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Between Theory and Reality Check: PyroLife trainings in Cyprus

Written by Isabeau Ottolini

Between 8-14 April, the EU funded PyroLife project held two training events on the island of Cyprus. This blog post shares what we, as Early Stage Researchers, did and learnt during the Risk Communication workshop and the in-field module of the Making Change in Wildfire Management: Science Policy Interaction training.

The PyroLife Risk Communication workshop

The Risk Communication workshop, between the 8th and 9th of April, was organised by the European Forest Institute (EFI), CERIDES, Pau Costa Foundation (PCF), Open University of Catalonia (UOC), and the Forest Science and Technology Centre of Catalonia (CTFC) and Virtual Operations Support Teams - Portugal (VOST).

In two days time we participated in many interactive and thought-provoking activities around communicating about wildfires, and especially the why’s and the how’s.

Day 1

After a warm welcome by George Boustras from Cerides (the hosting institution), Alex Held from EFI kicked off the Risk Communication training. First, he inspired us to think about visionary leadership, based on the idea of the Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek. It steps away from the traditional finite game mindset: considering that everything is fixed (e.g. the people involved in wildfire management, the socioecological landscapes, the fire regimes, etc) and that it’s all about winning, through e.g. withholding knowledge to further one’s own agenda. Instead, the infinite game is about contributing to a just cause, like mitigating wildfire disasters. It’s about recognising that aiming at winning is pointless as there will always be room for improvement, and that everything changes over time anyway. Understanding all this, gives space for building more trustful and collaborative relationships, overcoming personal egos, sharing knowledge, and enjoying playing a good game together.

Often, we focus so much on the what and how, but at the end of the day, the most important is the why behind what we do (e.g. the why of communicating about wildfires; of doing reserach; of working at a certain company or NGO, etc). Because this is what truly inspires us and drives action. This is what makes us collaborate, when our why’s align and we realise we strive for very similar things in the world of wildfires: heal past traumas and injustices, create more hopeful wildfire futures without disasters, etc.

With this the tone was set for the workshop, and we were ready to dive into several challenges when communicating about wildfire with Míriam Arenas Conejo (UOC). One are the hard-to-reach communities (which reinforces their conditions of vulnerability towards wildfire disaster). And another are the uncertainties that surround wildfires, for instance where they might happen, what impact they might cause, etc (which might lead to people feeling fear and disempowerment in the face of wildfires). Using resources such as the The Uncertainty Handbook (from Climate Outreach) and the Principles of Risk communication - worksheets (by Natural Hazards Center), we learnt how to work with these hard-to-reach communities and how to communicate about wildfire uncertainties.

After lunch, Eduard Plana Bach (CTFC) challenged us to explain the concept Integrated Wildfire Management to people who are unfamiliar with it. This task seemed easy at first, but it was really hard! We experienced the challenges of leaving our ivory towers and explaining it in such ways that even our (grand)parents would understand; concisely and without jargon. We also reflected on the importance of communicating science to policy-makers, so that our research can archive positive societal impact. These discussions connected very nicely with the other PyroLife training, on wildfire science-policy interaction.

Day 2

The second day of the training was all about engaging with the media and creating communication plans for our own research projects.

A core aim of PyroLife is to create positive societal impacts through our research projects. One way to make our research reach policy-makers - and society at large - is by engaging with the media. Ewa Hermanowicz (EFI[MS1] ) illustrated this with various examples, like the Wildfire Diaries interviewing Alex Held, and gave us diverse recommendations on how to make our research newsworthy and understand the journalist’s perspective.

Then, she took us through the process of how we can pitch our research to the media, and use the Story House technique, to convey our core messages and navigate challenging conversations. Then, to feel the actual adrenaline of being interviewed by a journalist, each of us participants were interviewed. And we certainly felt adrenaline! But also a boost in self-confidence and enjoyment in the interviewing process, as the guidelines and tools shared by Ewa really helped us to approach this situation, which only shortly before felt like a nerve-wrecking challenge.

That afternoon, Jorge Gomes, from VOST Portugal, took us through a risk communication scenario, based on a real life event. This allowed us to think of creative communication approaches, be confronted with challenges that many fellow risk communicators face in the field, and learn from all the workshop trainers about the challenges and successes they have experienced in wildfire prevention and emergency communication. To finish the 2-day workshop, Ewa helped us to create communication plans for our own research projects, through the wonderful Planning communication into science guide.

The workshop closed with a beautiful round of reflections, conveying just how much more empowered and confident we participants felt after this very complete two-day training. All in all we now have many more tools, not just on communicating about wildfire risk to communities, but also about communicating our research to varied publics - ranging from vulnerable groups to policy-makers to journalists. It’s about finding whatever tools from the toolbox works best for each of us - our personality, communication and leadership style - embracing our authentic selves instead of struggling to be someone we’re not. Lastly, we also take home valuable reflections on what true leadership means in the infinite game of wildfire management, and that why is the most important question of all. Many thanks to all organisers, trainers, and participants!

Making Change in Wildfire Management:

Science Policy Interaction

The field-module of the Making Change in Wildfire Management: Science Policy Interaction training took place between the 11th and 14th of April. This training was organised jointly by the PyroLife partners CERIDES, European University Cyprus (EUC) and the European Forest Institute (EFI). In particular, the Early Stage Researchers, Judith Kirschner and Pooja Pandey from EUC, have done outstanding work on making the training possible in Cyprus.

Day 1 - Wildfire disasters in Cyprus, and how to prevent them

Our first day started with visiting the Troodos Botanical Centre, where we gathered with the Cyprus Forestry Department and the managers of Troodos Forest. First we learnt about forest fire management in Cyprus on a national level, and then specifically within the Troodos forest district (as one of the three Cyprus forest districts). The Forestry Department works around 3 broad areas of wildfire management: prevention (e.g. education, creating fire breaks, clearing vegetation), detection (e.g. lookout stations, ground and air patrols), and suppression.

Quick detection and effective suppression of wildfires is prioritised to prevent wildfires getting out of control and turning into disasters. Even so, occasionally wildfire disasters do happen, like the Saittas wildfire from 2007, or the Arakapas wildfire from 2021, both burning thousands of hectares, and the latter leading to the sad loss of 4 lives. During the day we visited both sites, accompanied by members of the Forestry Department, the Civil Defence, CERIDES, and the Fire Services.

In the village of Eptagonia the above mentioned people, as well as the President of the Cyprus Greens, Charalampos Theopemptou, and the Mayor of Eptagonia, Panayiotis Tsolakis, gathered in a round table discussion. The most recent wildfire disaster in Arakapas has opened up discussions on ways forward with wildfire management, e.g what policies are needed; what the role of the different stakeholders are; how to navigate the tensions between all stakeholders; and how international networks like PyroLife could support Cyprus in their management of wildfires.

Day 2 - Managing wildfires in a potpourri of actors and values

The second day we spent the day in the Paphos district. From the NGOs Terra Cypria and BirdLife Cyprus we learnt about the role of different stakeholders in wildfire management, especially in the post-fire phase. We saw two post fire sites at the Pikni Forest (one burnt approx 19 years ago, and another 4 years ago) to see real-life examples of post fire recovery, and to learn under which conditions reforestation and anti-erosion measures are needed.

Then we went to the Akamas forest, where we met with the CERIDES co-director, Christos Dimopoulos. He guided us during our hike up to the Akamas fire lookout point. In discussion with the various stakeholders present, common themes emerged, such as challenges around depopulation and lack of services in rural areas; conflicts between nature conservation and urban development goals; and increased wildfire risk in the Akamas protected area due to a rise in tourism.

Lastly, we went to the Terra Cypria Environmental Studies Centre. Thinking about the ways forward for wildfire management, some ideas that emerged were: the need for champions leading action towards sustainable wildfire management; being modest as a researcher in the way you present yourself and your ideas, because there will always be things you can learn from others; and being aware about the role of history and the power relationships between the peoples on the island. To finish, we listened to the moving words from the Commissioner of the Environment, Klelia Vasiliou. She explained to us the challenges wildfires pose to the island, especially under current climate change. Then, she shared a fundamental piece of advice for us early career researchers: to love the land and be with her as much as we can, because this is the way in which we can find the strength to continue doing our work and be grounded with the reality.

Day 3. Reality-check: Wildfire management on a divided island

The third day was all about wildfire management on Cyprus as a divided island. Together with various scientists and stakeholders, almost 40 researchers, forest technicians and environmentalists discussed the realities of wildfire risk in the buffer zone separating north and south Cyprus.

As research from Prof. Iris Charalambidou and her colleagues from north and south Cyprus shows, the buffer zone has high biological diversity. However, there are diverse wildfire related concerns here, such as vegetation overgrowth; old mines still lying around from the 1970’s conflict; and illegal activities like dumping rubbish, poaching or cutting trees. All these increase the risk of wildfires or could worsen them.

In the afternoon, we had the unique opportunity to visit the buffer zone with the UN, specifically around the old Nicosia Airport. Here we learned about the place’s history, as well as the challenges around managing the land - important to prevent wildfires - and above mentioned illegal activities. Here there are diverse factors at play. One is the lack of management plans. While the United Nations Development Programme published a report on the Cooperation for the prevention of wildfires within the buffer zone in 2013, no concrete next steps have derived from it. Another is the illegal activities that might cause wildfires; the UN’s role is merely as an observer, and they have no jurisdiction to do something against these activities.

The day ended with necessary reflections on how to manage wildfire risk in this area, as well as promote biodiversity conservation and peace building between the southern and northern communities. There is no easy solution, but a first step is to bring up the issue and start the dialogue, which over time can hopefully develop into bi-communal cooperation in the field of wildfire management.

Day 4 - Wrap up

The training concluded on Thursday 14th, after hearing from the MSc student, Nathalie Gebara, about her great work on Wildfire Governance in Lebanon.

Heartfelt thanks to all the organisers of the training for the excellent experience, the stakeholders who received us so kindly and willing to share their knowledges and experiences, and the course participants for further strengthening our PyroLife network.

Photos: Maria Schloßmacher

Cover image: Carmen Rodríguez


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