Ecology and Society (Oct 2021)

Wildfire volunteering and community disaster resilience in New Zealand: institutional change in a dynamic rural social-ecological setting

  • Andrea Grant,
  • E. R. (Lisa). Langer

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 26, no. 3
p. 18


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Wildfire is a major environmental hazard, yet the social and institutional aspects of wildfire risk management have received limited attention in the literature. Considering future climate change, changing demographics, and the increased demands on fire services more generally, there is an urgent need to better understand the significance of volunteers in emergency management. Volunteering brings together community actors and formal institutions in responding to natural hazards including wildfires. In this paper, we use systemic co-inquiry with volunteer leaders to better understand how to integrate formal and informal volunteers by addressing how resilience is being enacted and what opportunities exist for building community resilience. We examine practices of transitioning from past norms of volunteering to create new institutions for supporting community resilience to wildfires. Findings demonstrate the need for the emergency management sector to promote community resilience through the support of informal volunteers and move beyond traditional representations of rural fire brigade volunteers' roles as firefighters. Vulnerabilities at different organizational scales, community, brigade, and regional, limit existing arrangements for wildfire volunteering, and highlight the need to adapt to changing contexts. Opportunities for building community resilience are identified, including supporting non-firefighting roles for brigade volunteers; aligning with spontaneous volunteers for enhancing rural community disaster preparedness; and outreach to support preparedness activities in isolated and remote communities. Building on the direct experiences of our participants, we articulate the importance of institutional reflexivity involving localized reflection on volunteer organization as a vehicle for change toward more resilient wildfire futures.