Communication Studies professor spreads awareness of wildland fires

Featured Faculty

Timia Cobb | September 14, 2021

rebekah fox headshot

Spreading awareness and attempting to save lives, Communications Studies professor Rebekah Fox works with the Austin Travis County Wildfire Coalition to educate Texans on how to prepare for fires in the Travis County area.

Fox’s partnership with the coalition started in 2015 while working for the United States Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. To be a wildland firefighter, Fox was required to pass multiple tests and training. Because of this, she found herself regularly interacting with the Austin Fire Department and was invited to become a member of the coalition.

“I started attending those meetings and became a member of the Education and Outreach Subcommittee, and just over the years we have worked to try and figure out how to help each other to accomplish our mutual goals with wildland firefighting, and particularly wildfire preparedness in Austin Travis County,” Fox said.

The Austin Travis County Wildfire Coalition works to prepare communities throughout Central Texas for forest fires by presenting in schools to encourage children to make fire safety plans for their homes, working with neighborhoods to have residents create fire protection safe communities and providing a website  for citizens looking to combat all fire hazards.

rebekah fox next to tree
Communications Studies professor Rebekah Fox stands with a tree in Angelina Sabine National Forest in Lufkin, TX on April 25th, 2021.

Fox, along with the help of her students, conducted outreach research to find out why many citizens aren’t aware of fire safety. The research collected helped the coalition create its website and understand what community members need and want to know about wildfire risks.

“I had a class of my graduate students, and I had a class of my undergraduate students in the environmental communication class look at all the different websites and analyze what they thought were the best kinds of messages and why,” Fox said. “So, I worked it into some of my teachings, but then also as a result, I proposed to interview people who lived in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) who were at most risk for wildland fire in Austin.”

Fox’s research confirmed that many people in Central Texas don’t see wildland fires as a concern and mainly associate them with California or western dry states. However, due to past fires in southern states, Fox believes wildland fire safety should be taken more seriously.

“The general message, you know after that kind of inquiry, was that people don't have a lot of information,” Fox said. “I think it's something that people often think it's not common here it's not going to happen here, even though we went through Bastrop and we had the big fires like in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, but we still kind of have this feeling that it's not going to affect us. So, instead of having bad information that was out there, we really just have a lack of information.”

rebekah fox in uniform
Fox in Angelina Sabine National Forest in Lufkin, TX on April 25th, 2021.

Learning that lack of information was a big challenge, Fox was inspired to spread awareness to anyone interested in listening. She spoke with various citizens to learn what they already knew about fires and ask them what they wanted to learn. Fox would refer them to the Coalition's website, which at the time was still being built, explaining it would be a one-stop site with multiple resources which could heighten their fire safety education.

“The website was probably the best accomplishment.  It's very specific about what you can do to prepare your home, what you can do to prepare your larger neighborhood, community and businesses,” Fox said.

The site is now complete and filled with information about the WUI, why fires start, how they spread, how to prepare for wildfire, and what the coalition does.

Fox explains that the coalition is now pushing to better their communication with elected officials to prioritize public wildfire awareness.

As a wildland firefighter and working with the coalition, Fox has years of firsthand experience in dealing with natural disasters and seeing how they change someone’s life.

“This is something that I do because I am passionate about it,” Fox said. “I definitely have goals related to the environment that I want us to be thoughtful about. I've always been somebody who has spent a lot of time outdoors and I want to make sure that we're doing the best that we can.”

For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922