Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

The Role of Community Participation in Fire Safe Decision-Making

Marlene Rebori

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Reno, Nevada USA


Approaches to forest health and wildfire safety issues have historically been addressed through a variety of mechanisms. More common approaches have included administrative regulations, economic incentives through grants or on-the ground money for prescriptions, educational campaigns such as the popular U.S. Forest Service Smokey the Bear campaigns, and planning and management by forest service agencies and private consultants. Many of these traditional approaches to forest health and wildfire safety have been unilateral, with forest, fire service agencies, or resource experts targeting information to the citizen or homeowner regarding appropriate management actions or fire prevention strategies. While these techniques are an appropriate transfer of knowledge, it often is not the most effective way for motivating homeowner or community action. Today I would like to talk about a community development approach I’ve been using to address the issue of wildfire safety that concentrates on the role of community participation in fire safe decision-making.

For the next few minutes, I would like to take you down a path that weaves theory with practical application, through a program that I initiated and fostered called Fire Safe Highlands. This Extension program serves as a model for community participation in fire safe decision-making by merging fuels management with community development practices. The program goal is to motivate residents to take actions that safeguard their homes and their community against the threat of wildfire. Fire Safe Highlands is a pilot program targeted in Virginia City Highlands, Nevada, USA.

To first understand how the program operates, we need to understand the foundational roots of community development. Popular synonyms have described community developed as community building, capacity building, social capital etc. Jerry Wade and Don Littrell (1997) have simply defined community development as; “the purposeful effort by community people to learn and work together to guide the future development of their communities making full use of their own resources as well as external resources”. Some of the key values and guiding principles to community development include the concept of developing capacity, maximizing citizen interaction, providing accurate information, and active and full participation of the community in decision-making. The question of community participation is a common thread in most extension programs, especially those programs that focus on process as well as content issues. I think at times that many of us have a little trepidation prior to engaging into a community participation effort. The larger question for Extension professionals is what are we really getting into with community participation? What do we mean by community participation?

Long et al. (1973) have defined community participation as “to share in common with others the decisions and goals about what should be done”(p. 11). If community participation is to be successful it needs to remain as transparent as possible, it should involve a wide range of community opinions, and as Extension professionals, we need to re-interpret how we define “participation”. Community participation is more broadly defined than simply attending community meetings. In 1969, Sherry Arnstein described a participation framework of citizen involvement in the U.S. and labeled this framework a “ladder of participation”. According to Arnstein (1969), there are various degrees of participation depending upon the intent and value of participation efforts. In Arnstein’s typology, the lower rungs of the ladders are considered non-participatory because

they simply work to manipulate public support through public relations. Rung three and four of the ladder are mere acts of token participation with information flowing from the decision makers to the public or placating citizens by asking for their concerns but offering no direct form of decision-making. Rungs six through eight offer some degree of citizen power through shared decision-making in partnerships or in delegated decision-making authority through committees. The top most rung of the participation ladder allows citizens the entire task of planning, policy making, and decision-making.

CDR Associates in Boulder Colorado, USA have developed a conceptual framework regarding participation and decision-making (1999). According to this spectrum, the further right on the spectrum the greater level of full public participation. While each degree of participation and decision-making is coordinated with the objective for participation and planning, the important aspect is to match the appropriate participation method with the situation.

Common problems that are encountered in community participation include: 1) citizens have difficulty identifying with a community; 2) a limited amount of the public actually participates; and 3) designing an effective process (Long et al. 1973). I would like to go into each problem and discuss how I addressed these through the Fire Safe Highlands program in our community participation efforts for fire safe decision-making. The Highlands is a well-delineated community located within the Virgina Mountain Range. There are two, property owner associations situated within two concentric circles of each other. The Highlands Community itself was very easy to delineate and residents readily identified with the Highlands Community. Therefore, this was not a problem for our programming efforts and one of the reasons the community was chosen as a pilot program.

Limited participation by the target community is a constant obstacle we face in almost any Extension Program. One of the first items the Fire Safe Highlands program expressed to residents, via the monthly newsletter, was the fact that you do not have to attend meetings to participate. We have consciously broadened our definition of what participation means. Participation can simply mean reading the monthly newsletters and taking individual action to reduce the threat of your home to a wildfire, it may mean helping out on a work project or just calling your neighbors through a telephone committee. As long as community members are maintaining their focus on the shared problem and working to address the problem through constructive means, then they are participating in the program.

Another common obstacle to community participation is how do you design an effective process that allows for true community-wide participation in fire safe decision-making? This problem can be the biggest obstacle between an effective or an ineffective program. In the Fire Safe Highlands program, there are monthly meetings where members who are interested can attend and discuss how to help make the community more fire safe. The monthly meetings are concentrated on a community wide perspective rather than individual homeowner actions. In order to engage community members at this level of participation, a decision-making process needed to be designed to make the process orderly, but not too much to prevent the process from being dynamic and flexible. The process needs to fit the overall intent of the program—motivating community action. Fire Safe Highlands incorporated four elements into our decision-making process that included: 1) group expectations (Figure 1); 2) organizational structure; 3) decision-making structure; and 4) meeting facilitation/management.

Group expectations are also what we refer to as our discussion procedures (Figure 3). Residents collectively developed these expectations and agreed to follow them. Expectations are reviewed prior to any decisions made and are kept posted at every meeting.

While I intentionally wanted to keep our organizational structure loose, I felt the need to provide some framework for the program. Although the program is an educational program sponsored by Extension, it also is a venue for coordinating community action to increase wildfire safety. Through the establishment of a Guiding Group, we have been able to formalize our project tasks and to put in place a “community task group”. Some members of the Guiding Group were selectively chosen to assure representation of all associations within the community, for example the property owners associations, the Volunteer Fire Department, local county representation, and the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Agency (a wild horse advocacy group within the community). Other members simply wanted to volunteer their time because they feel the wildfire issue is of utmost concern. I used the term Guiding Group because I wanted to remove any perception of “bureaucracy” —all too often we lose our creativity and simply call these committees task forces and etc. Instead, I felt the name gave a sense of purpose to the residents. The role of the Guiding Group is to help guide our community in our efforts for fire safety.

The decision-making structure is a common application of a consensus-based process that I feel is used often and the only consensus framework I use when working with community groups (Rebori 2000). Consensus is defined as a decision that all members can support. Five levels of support are outlined (Figure 2). Each level of support has a varying degree. When the Guiding Group makes a decision, we take a call for consensus. The facilitator states the proposal and then members show their level of support. A vote of support is taken and visually expressed by each member, usually this means on a level of one through five, each member holds up the amount of fingers to reflect their level of consensus. For example, 2 fingers indicate a level 2 consensus, which means I support the decision but it may not be my preference, a level of 4 support is indicated by showing four fingers, which means I support the group, but not necessarily the action or decision. Any vote that is a 4 or higher is consensus; however, if a member has a 3 or a 4, they are required to provide reasons for either changes or to express their concerns.

Based on my experience with the Fire Safe Highlands program, the role of community participation in fire safe decision-making has filled many needs. Most importantly it has allowed and created community ownership over its own safety. It has also, quite noticeably, empowered citizens to take actions not just individually by as a community. It is social science in action—we can discuss the theory of community development and how to engage citizens, but until we apply these approaches in the laboratory (i.e., the community) then can we actually get our practical research results. And finally, in my opinion, community participation is a mission of Extension. Extension, at least in the U.S., concerns itself with providing research-based education for citizens to make well-informed decisions. I feel often we leave the more difficult task of making changes up to the participant. Sometimes a support network or a mechanism is required to help carry out their changes and actions. This has certainly been the case for taking community action in wildfire safety.

While community participation is an important component of fire safe decision-making and applying a community development approach has been an effective vehicle for action, it is but one piece in the overall puzzle of wildfire safety. Community participation has allowed the residents to reflect on and actually incorporate their community values into fire safe decision-making. This reflection has lead to more effective implementation, and community supported decisions. The role of Extension in this effort has been critical. The hats I have worn in this program have included facilitator, educator, collaborator and partner. As a facilitator, I set the agenda’s based on previous meeting discussions with the group and I help steer the group when we seem to get off track of our discussion. As educator, I obviously apply the concepts and value of community development, but I also provide wildfire information through my colleagues in Extension with workshops and educational information in the monthly newsletter. I consider myself in Extension as a collaborator because in my mind, collaboration is about building relationships. Extension has been building a relationship with community members, the county employees, the local fire department etc. And finally the role of partner is because we in Extension have resources to bring to the issue of wildfire and community safety. We are but one partner among many.

You may be asking, “well after one year, is the program effective?” Rather than biasing your opinion, let me add some information regarding the program outcomes and impacts. Over 60 individual homes have cleared brush or implemented defensible space practices as a result of either the newsletter, workshops or meetings they have attended over the last year. Attendance at our monthly community meetings began with 5 people and now averages between 15 and 20. Fire Safe Highlands is asked by both property owners associations to speak at their yearly board meetings to provide updates on community projects and activities. A demonstration fuel reduction project is planned for November 17, 2001 to showcase how simply it is for residents to reduce their threat to fire. We have a volunteer base of over 50 residents willing and interested to volunteer their time and resources for fire safety. Residents have pressured the local fire department to put signs along the highway that abut the community, to educate tourists about the fire threat. Residents have initiated action with the Department of Transportation to remove dead trees along the highway because they pose a fire threat to the community. All of these activities have been selected and worked on by community members. While I could continue with numerous examples, I feel as though actions do speak louder than words.

In summary, I would like to leave you with my own personal guidelines for merging community participation with fire safe decision making (Figure 3). While these guidelines are not very academic, they are sound practical advice for engaging in community development and participation efforts.


1. Arnstein, Sherry. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35 (4): 216-224.

2. CDR and Associates. 1999. “Collaborative Processes for Public Policy Clashes”, Collaborative Decision Resources, Boulder, CO. USA. Training Workshop Manual April 28-30, 1999.

3. Long, Huey B. Anderson, Robert C. and Blubaugh, Jon A. 1973. “Approaches to Community Development.” National University Extension Association, The American College Testing Program.

4. Rebori, Marlene K. 2000. “Two Techniques to Foster Collaboration Within A Group”, Journal of Extension 38 (4):

5. Wade, Jerry, and Littrell, Don. 1997. “Community Development Academy Training Workshop”, sponsored by the Community Development Program Social Science Unit, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page