Community-based Wildfire Communication for a societal transformation towards Living with Fire



Wildfires are not always our foe: it is well-known that fire is part of many ecosystems. But through interwoven social, economic and ecological processes (Collins, 2008; Lloro-Bidart & Finewood, 2018; Walker et al., 2020), wildfires are causing more and more negative impacts globally: a veritable example of socioenvironmental injustice (Tierney, 2019). As increasingly extreme wildfires impact people’s safety and wellbeing, ways of living, and the global environment (Tedim et al., 2018), there are calls for alternative visions to move beyond the current ‘Fire Suppression’ paradigm and explore how we – humankind – can instead relate to, and deal with, wildfires. Such alternatives, like ‘Living with Fire’ (Ganz & Moore, 2002; Moritz et al., 2014; Otero & Nielsen, 2017; Tedim & Leone, 2017), include different understandings of wildfires, and also inform communicative practices surrounding wildfires. 

Presently, wildfire communication mainly focusses on preventing and mitigating wildfire disasters (usually understood as ‘Risk Communication’). This communicative approach is largely informed by the ‘Fire Suppression’ paradigm, and has considerable limitations that might hamper communities from embarking on a societal transformation towards Living with Fire. Limitations include, amongst others: simplistic framing of wildfires; exclusion of non-experts’ voices; and insufficiently recognising and addressing underlying processes of disastrous wildfires (Christianson et al., 2011Davies et al., 2018; Mccaffrey, 2015; Paveglio et al., 2009). Hence, to support a societal transformation, there is a need to identify and explore alternative communicative approaches that break away from Risk Communication practices and its underlying assumptions. The literature shows various alternatives, and this research focusses on ‘Community-based Communication’, as a more transformative, inclusive, and situated communicative approach to fire, by critically engaging with wildfire disasters as long-term, complex, processes.

Unfolding within the PyroLife Innovation Training Network, this thesis project aims to explore the role of Community-based Communication – and specifically interpretation centres – in supporting communities in extreme-wildfire prone territories with a socioecological transformation towards Living with Fire. A combination of qualitative methods will be applied, such as interviews, participant observation and field visits –during secondments in the USA (with the National Fire Protection Association) and Germany (with the European Forest Institute) and a case study with a community in southeast Spain. Through this, I aim to explore 1) how Community-based Communication initiatives within extreme wildfire-prone territories look like, and how the related concepts of Living with Fire and societal transformation are defined and experienced by scientists, wildfire (communication) practicioners and communities; and 2) what can be learnt about Community-based Communication from the case study – a Wildfire interpretation centre in southeast Spain – by tracing its ‘life history’, envisioning its future, and exploring its role in supporting the community with a societal transformation towards Living with Fire.

Ottolini, Isabeau. (2020). Community-based Wildfire Communication for a societal transformation towards Living with Fire (Doctoral thesis). Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona).