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Photo of Toddi Steelman, IAWF President
Dr. Toddi Steelman, IAWF President

Virtual reach versus in-person connection

We closed out the 16th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit | 6th Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire Conference in late May; by every measure imaginable, it was a success.

We had more than 300 attendees from 24 countries who presented or participated in 111 sessions across three continents. With five concurrent tracks, there was a veritable feast of content spanning everything from human performance to collaborative fire planning, international co-operation, COVID impacts, firefighting futures, Indigenous approaches to fire, evacuation alternatives, tools and techniques to enhance safety, and technological advances for better planning and response. Recordings of all conference presentations remain available online to those who registered. 

As we begin to transition into what will be a more open posture as the COVID pandemic subsides, we need to think about the lessons we will continue to learn. What do we want to hold onto, including intentionally considering the tradeoffs inherent in the choices we make? All professional societies will wrestle with these questions in the forthcoming years. In the meantime, our fire circumstances will likely only accelerate given current trends.  

So, what are we learning?

Never have our interdependencies been more central to all we do. We find ourselves in the current pandemic because we are linked globally. We also know these mutual linkages will be key to working our way out of it. A notable lesson from the plenaries and panels on COVID on the fireline was the relatively small amount of transmission of the disease, especially when we apply best available science and adhere to common sense protocols. Our interdependencies are our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses. 

Connecting virtually allows us a lower carbon footprint and the opportunity to reach a greater portion of our international membership at a more accessible price. It is simply harder, more expensive and perhaps riskier to bring people together in person. But our virtual option comes at a price, and that is human connection. IAWF prides itself on our convening function, building networks, facilitating partnerships, enhancing knowledge and creating community. All these are possible in a virtual environment. Yet, when we don’t see each other in person we miss something: the spontaneity of contact; the depth of connection; the body language and emotion; and the humanness of being together.  

Virtual presentations are more easily recorded and preserved for future learning and accessibility. But the limitations of time remain. If one IAWF’s goals is to ensure knowledge is transmitted, what are the strategic choices we make in the kinds of conferences and workshops we decide upon, and what are the tactical choices we make in highlighting the best of what comes out of these convenings? How do we strengthen, rather than simply overwhelm, our membership in a virtual or hybrid environment? 

These lessons, questions and more will be under debate in the coming years as we find a new equilibrium and learn from all of these experiences. What is not up for debate is the importance of the IAWF mission, which is more vital now than ever in this complex, interdependent world. 

If you were able to attend our conference, I encourage you to maintain your connection to us through our regular webinars, newsletter, social media, and Wildfire Magazine. These are the ways we keep in touch and we encourage active engagement. Wildfire Magazine now has a page for member comments; please let us know what you are thinking!