The global pattern of wildfires is increasing, as are fire's contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, forest degradation and deforestation, and reduced air qualities. These negatives constitute the need for implementation and development of more efficient fire management approaches. 

The last few decades have witnessed persistent rates of wildfires occurring throughout the globe. While international attention is often focused on costly wildfires in California, Australia, and Canada; fires are rising in complexity for tropical nations (Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Colombia, Laos, etc), and savannah grassland regions in Africa. The impacts of these fires range from severe damage to fire-sensitive ecosystems in Amazonia to regular grass burnings in Sub-Saharan Africa. Communities in these areas often use fire for shifting agriculture or other land-use activities, and are often perceived by governments as central to problematic fires. To improve fire management in these developing areas, the concept of "Community-Based Fire Management" (CBFiM) has gained traction and yields potential sustainability. 

(Photo - MODIS - NASA)

"CBFiM is a type of land and forest management in which a locally resident community (with or without the collaboration of other stakeholders) has substantial involvement in deciding the objectives and practices involved in preventing, controlling or utilising fires." (IFFN  No. 29, 2003).

CBFiM is rooted in the indisputable fact that people, fire, and landscapes are inextricably connected. As human dimensions and climate change exacerbate fire frequencies and severities, the effects will radiate onto landscapes and the people that inhabit them. 

Many communities around the world continue to actively use fire beneficially, for purposes such as: land-clearing, grazing, hunting, and general land management. Some communities have amassed in-depth knowledge and practices in the use and defense against wildfire. These historic practices can serve as strong foundations as local peoples may need to be responsible for setting objectives relating to utilizing, mitigating, and controlling wildfires.

The inclusion of communities in fire management governance offers a level of consistency that may be difficult for developing state agencies to replicate. 

The application of CBFiM is contextual as different communities set different land and fire management priorities. These photos are from a "FireWise Community Works" project in Nhlazuka, KwaZulu-Natal, which provides rural economic opportunities for the "application of FireWise concepts" (Landworks NPC). Their CBFiM strategy is to remove alien vegetation for improved water quality and quantity, as well as fire prevention. Invasive species and noxious weeds detract available grazing land and easily carry unwanted fire, their removal is environmentally and socially beneficial.

This exemplifies that CBFiM is a component of broader community-based land management, as objectives encompass multiple natural resource goals. 

Erecting governance structures to sustain CBFiM is a significant limiting factor, as lack of legislation, funding, training opportunities, and capacity may all prevent successful implementation. As a result, it may be beneficial to include actors from local, intermediary municipal/provincial, federal, and even international levels. 

As an example, the Nhlazuka  includes players such as Zulu tribal committees (Local), Richmond Fire Protection Association (Municipal), LandWorks (NGO), South Africa's Expanded Public Works Program (Federal), and FireWise USA (International). 

This multilateral collaboration of actors function as external sponsorhsip of the Nhlazuka and offers important, supporting elements such as: technical capacity, analysis of the fire environment, or logistical assistance.

In 2005, the FAO identified that of the 865 million acres that burned in 2000, 95% of the fires were caused by human ignition. Ignitions in Nhlazuka villages followed similar trends, as forestry and conservation areas consistently burned due to escaped negligent fires or intentional arson. In one two-day span in November 2019, Nhlazuka experienced ten fires as a result of field burnings and bored schoolchildren.

A central component of sustaining CBFiM is the consistency of training opportunities  for practitioners on fire behavior, ecology, prevention, and suppression. Generating discussions on risk management, fire environments, and the purpose of FireWise concepts help practitioners understand the mechanisms they are working within. Working within close communities, the FireWise crews raise awareness around fire's benefits and detriments. Through trainings, awareness, and education, the participatory mechanisms of CBFiM have expanded beyond those directly involved. 

Due to the intense costs and resources of suppression, CBFiM insists on mitigative strategies. In addition to reducing ignitions through awareness, fuels management and the creation of defensible space for homes are key components of Nhlazuka FireWise approach. 

Proactively mitigating damaging wildfires directly prevents detriments to health, livelihoods, and community security. However, wildfires that do occur in this area receive suppression support from a "Working on Fire" fire under the command of the regional Richmond Fire Protection Association.

The importance of protecting residences against wildfires has taken a strong hold in this Nhlazuka community. Historically thatched roofs have been replaced with metal ones to combat against firebrands. Education on defensible space and the home ignition zone has been implemented almost unanimously - granting this community a FireWise Certificate, a rarity even in the most developed nations.

In the specific case of Nhlazuka, large portions of fire management rest within the community's tribal structure. Traditional Zulu land designations and leaders play key roles in the prioritization of treatment areas, the selection of fire practitioners, and the dissemination of fire-related information. Local fire practitioners further maintain control of decision-making by strategically determining firebreak locations and workload pace. With limited economic opportunities available in Zululand, employment as fire prevention personnel offers the illustrious ability to remain close to home and employed.

In "The Firefighting Trap", I discuss how human migration away from historical areas lets fuel loads grow unchecked. This would occur in Nhlazuka, but this CBFiM initiative keeps people, and their management, present. 

The core premise of CBFiM is to allow community ownership of, or at least influence in, fire management decision-making.Through involvement of local actors in fire management, opportunities arise for the inclusion of traditional practice, community institutions, and livelihood dependence (FAO 2009). Community involvement can also institutionalize narratives surrounding protection and environmental stewardship - 

Most Nhlazuka FireWise personnel that I spoke with expressed sincere appreciation for opportunities to work outdoors and for a "good cause" . Those that did not care particularly for the type of work were at least pleased to be employed close to traditional homes. 

After surveying numerous towns and communities in seven nations, Nhlazuka was the closest I came to observing a fire-adapted community.

The sustainable functioning of CBFiM benefits from collaboration with sponsoring organizations, such as state or corporate actors. In case of Nhlazuka, the Richmond Fire Protection Association (FPA) provides essential support services such as fire detection and fire suppression capabilities. 

The Richmond FPA is vestige of South Africa's unique fire governance system. Essentially FPA's exist as organized groups of landowner aimed at mitigating and suppressing wildfires. Landowners pay annual fees to be an FPA member and receive benefits such as legal protection, home ignition assessments, burning permits, wildfire management plans, coordinated suppression efforts, and fire detection services. 

My personal view became that FPA's offer critical platforms for knowledge exchange and coordinated fire management efforts. I feel that FPA offer serious potential in redistributing risk management and engaging wildfire-prone landowners. 

(Photo - South African Forestry Magazine)

In addition to the support that the Richmond FPA does for Nhlazuka FireWise CBFiM, the FPA has also created another form of community fire management through its unification of corporate and private landowners. 

The Richmond Municipality is heavily involved in pulp and paper production, making the area economically and ecologically susceptible to fire. The area's forestry and sugar industries benefit through mutual prevention, mandated fuel management, and coordinated, voluntary suppression. An important distinction in this system is that corporate funding is directed into a communally beneficial platform.  In a way, the Richmond form of fire management is a combination of industry and communities to form a pseudo-industrial CBFiM. 

The FPA structuring creates a platform that can be used to exchange knowledge from large insurance, utilities, firefighting departments, and communities - and it can operate without significant state involvement. Analogous almost to a fire management version of a 

"neighborhood watch" association, that may exist on varying landscape scales.

The FPA system is a concept that may have applicable benefits in other nations challenged to educate communities as well as hold landowners accountable for fuels management.

Providing platforms for multiple government, industry, and community actors to collaborate on is an important step in distributing wildfire risk responsibility. A platform to exchange best practices can offer benefits to local wildfire protection.

Working with the Richmond FPA and Nhlazuka FireWise teams really spoke to me because it reflected that engaged communities can actually work. The term, "Think Globally, Act Locally" is overused for everything ranging from REDD+ to IPCC recommendations. However, this case showed me that strengthening community tenure and environmental stewardship through international sponsorships can actually achieve environmental and wildfire objectives. 

Localism is at the heart of remediating conflicts between humans and their environments. Without action at the community- or ground-level, the actions of larger institutions (federal legislations, corporate mandates, etc), progress cannot be made. Successful governance is dependent on ensuring that correct forms of localized actions are supported. Community-based fire management, when organized appropriately, possess potential to strengthen environmental stewardship and therefore mitigate wildfires.

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