By Published: Dec. 2, 2015

Following a catastrophic wildfire, there is a crucial, one-year window during which memories burn hot and citizens living in wildland-urban interfaces—“red zones”—are more receptive to information about how to mitigate the dangers from a future fire.

Deserai Anderson Crow

Deserai Anderson Crow

And when it comes to educating the public about wildfire dangers and mitigation, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication.

Here’s the conundrum: Most wildfire agencies are hard-pressed just deploying limited staff for fire follow-up during that first year, limiting their ability to directly communicate to citizens at the most effective time.

But researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recently examined the aftermath of two catastrophic conflagrations and found an unexpected ally in wildfire-education efforts: the “citizen entrepreneur.”

One person could be the sparkplug for the whole community.”

“Citizen entrepreneurs are highly motivated community members who can help resource-constrained wildfire agencies encourage mitigation on private property by directly engaging with WUI residents,” they write in “Wildfire Outreach and Citizen Entrepreneurs in the Wildland-Urban Interface: A Cross-Case Analysis in Colorado,” published in the April issue of Society & Natural Resources.

The study was jointly conducted by Elizabeth Koebele, Lydia Lawhon, Adrianne Kroepsch and Rebecca Schild of the Environmental Studies Program, and Katherine Clifford of the Geography Department — all doctoral candidates and advisees of Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Deserai Crow, who also participated in the research.

An official with the Colorado Springs Fire Department discusses fire mitigation with members of a neighborhood group. “Citizen entrepreneurs” helped the CSFD spread the word effectively about fire-mitigation practices after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, a CU-Boulder study has found. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

An official with the Colorado Springs Fire Department discusses fire mitigation with members of a neighborhood group. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

The group looked at two 2012 Colorado fires that caused extensive property damage: the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs and the High Park fire west of Fort Collins. They began by interviewing staff members at wildfire agencies and non-governmental organizations. Then they interviewed citizen focus groups, including residents who lost their homes, to better understand how and whether they had received information about mitigation—strategies to reduce the likelihood of destruction during a fire, including such things as replacing wood shingles or cutting nearby timber.

“What we kept hearing over and over again was that certain people, the citizen entrepreneurs, don’t just take agency information and bring it to the community,” Koebele says. “They go above and beyond, and take initiative on their own time, using their own resources, or grants or other resources, to do things like bring a (wood) chipper into a community. … They built a whole new level of trust with their neighbors.”

Elizabeth Koebele

Elizabeth Koebele

For many residents, that is a more effective vector of information and motivation than having a public agency telling them what to do.

“One person could be the sparkplug for the whole community,” Koebele said. The entrepreneurs were able to motivate neighbors “who weren’t taking any action, who didn’t like the government coming in and telling them what to do.”

The study encountered different attitudes in the two areas. In Colorado Springs, residents expressed a greater sense of community and were more amenable to and appreciative of wildfire agencies than those in the remote High Park area, who expressed more suspicion. But both communities responded well to citizen entrepreneurs.

“They can … reach inactive residents, especially during the crucial one-year postfire window, and simultaneously reduce the burden of intensive outreach on resource agencies,” the researchers concluded.

“We know (wildfire mitigation) problems exist throughout the West, and if we continue building houses in the wildland-urban interface, it will continue to increase,” Koebele says. Making use of citizen entrepreneurs will help “balance the need for very interactive outreach about mitigation and trying to help out agencies with constrained resources.”

Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.