Not Just Blowing Smoke: IAWF’s Hybrid Conference

Lance A. Simon, VP Client Solutions

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A wildfire at Florida Panther NWR. Photo by Josh O’Connor – USFWS.

With wildfires making headlines all last summer, from the rim fire in Yosemite to the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona and the Black Forest Fire in Colorado, the nation is increasingly aware of the dangers of these enormous and often out of control fires.

But with climate change likely increasing the rate and intensity of wildfires like these, what exactly are experts doing to protect property, public health or even eco-systems? You don’t often see stories about this in the news, because it’s such an enormous topic with broad sweeping implications.

The International Association of Wildfires (IAWF) hosted the Smoke Symposium Conference in Washington DC on October 21-24 to help answer that very question.

The Smoke Symposium was the first of its kind, and brought together thousands of firefighters, managers, policy and decision makers from around the world to facilitate leadership and provide a communication platform to disparate factions from the wildfire community to talk about policies and best practices around smoke.

One attendee was Peter Lahm, who is the Fire Weather and Air Quality Specialist for the USDA Forest Service in Washington DC. Peter’s the guy who actually had the idea to create the smoke symposium in the first place, and offered the proposal to the IAWF.

“You’d be surprised, but firefighters and policy makers are not all on the same page when it comes to best practices, the latest technologies and the right messaging for the public about air quality issues around wildfires,” Lahm said.

Not every professional was as lucky as Peter and could attend the conference just by driving there. Many members of the IAWF live in other parts of the U.S. and in other parts of the globe.

mikel robinson IAWF

Mikel Robinson, Executive Director, IAWF

“With budget cuts it’s even more difficult for members to afford to travel,” IAWF director Mikel Robinson said. In response to these economic pressures, the IAWF decided to add a virtual component to their in-person conference and were fortunate to receive a grant from NASA to help underwrite its costs.

“This means that hundreds of people who could not afford to attend any of our 100 live sessions were able to log in, see the presentations streamed live, and participate in the Q&A sessions. We’re really excited to have provided a way for people to receive training who weren’t able to be there,” Mikel said. And for those who live in time zones where they could not attend the sessions in real time, the IAWF made the workshops available in an archive.

In fact, the entire conference will be accessible to members on an on-going basis because Mikel morphed the conference site into a member portal where everyone can continue to take in the content. For a conference that covered over 100 sessions over four days, this type of archiving is particularly helpful—it gives participants the option to go back and review any session they might have missed, or want to see again.

Other highlights of this hybrid conference included electronic poster sessions, meant to recreate the feel of the poster sessions available in the exhibit hall for physical attendees, and a conference blog, which featured pictures, VIP interviews, and a behind-the-scenes look at conference activities. These features, exclusive to the virtual attendees, are now available to all conference goers with the conference portal site.

“I am not a fire expert,” admitted Mikel, when asked. She actually fell into her director job by virtue of her exemplary skill at conference planning. “I’ve never even been on a burn or at a fire before, but I really enjoy the personalities of the people who get into this profession, and I love their passion,” she says.

For her part, Mikel is happy to support what she calls “the brotherhood” of firefighters and have encouraged them to come together in October to share and talk about what they do best. “That’s my challenge,” she says, “to encourage participation. And it’s a good one.”

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