Image courtesy of Nina Fontana

Cultural Burning and Wildfire Policy with Dr Nina Fontana

By Bob Crimian

May 16, 2024


Minute Read


In February 2024, COMPASS facilitated a policy engagement training in Washington, DC through a partnership with the Federation for American Scientists for wildland fire scientists and subject matter experts. Over two days, the cohort workshopped their messages with journalists and policy experts, then they got to put their skills to work with meetings with congressional staff on Capitol Hill. In this video, Dr. Nina Fontana joins COMPASS’s Bob Crimian to reflect on her experience in the workshop, how she’s building on the skills she learned, and why it’s important to her to bring research back to communities and policy.

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This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Bob Crimian: Hello, everybody. My name is Bob Crimian, and I’m a program manager here at COMPASS. Today I’m very excited to be talking to Nina Fontana, a researcher at the University of California Davis in collaboration with USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (That’s a mouthful). Her research centers on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, also known as TEK, in forest dependent communities and cultural burning. Nina participated in a series of in-person COMPASS workshops in Washington, DC designed to help wildland fire experts, like herself, communicate important aspects of their work to journalists and policymakers. She even was able to use what she learned in our workshops during several meetings with congressional staffers on Capitol Hill while she was in DC.

So, Nina, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nina Fontana: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

BC: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What brought you to this work?

NF: Yeah, I guess I’ll start off by saying that I’ve always been a really curious person. I’ve spent a lot of time in school. So even after I graduated from college, I went back and taught high school for about 5 years. And I’ve always been really curious about where we come from, why we’re here, and how we’re connected to the natural environment.

And so what I’m really passionate about is trying to identify impactful strategies for centering essential stewardship practices when we think about environmental policy. So here in California, cultural burning is really important.

My personal background: my mom is from Ukraine, and so I spent a lot of time in Ukraine while I was getting my PhD. And I worked with forest-dependent communities there, and the various stewardship practices that Hutsuls practice in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. And so I really think about where am I in the world and what essential stewardship practices are important for that particular region?

BC: I knew you’re from Ukraine, but I didn’t realize you did part of your PhD there, so that’s exciting.

So related to your work, we’d love to hear a little more detail about that. So what exactly is cultural burning, and what does the future look like for cultural burning in North America?

NF: So cultural burning has many different definitions. But the one that really stands out, and the word to really pay attention to is the word ‘culture.’

Cultural burn practitioners use mix-severity controlled, or intentional, fire to actively steward spaces — so that can be a landscape, habitat, or a species. And there’s a lot of different reasons that go into that. And we call that Indigenous burning or cultural burning. And Indigenous communities worldwide have practiced cultural burning. And it’s really important when you think about the relationship of people to land.

And I would say that the future for cultural burning in California is really positive. Since 2021, we’ve seen a lot of new policies that actually name cultural burning in its legislation, which is really big because it creates this distinction between prescribed burning and cultural burning. And prescribed burning tends to be agency led — Cal Fire, for example or other state and federal agencies — versus cultural burning which is led by communities, Indigenous communities who practice cultural burning. And cultural burning is very diverse even within individualized communities.

BC: No, that’s great. And related to that note, this idea of like prescribed burning versus cultural burning. I know we talked a lot about this. But I know when we’re in DC, you were describing this to policy makers also. So could you tell people listening to this, why it is important for policy makers to understand the differences but also the similarities between prescribed burning and cultural burning?

NF: That’s a great question. And I think, because I’m in this world, I forget that a lot of people may have never heard of this. So when I would go to these offices, I would actually use the Message Box that you all presented and shared with us in the workshops, which was really helpful, because as a researcher, sometimes I get stuck in my own world. And so I would lead with prescribed burning, which, if you work in the wildfire space you tend to be familiar with that — specifically in California although in other regions of the US prescribed burning is practiced as well — so I would lead with that, you know, ‘What is intentional fire? Why is it important? How does it reduce and mitigate climate change and wildfire risk?’ And then I would be able to lead and say, ‘well prescribed burning has its origins in Indigenous knowledge. And there are still Indigenous communities worldwide and statewide that practice cultural burning. And for Indigenous communities, it’s related to culture. And so if you’re supporting cultural burning, you’re supporting tribal sovereignty. You’re supporting stewardship. You’re supporting climate change mitigation.’ And so it’s really leading with what people may already know to then bridge and share more knowledge about something they don’t know. So that was really helpful.

BC: That’s fantastic and so happy that the Message Box was a tool that you could use for these things. Relating to that, I guess relating to your experience with COMPASS, What has your experience working with COMPASS been like? And how has working with COMPASS really helped you create a larger impact related to your communication goals?

NF: What COMPASS was able to do was, number one, bring a whole group of wildfire experts together [who are] studying different aspects of wildfire, such as impacts of smoke, prescribed burning, Indigenous and cultural burning, impacts of wildfire on habitats, right? And we all got in a room, and we were really able to kind of figure out what our message is and communicate that. And then see, you know, if were we effective, right? We all study wildfire. We all have a general idea of what each of those things does. But are we actually effective? And if we weren’t effective at communicating with each other, who are experts, we probably are not going to be very, you know, effective communicating with people who aren’t. So I think that was like the first layer. 

And then we had journalists come, you know, we had policy people who live in that world come and speak to us and really share and give feedback. The feedback was really, really important because you got feedback really quickly and then you were able to adapt, refine, and practice again. And I think those aspects of the workshop were really, really impactful. So when I would go to these — I think there was one day where I went to like three congressional offices, and I was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna we’re gonna do this.’ And I could see, you know, like I had to adapt midway through the conversation based on the feedback I was getting — [adapt] my message a little bit in order to have an effective conversation. And I think that practice in the workshop helped a ton because that’s what we did for that whole day.

So I think there’s a lot of aspects of quick thinking and communication that helped me effectively communicate. And I think down the road…It’s a constant, it’s a skill you have to practice, and just knowing that, you know, communication isn’t a static skill. They’re adaptive skills that you’re constantly refining and learning.

BC: Yeah, no, that’s such a good point. As we like to say, communicators aren’t born. They are made. It is a practice, so that speaks to what you just said there, so thank you for sharing that.

Related to your meetings that you’ve had, it sounds like, again, you were able to kind of figure out how to adapt on the fly, which is one of the really big things we try to stress during these workshops. Relate to that communication even after these meetings, could you describe any maybe communication wins or additional or different challenges you experienced after this workshop?

NF: I think the communication win was I was able to reach out to the staffers. It’s a minor win. This is my first time really communicating this research in this way to policy makers. So I think the win was continuing the conversation. I wrote an email, and they wrote immediately back, saying, you know, ‘please share any research that you’re doing or feel free to contact us.’ So I think that was a win, in terms of like a little win, is having that door open.

I think the challenges are maintaining that connection, right? Maintaining that momentum. Making sure to keep that channel open. And I think, as a person that I feel like I’m constantly trying to navigate different relationships, not letting this one kind of like simmer down, but just keeping that conversation going.

BC: Absolutely. And again we talk about this again, the idea of like relationships are the foundation of everything. And it’s just now taking this idea of relationship building to a new audience. And again, it’s a practice. It’s a skill. 

But again, I’d say it’s a huge win that you got Congressional staffers to write you back almost immediately. I know sometimes that doesn’t work even for me. So you must have been very effective.

*Nina fist pumps*

Yeah, it’s a big win!

BC: So one kind of through a line I’m hearing in all of your responses is the idea of trust. And I know we talked a lot about trust in our workshops when you’re trying to build trust with a newer audience. Could you describe how you’ve done that with the audiences you’re used to and how you’re trying to do that with these newer audiences you’re trying to engage with?

NF: I think the main thing about trust, I mean even in friendship, is it takes time and it can’t be rushed. And I I think sometimes it comes into conflict, at least in academia, with timelines and reports. And I think there’s a tension sometimes between needing to build trust within communities, with policy makers — with whoever you’re working with — and the need for results. And I think there’s not much you can do. You can’t force trust. You have to build it.

And I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think it’s a frustration that I definitely deal with, but I think the only way to break through with it is to be patient and to have good faith — like to to be a person that shows that you’re there. You’re not leaving. You’re committed. That this is something that you personally care about. I think that really reads through in building trust, and also having the desire to work with people right, like, you’re there. You’re not going anywhere, and you’re committed.

BC: You can’t force someone to trust you. All you can do is be trustworthy, and you do that by really leaning into the aspects you just said so. Thank you.

I know we talked a little bit about the difference between impacting academia versus impact in other areas. So could you touch on that a little bit.

NF: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a struggle in academia. Like what academia views as good communication tends to be journal articles and high impact factor journals. And it’s just built for academics. And so a lot of researchers and scientists and people who work in academia are evaluated against that metric. And that metric lives in a bubble outside of communities, generally speaking. And those community members are not likely to read those journals. And so, who are you communicating to and who are you communicating for and who is benefiting from that communication?

And I think there’s this realm of community engaged research that’s coming out where it’s like, okay, you’re communicating this research, you should be communicating it back to the community from which it is derived. And sharing that information in a way that is relatable, that is beneficial…and it’s probably not gonna be in a high impact journal. And I think that is something — that’s a frustration I deal with pretty regularly in trying to sway and sort of bring to light in academia that, ‘Great. This is a great communication tool within this bubble. But let’s think about bringing it back to the community, bringing it back to policy, because that’s what really matters in many ways.’ At least, that’s my opinion in the work that I do.

BC: I think that’s a very solid opinion and speaks of this idea, again, this reciprocal relationship you have with your community, your policy experts that you know. And again, all that relates to trust.

NF: Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s like, if you can’t communicate what you’re doing to the folks that you’re working with, then you’ve kind of lost the ball on the whole point of it.

And also getting feedback on what your research is actually saying: ‘Am I correct in my interpretation? Does this reflect? Does this make sense? Is this what you need?’ I think that dialogue actually is, like you were saying, a foundation of trust and trust building.

BC: Absolutely. So before I close this out. Where can people learn more about your work?

NF: I am not super active on social media, but I do have a Linkedin page. I’m working on a project that I’m really excited about. It’s an international collaborative project developing a fire stewardship decision support tool with three Northern California tribes in collaboration with an indigenous-led nonprofit called First Nations Emergency Services Society.

And the idea is to create a tool that’s useful for communities. We know that they don’t have a lot of access to their own ancestral lands here in California. And so there’s this need to create cross collaborations with agencies. And so we hope this tool will help with that. So I’m just really excited for that project, and you can see a little bit more about it on my Linkedin page.

BC: I’m excited to read that more. So that’s very exciting. Be sure to definitely share your Linkedin so people who watch this can go see.

Well, you know. Thank you so so much. This is such a pleasure talking to you, and I cannot wait to talk to you more about your work. So thank you so much.

NF: Thank you. I really loved the COMPASS workshop, and it was so, so helpful.

BC: We love hearing that.

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