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California Researchers Develop Board Game to Teach Wildfire Safety. Can It Save Lives?

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Residents gathered in the Tomales town hall to play a game about wildfire evacuation. (Katherine Monahan/KQED)

Dozens of residents and firefighters gathered on Sunday in the tiny coastal town of Tomales. In the town hall, past a table of coffee and donut holes, they met around six folding tables covered with giant maps of Tomales and the surrounding agricultural region from Dillon Beach to Two Rock.

Each map was a game board for “Tomales Resilience,” an experimental game that simulates a real-life wildfire evacuation. People play as themselves.

First, residents calculated whether they would start with a bonus or a penalty. They added points for how prepared they are in real life, like by already having a go bag or a radio. They subtracted points for factors that could slow them down, like having multiple pets.


Then, a Tomales firefighter used a spinner to generate the characteristics of an imaginary fire, including which day and time the fire would break out. Residents put their game pieces — which represented their real-life modes of transportation — at the point on the map where they would be at that time.

Members of the Marin County Fire Department play alongside residents of Tomales and the surrounding area. (Katherine Monahan/KQED)

And the game was on. At each turn, players encountered new variables — a blocked road, an additional fire, a neighbor asking for help — as they tried to get to their destinations.

The game, called “Tomales Resistance,” is part of an experimental approach to wildfire preparedness. With climate change, California wildfires are expected to increase in frequency and severity. And communities are looking for effective ways to plan ahead.

“Games are a great way to explore complex things in a very low-stakes way,” said Tom Maiorana, a Professor of Design at UC Davis. He created the game with an interdisciplinary team of colleagues at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz. The National Science Foundation funded the project.

The science behind it, Maiorana said, comes from an academic discipline called serious games. Serious games are defined as being for learning rather than entertainment.

“Games help people to think in more creative ways,” Maiorana said, “and yet have a visceral experience that’s a hint at what might happen in the real thing, but still simulating some of the stress and elements that would come up in this situation.”

To make Tomales Resilience realistic, Maiorana met with community members to learn what factors could impact an evacuation attempt in their area. He then turned their feedback into chance cards that players drew at each turn.

Seafood festival in Point Reyes? Go back two spaces — but only if you’re evacuating to the south. Motorcycle rally on Highway 1? Skip a turn. Not sure how much gas is in your tank right now? Skip a turn.

Thinking about these factors ahead of time can be very helpful, Maiorana said — especially in tiny coastal Tomales, which has only three roads out of town and is 18 miles from the nearest gas station. “Getting to play through scenarios gets us to think about it and actually enhance the confidence of community members, so we’re better prepared in the future,” Maiorana said.

After the game, community members talked through what they’d learned. Elizabeth Bonini, who lives in Santa Rosa but has family and property in Tomales, said it made her think about how she would evacuate her mother. “All of a sudden, it became clear that if you have an elderly family member,” she said, “boy, you were at a time crunch.” She suggested that each block in town create a plan to look after its elderly or disabled members in an evacuation.

Other residents proposed getting more radios, using the church bells as an alarm, planning carshares, and creating a townwide phone directory.

They plan to meet again soon to start implementing their new ideas. “That’s the next step,” Marshall resident Frank Werblin said. “And it’s really important. A lot of planning could be so lifesaving if we can do it.”

Tomales Fire Captain Tom Nunes was impressed with the game and said it could be useful in other towns as well. “There’s some great fundamentals behind this,” he said, “and it’s a matter of tailoring it for each community’s needs.”

Maiorana and his team hope to expand the project and play with other areas. “Wildfires are this existential threat for so many Californians,” he said. “Yet it’s one of those things that so few of us actually get to practice how we respond.”

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