An estimated 8.8 million U.S. students in grades six through 12 reside in wildland/urban interface areas. Cathy Prudhomme and Michele Steinberg with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) describe innovative efforts to reinforce the importance of wildfire awareness and preparedness with this under-connected audience of stakeholders.
Students and parents in Montgomery County, Texas, meet with NFPA's Firewise Program staff to provide input on wildfire risk programs.
Scant attention has been given to U.S. students in grades six through 12 in regards to wildfire safety education programs and messaging, even though they hold tremendous potential and have the power to be valuable conduits for getting mitigation information into their homes. They possess the unique ability to initiate productive family conversations about wildfire preparedness and help motivate their family to implement mitigation actions.
In the Australian study, Children's Knowledge of Bushfire Risk, the authors recognize that to develop bushfire education programs that accommodate the knowledge and perspective of children, they must be given an opportunity to voice their views. In The Power of Positive Deviance — How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems, the principles needed to achieve a successful social paradigm shift are outlined, including the need to involve stakeholders by going to improbable places and to engage unlikely people to find solutions; letting community members provide culturally appropriate expertise; and sharing the concept of "don't do anything about me, without me."
Incorporating those ideas along with input from other successful disaster preparedness programs, NFPA's Firewise Program staff conducted a series of six interactive community conversation workshops in Colorado and Texas during the summer of 2012. The workshops were an opportunity to talk with middle/high school students and parents that were recently impacted by a wildland fire. Each group candidly shared what they know and don't know about wildfire, areas they want to learn about, and the best ways to reach and motivate them to undertake actions that will contribute to reducing wildfire risk.
Based on the findings of the conversations with teens, parents and a questionnaire to teachers, NFPA's Wildland Fire Operations Division is initiating projects to engage these new stakeholders. The first project is a pilot Wildfire Preparedness Day of Service in Colorado on May 4, 2013, during IAWF's Global Wildfire Awareness Week.
Benefits of the organized day include multiple opportunities to share mitigation messages with a new audience; development of positive influencers — and messengers; formation of future mitigation leaders; and accomplishments that youth can share with their peers and family members that engage them in the topic of preparedness.
Opportunities for participation include a broad range of age-appropriate, self-initiated individual and group coordinated/sponsored projects for a single residence, neighborhood or community. The Colorado day of service will be promoted to all demographics but will include a special outreach to teens. When applied to wildfire awareness, a service day that engages communities in working together provides a chance for residents to repeatedly hear the importance of reducing their risk and becoming Firewise advocates. To increase awareness, there's a multitude of communications and social media opportunities that fire departments, forestry agencies and others can share.
Just as the need for annual Fire Prevention Week messages continues, so does the need for those related to wildfire mitigation and preparedness. In fact, due to the growth of wildland/urban interface areas that place more people and property in harm's way, achieving more in wildfire safety requires an even higher level of interaction and engagement with stakeholders that experts may not have previously considered.
NFPA's report Engaging Youth in Reducing Wildfire Risk — Community Conversation Workshop Findings and Research is available in the Youth and Families section of the Firewise website at www.firewise.org/information/who-is-this-for/youth-and-families.aspx.
Cathy Prudhomme is Associate Project Manager, Wildland Fire Youth Education, and Michele Steinberg is Project Manager for the NFPA's Firewise Communities program.