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TRU study on wildfire communication includes connecting with First Nations communities

The study was completed on June 30, meaning it does not address the issues seen during this past wildfire season, which was the most destructive on record for the Kamloops Fire Centre
Sparks Lake fire
A night view of the massive Sparks Lake fire. The fire started about 40 kilometres northwest of Kamloops and has grown to almost 48,000 hectares as of July 20, 2021

Thompson Rivers University researchers have completed their study looking at wildfire communication during the 2017 and 2018 seasons and have come up with recommendations for communicators to reflect upon.

The study was completed on June 30, meaning it does not address the issues seen during this past wildfire season, which was the most destructive on record for the Kamloops Fire Centre, with more than 160 structures lost within the TNRD alone and hundreds of thousands of hectares burned.

Among the recommendations made within the report:

• Build and maintain trust with remote and First Nations communities;

• Develop a program to increase communications availability in remote/First Nations communities through either satellite phones or amateur radio;

• Meaningfully distinguish between risk and crisis communication;

• Lobby to improve broadband internet access in remote and First Nations communities;

• Draw upon examples of success in wildfire communications among groups such as the Simpcw First Nation.

The study was conducted by lead researcher and faculty member Michael Mehta and three faculty members, including Wendy Gardner (natural resource sciences), Jon Heshka (adventure studies) and Wendy McKenzie (nursing), with help from graduate student research assistant Merieme Boutaib and undergrad assistant Jasper Edge. Funding came jointly from three sources: the BC Wildfire Service, Canada Wildfire and TRU.

At the centre of the report is the life-cycle model, which would emphasize work and communication before, during and after the wildfire season.

"What a life-cycle communications approach does is moves us away from the dominant approach, which is basically only communicating during an event," Mehta said.

With an emphasis on local and Indigenous knowledge, Mehta said the life-cycle approach pushes us toward being proactive, rather than reactive.

Mehta also said the model relies on a people-centred approach, using local resources and knowledge to know what and how to protect a community.

"We're really talking about creating a more robust, holistic approach and that could imply, for example, moving the BC Wildfire Service away from being just a seasonal operation to having more boots on the ground, working with communities throughout the year," Mehta said.

Some of the ideas discussed in the report are already on their way to being implemented, Mehta said, acknowledging that much of the work he and his team has done is based on consultation with others, such as First Nations groups, the City of Kamloops and the BC Wildfire Service.

Mehta also acknowledged that groups like Emergency Management BC and the BC Wildfire Service are using social media more, noting it's important to get information out early to prevent voids of information that might otherwise be filled with misinformation.

But he also advocates for a combined approach, using informal social media sources in combination with more formal communication so people can make decisions based on their own, local circumstances.

But ultimately, the shift in approach around communication is about building trust.

"The reason why we did this in the first place was to develop a better approach to communicating at all stages of an event, so you can rebuild trust, save lives and save property," Mehta said.