Sitting down to write this, I am looking over the front range of Colorado, staring at Pikes Peak which is snow covered...typical in the middle of April. Many citizens would take my view and think things are okay as far as wildfire goes. Unfortunately, not much is farther from the truth.
This morning I got paged that we are expecting high winds, a relative humidity of 4% and our fire danger adjective for the day is Very High. This put us in Red Flag conditions... And its only April.
Fire officers who are assigned to fire prevention or fire marshal's offices need to take a hard look at this and start thinking very fast, about how we can motivate our publics to share the responsibility for fire protection, particularly in our wildland/urban interfaces.
Anyone paying the least attention to the news has seen serious wildfire events in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Colorado, etc. For those of you who think Wildland fire doesn't play a part in your community's risk, you may want to think again. Any place where there are significant amounts of dry vegetation encroaching on structures or critical assets, you have a risk. Are your emergency response forces capable of dealing with a high wind, large fire event? Are all of your operations folks trained and prepared to deal with this event safely? Does the number of on-duty fire fighting forces outnumber the number of citizens and employees you have at risk? If you answered no to any of these questions, you should seriously consider getting your public engaged in sharing the responsibility.
The term "Sharing the Responsibility" is not Paul's or my coined term. It actually is the tag line my Community Education manager came up with when she was working on our Colorado Springs FireWise campaign. We identified over 34,000 addresses in our interface and doing simple conservative math of assuming two people per house, that equates to 68,000 people who are at risk in Colorado Springs. Our on-duty staffing per day is around 115. Doing comparative math, is it better to involve 68,000 people in site preparation and clearing work or wait for the fire and rely on the 115? As doctor evil would say.."Rrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiight"
Politicians and administrators may not like hearing or having you tell their constituents that they are in grave danger, but if the shoe fits, this is the year I would encourage you to have that discussion. We, as fire safety experts and professionals would be remiss if we were less than truthful with our communities about what their risk is and in part, equally important, their realistic expectation of our emergency fire suppression forces. The fact is in many communities, we do not have enough personnel, equipment and time to protect our citizens from these catastrophic events. Texas and Oklahoma can attest to this as of just a couple of months ago. It is not our intent to scare our citizens; however, we must be blatantly honest with our capabilities, what they should expect, and more importantly, what they must do to help us. They must share in the responsibility.
One of the most engaging conversations with my boss, Chief Navarro, was when he was emphatic about my mission in dealing with our Wildland fire risk here in Colorado. Prior to coming to work with us, he was involved in the Oakland Hills fire storm which all of you may remember consumed over 3,000 homes in 24 hours. His emotional directive to me was: "I do not want this public to tell me or us that they didn't know (that a fire like this was possible)." My staff and I worked very hard to get the message out and put everyone at risk on notice. My strong recommendation to each of you is to do the same.
People, particularly adults are reasonable folks. If you give them accurate and truthful information, they will generally make the right decision for themselves and their families. Don't confuse the "right" decision as being of the same opinion as yours. They may have a different value of the risk and do some things that you as a fire safety professional wouldn't recommend. However, as long as they know the issues, they will generally take responsibility and act as they feel they should. Remember, we are not always trying to protect people from themselves, but we definitely want to inform, advise and assist those folks who don't know and need direction. Kind of like golfing with my girlfriend. We are on the 14th hole and it starts to cloud up. Then we hear thunder. We look at each other and being the fire safety expert I am, I suggest hurrying off the course to go to the clubhouse for a drink. She suggests getting off the fairway to a protected building and waiting until it clears so we can finish. In both cases we had the right important thought, but differed on the entire objective. Your public will generally be the same way.
Most people want direction, and as with us, positive feedback for their efforts. If you engage folks to perform work on their property and mitigate their wildfire risk, you as a professional need to encourage them and champion them with their progress. Is this easy? NO! We never said it was, however, the work and effort put toward this is far less than answering the hundreds of issues in town hall meetings after a disaster of tragic proportions where you or your Chief gets blamed. We as professionals should be working on mitigating the hazard on the front end, not trying to react to an event, which we are outgunned to handle from the onset. Engage your public and help them understand they are responsible too. We are all in this together. If you are truthful, honest and provide reasonable helpful guidance, they will typically do what they can to help you help them.
Remember, we cannot be at every house or building in the event of a wildfire. If you convey that to them and help them understand how to help their building or asset survive by itself, they will generally do what they can, reasonably. Remember too; they have a business or personal decision to make. Sometimes that is misguided or different than what you would envision. It may involve money, labor or both. That is for them to decide. However, if they decide differently than suggested, they own that. Do your part and do not be remiss in "telling them" the truth and the reasonable possibility of something happening. An event that occurs when you know about its possibility in advance is far different than experiencing an event you didn't know was possible.