What South African Firewise sites can teach us about community risk reduction

Blog Post created by luciandeaton Employee on Apr 2, 2018

In mid-March, NFPA visited with its wildfire partners in South Africa to attend a capstone event recognizing 10-years of UN Development Program funding of the Fynbos Fire Project that promoted integrated fire management for wildfire risk reduction across the landscape, with the model of the Firewise USA® Program employed to achieve community engagement.


A series of videos premiered at the event capture the heart and determination of communities that are working to make themselves safer from wildfire.  They provide us some lessons as well on encouraging local responsibility and building local trust for needed behavioral change.


The first video is from the Goedverwacht (pronounced: Hook-trah-vacht) community north of Cape Town. A wildfire three years ago motivated the residents to take action and reduce the risks of their community that is surrounded by mountains with one access road.  Firewise site board members, who work the program as part of a job development model, connect with fellow residents door-to-door and with school children about the risk from embers and behaviors that had to change on fire-danger days.


Their focus on community responsibility, risk education, and self-improvement has kept their effort strong as they transition to an all-volunteer effort.  I was fortunate to visit with them in 2016 and again this year.  I remain amazed by their commitment to others and the clear risk reduction they have achieved.


The second video is from the community of Sir Lowry’s Pass, west of Cape Town. Faced with wildfire exposure, both from within and from the surrounding landscape, the opening narration by a Firewise leader in their video captures it all for me. “If one house burns in the community, we all feel it because if one house burns, it could just as well have been mine.”


Michele Steinberg, NFPA Wildfire Division Manager, spoke at the UNDP event.  She shared that it provided the, “great experience to reflect back on 20 years of where the Firewise USA® Program has been to where it is now.” She went onto explain that, “community engagement is so vital and it’s gratifying to see communities under different contexts and without the resources we take for granted here in the US achieve such successes in their community risk reduction efforts.”


The videos show how both communities exemplify the values of peer-to-peer exchange to build trust and deliver a responsibility message directly to each resident.  That lesson is transferable back to us when we consider how to engage volunteerism, encourage risk reduction activities, and get residents to see their role in wildfire risk reduction.


Two other community videos were made by the Fynbos Fire Project and we’ll share reflections on them in May.


Our visit in March with LANDWORKS South Africa and other organizations committed to wildfire community risk reduction let us continue our collaborative work with them, learn what community engagement can achieve, and identify what research is needed to advance that effort.


Photo Credit: Lucian Deaton