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How a board game can help vulnerable communities prepare for catastrophic wildfires


Wildfire season is here with several blazes already burning across the country. Climate change is increasing their frequency and intensity, and experts are struggling to prepare vulnerable communities. But some are trying a new approach - a board game. KQED's Katherine Monahan takes us to the coastal village of Tomales in Northern California.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You guys all ready?



KATHERINE MONAHAN, BYLINE: About 40 people are gathered in the Tomales town hall. They're sitting around folding tables covered with giant maps of the region, and each map is a game board. The point of the game - to safely evacuate this remote area as wildfires threaten. First, residents calculate whether they start with a bonus or a penalty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do you have an evacuation plan?

MONAHAN: They add points for how prepared they are in real life, like by having a go bag of essentials or being signed up to receive emergency alerts on their phones. They subtract points for factors that could slow them down, like having extended family or multiple pets. Next, they choose their game pieces.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And whatever vehicle you have in real life...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You have a car? There you are.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I have two cars.

MONAHAN: And then it's time for the wildfire. The spinner determines how big it is and where and when it breaks out. Residents put their game pieces at the point on the map where they would be at that time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: So everybody's going to be in town at 6 a.m. at the time of the fire.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: So the fire is here.

May I have a flame?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Oh, man. We got to get out of town.

MONAHAN: And the game is on. At each turn, players encounter new variables as they try to escape the flames - a road blocked by a downed tree, a neighbor asking for help, a new fire popping up along the highway.

TOM MAIORANA: Games are a great way to explore complex things in a very low-stakes way.

MONAHAN: Tom Maiorana, a professor of design at the University of California, Davis, helped create the game with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The science behind it comes from an academic discipline called serious games.

MAIORANA: The playfulness of it allows us to think about these things that are really stressful in a way that is lower stress but yet still helps us start to unravel some of the things that are going on in that dire situation. So the game is just a way to trick us into thinking about them in more creative ways.

MONAHAN: To make it more realistic, Maiorana met with Tomales residents to learn what factors could impact an evacuation here. He turned their feedback into chance cards the players draw at each turn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: If your tank is less than full, skip the turn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: See, that's a classic opportunity for us to learn to fill up our tanks.

MONAHAN: Maiorana says residents must think about these things ahead of time. It can mean life or death. Deadly fires have raged through California in recent years, including the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, another isolated town. Tiny coastal Tomales has only two main roads in and out.

MAIORANA: My secret agenda with this game is actually to get people talk to one another.

MONAHAN: After the game, Maiorana asked community members to share what they learned. Elizabeth Bonini says the game made her think about how she would evacuate her mother.

ELIZABETH BONINI: All of a sudden, it became clear that if you have an elderly family member, boy, you were at a time crunch.

MONAHAN: Bonini proposes making a block-by-block plan to evacuate the elderly and disabled. Other residents suggest getting more handheld radios and using the church bells as an alarm. They plan to meet again soon to start implementing their new ideas. Marin County fire captain Tom Nunes, who oversees the Tomales village fire station, is impressed.

TOM NUNES: There's some fundamentals behind this, and it's a matter of tailoring it for each community's needs.

MONAHAN: Game designer Maiorana and his team hope to expand the project and play with other vulnerable towns in California, the West and the nation. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Monahan in Tomales, Calif.


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Katherine Monahan
[Copyright 2024 KALW]