Communicating with wildland interface communities during wildfire

Open-File Report 2005-1061

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An inter-agency research team studied communications during the small Bridge Fire in southern California, as well the before-, during-, and post-fire communications of an extreme fire event (Old and Grand Prix Fires) in the same area in the fall of 2003. This “quick-response” research showed that pre-fire communication planning was particularly effective for small fire events, and parts of such planning - especially the inter-agency coordination through the establishment and work of the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce [MAST] – proved invaluable for the large fire event.

Information seeking by the affected public relied on locally convenient sources during the small fire. Neighbors and friends were contacted; emergency frequency radio scanners were monitored; posted information was sought; and local call-in lines were utilized. Often, personal contacts were made where fire fighters could be contacted either directly or indirectly through family members. The information being sought was primarily about the precise location and severity, size, and direction of spread of the fire. This was keyed to the concern as to whether communities and personal homes were likely to be threatened. Effective community networks included the local fire department, the local water board, and established Fire Safe Councils [FSCs] which served as liaisons between the communities and the fire incident management team.

During the Old Fire and Grand Prix Fire complex, levels of threat were much higher, over a much longer period of time, and required prolonged evacuation displacement. With widespread evacuation of many communities, many of the local informal networks were disrupted: FSCs were scattered over a multi-state area; persons with personal knowledge of the fires were difficult to find–but in some instances were discovered. Attempts by fire officials to control the quality of fire information being disseminated were sometimes viewed by the at-risk public as delays in the flow of information. Local residents’ needs were for “real-time” information that was also placespecific; generalized information was of little value.

Assistance by news media (radio, TV, newspapers) in disseminating needed fire information was mixed. Regional TV and newspapers were perceived as very often being inaccurate (e.g. newscasters who did not know from where they were reporting, and communities wrongly listed as burned out), and focused on “entertaining” their major audiences in Los Angeles or San Diego rather than trying to report accurate information to mountain community residents. One local radio station was lauded for taking its community service obligation seriously and providing local residents with timely and verified information, and a couple of private websites were also cited as providing critical information.

There are times when the flow of information tends to get disrupted, especially when transitioning from one fire Incident Management Team [IMT] to another, or from active fire fighting to post fire recovery and protection.

The primary recommendation for fire management that comes from this triangulation on communication before, during, and after wildland interface fires is to “inform the network.” With changes in communication technology, the public has multiple channels to explore to discover the information they need, and they will not be put off by what they perceive as information delays. To increase the likelihood that the public will discover real, accurate, and timely information it is critical to disseminate information from the Incident Management Team as broadly as possible through multiple information channels. The at-risk public is seeking real time information; the key is to have accurate information readily available.

A second recommendation is to respond positively to groups trying to provide a local information function for both fire fighting and for media reporting. The research team heard multiple reports of inaccuracies in regional news media reporting. Fire crews could have benefited from more local information on community defensibility and accessibility for fire fighting equipment. An FSC network in southern California is attempting to establish this kind of functional local-information network. 

The pre-event preparation represented by the MAST was critical to effective handling of these fire events. More findings and recommendations are presented at the end of the report.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Communicating with wildland interface communities during wildfire
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Revised and reprinted 2005
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Fort Collins Science Center
iii, 26 p.
Online Only (Y/N):
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