messages to communicate the following
important elements of our efforts:
This section is designed as a guide for all those involved in wildland fire management. We hope it will help you communicate with key audiences about wildland fire. This is not a script. Users are encouraged to incorporate these concepts into their communication in their own words, making the information relevant to their specific situations.
Key Messages with Supporting Points
2. Society's influence has altered historic fire cycles, leading to a dangerous and
difficult build-up of vegetation in our wildlands.
3. Land management agencies are committed to a balanced fire program that will
reduce risks and realize benefits of fire.
4. Improving health of the land and reducing risks to communities requires
partnerships among federal and state agencies, tribal governments, fire
departments, communities, and landowners.
5. Public education is necessary to the success of fire management programs.
Interpreting wildland fire ecology begins with a solid understanding of science and how it works, but it often intersects with public policy, economics, environmental aesthetics, and human values. Encouraging public understanding of wildland fire ecology concepts and implications in both environmental and social domains is no easy task. Balancing science, policy, and human values fairly and accurately, as a communicator requires solid understanding of not only the content but the manner of presentation.
Issues that pertain to environmental and health concerns can be controversial in the eyes of the public, particularly when sensitive values are at stake. The science and policies of wildland fire ecology often pose many difficulties when communicators must inform the public about fire, its effects, and its uses. Techniques for effectively handling sensitive environmental and health issues have emerged as the special communication genre known as risk communication. The concept of risk communication not only addresses quantifiable risk, but also the public's perception of that risk, which may or may not be in sync with the "real" risk (Sandman, 1993; West et al., 1995). For ecological communicators, risk communication is often a matter of interpreting complex scientific issues, and communicating to the public about their potential impacts. The real difficulty in science and risk communication tends to be a lack of common understanding among the lay-public of how science and technology function (Sandman, 1993; West et al., 1995).
Uncertainty in scientific research is intrinsic and generally understood by professional scientists in terms of statistical probabilities, measurement limitations, computer modeling simplifications, etc. Debate over facts, figures, and predictions within the scientific community is not only common but a critical part of the knowledge construction process (Bazerman, 1988; Gross, 1990; Myers, 1990). However, this aspect of the scientific process is not well-known nor understood by the lay-public. Scientists are often expected to quickly and accurately produce definitive answers and solutions. To accept that differences of opinion and uncertainty are inherent within the scientific community is not very palatable, especially when a person may trust his or her health, wealth, and environmental appreciation to the "expert" advice of scientists. Thus, if information appears incomplete or uncertain, the public tends to mistrust it, as well as its source.
As an ecological communicator, you must bridge this gap between the scientific and nonscientific communities and provide a common ground for understanding and trust. The goal of the communicator is to make meaning as clear as possible to foster a more accurate understanding of a risk, and thus more appropriate behaviors regarding that risk.
Ideally, you would like to convince an audience that the information being presented is the most accurate representation of the "truth available." The structure of the language itself can dramatically affect the way the message is received.
Recognizing and dispelling audience-held misconceptions about an issue requires the communicator to know the characteristics of your audience well, to construct the message appropriately for your audience, and to project a proper tone. This is not an easy task, to which many communicators would attest. The misconception should be presented clearly and respectfully, followed by the "new" concept, and why it is more accurate. Explaining why the misconception should be replaced by new information helps reinforce the point and persuade the audience to adopt the new perspective. Fields such as wildland fire ecology often must deal with clashes between science and public perception. Knowing how and why these clashes occur, and how to address them will prove useful in influencing public awareness and decision making.
When you are communicating wildland fire messages and are engaged in sustainable community planning, you are in great part using risk communications. Central to public understanding is conveying risk management options. While prescribed fire is one of the higher risk land management activities, negative impacts have been minimal on a national scale. At the heart of risk management and communications are effective planning, highly trained professionals, and effective policies to reduce risk. These are the tenets found within wildland fire management guidelines.
In the face of these risks, the American public appears to be showing a shift in attitude towards the use of fire as a tool of stewardship. While we have only begun to impact ecosystem health by returning fire to fire-dependent ecosystems, so have we only begun to impact public opinion. A concerted effort is needed on both fronts.
For many people, fire remains a fearsome, destructive force that can and should be controlled at all costs. A comprehensive message is needed that clearly conveys the desired balance of avoiding fires with adverse affects while simultaneously increasing ecologically beneficial fire.
The ecological and societal risks of using and excluding fire have not been adequately clarified and quantified to allow open and thorough discussions among managers and the public. Few understand that integrating fire into land management is not a one time, immediate fix but a continual, long-term process. It is not an end in itself but a means to a healthier end. Full agency commitment to internal and external information and education regarding fire and other ecological processes is needed. Adaptive and innovative fire and land management is severely limited when agency employees and the public misunderstand or remain skeptical about the role of fire.
The task before us - appropriate fire management - is both
urgent and enormous. Conditions on millions of acres of wildlands
increase the probability of large, intense fires beyond any scale
yet witnessed. These severe fires will in turn increase the risk to
humans, to property, and to the land upon which our social and
Communication and education programs integrated into wildland fire management are critical tools to aid in building a nation of ecologically literate people, including leadership at all levels that understands and supports wildland fire management practices. While few users of this Guide will have responsibility for national campaigns, most of us can influence wildland fire communication and education at the local or regional landscape level. Out of these programs comes impetus for more national efforts.
Wildland Fire Education Considerations
Detailed information about developing a presentation is included in Chapter 4 of this guide. Listed below are considerations that apply specifically to prescribed fires.
An effective presentation will be enhanced with good visual aids: slide show narrated by the presenter, maps showing the prospective burn site; and, with good personal illustrations or stories of pre- and post-prescribed burn scenarios.
The following are points to be considered by the presenter in preparing a presentation about a
Interpretation is an "education activity which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objects; by firsthand experience and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information" (Tilden, 1957). Tilden continues by providing principles encouraging all interpretation to relate to the participant and reveal new and interesting information which provokes a physical or mental response. Tilden, who spoke from the perspective of the theater, saw great natural and cultural resource-based stories to be told.
One of those stories is wildland fire. This story, like almost no other, captivates the audience in that it impacts every sector (natural history, social, cultural, economic, etc.) of the ecosystem in which it burns. Wildland fire flames paint images in visitors' minds and provide vast opportunity for interpretation.
Fire ecology and wildland fire management are complex topics that provide a vast array of interpretable topics. In the wildlands and wildland/urban interface zones, almost every ecosystem function impacts or is impacted by fire. Fire stories are in essence ecosystem stories, especially when interpreting fire-dependent communities. The following sections are offered to assist projects with wildland fire interpretive programs and to help instruct new employees in their program preparation.
Some basic tenets of interpretation are:
Guide activities and other personal services are effective in responding to immediate questions when flames and smoke are in the background or visitors are experiencing a burned patchwork landscape. During the fires in Yellowstone in 1988, the National Park Service made extensive use of roadside interpreters during the fire event. While visitors heard the mass media present how the ecosystem was being destroyed, interpreters (often staffing roadblocks) explained to visitors in a less sensational manner the depth and truth of the message. So great was the misinformation that Yellowstone National Park formed a Fire Interpretation Resource Education (FIRE) outreach team that traveled to local communities in the region to explain the impact of the fire.
Guided tours into fire impacted sites are conducted by nongovernmental organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, and by federal, state, and private resource management organizations. Such personal services are extremely important in educating the public that fire in wildlands is often viewed only as a destructive force. With such misconceptions, many people focus only on the destruction. It is here that the interpreter, on-site or carrying the message off-site, conveys the message of the natural role of fire in managing ecosystems and the story of ecological rebirth.
So great is the fear of fire, and so great is the attraction to fire, that substantial resources are warranted to support personal services related to wildland fire management. Likewise, the potential for public relations problems is so great that interpreters, public affairs/information education officers, and senior leadership personnel should be available to personally interpret fire events.
Keep in mind that often the personal on-site interpretation can be a briefing for media which is then transmitted to users of mass media. Thus, it becomes necessary for us as interpreters to brief news sources in such a way that they relate to the messages and are provoked to reveal the substance of the story. Thus, personal contact with media sources is critical. Supplement this contact with a comprehensive media package containing background information (fire ecology, agency policy, fire management plans, etc.), fire history/fire regime of the region, stock photos and file footage if available, and a list of contacts with names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Think of all the errors you have seen in news reporting relating to wildland fire (long-term effects, "good fire" vs. "bad fire") and equip your media contacts with the data they need to potentially prevent those mistakes. Most important, though, is interpreting fire events in such a manner that reporters will not need to fill in the gaps of information with sensationalism and their conventional wisdom to make a good story. Wildland fire is a good story on its own, without embellishment.
Resources relating to the process can be found in Chapter 10. It is by no means an exhaustive list. Numerous federal and state agencies have videotapes, printed and similar materials available for their employees. Likewise, a number of professional associations, such as the National Association for Interpretation and the North American Association for Environmental Education, provide for interpretive conferences and training opportunities.