WILDFIRE + FIREWISE
Wildfire approaches a house near Possum Kingdom, Texas, in April. (Photo: AP/Wide World/LM Otero)
Informed + Prepared
At the leading edge of NFPA’s wildfire efforts, the Firewise program marks its tenth year of helping communities prepare for fire
NFPA Journal®, October 2011
By Michele Steinberg
Damaging wildfires have dominated U.S. news headlines since the beginning of the year, as stories have tumbled, domino-like, out of Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, then back to Texas and the Southeast. What’s really news for NFPA, however, among the reports of crisis and disaster, are the mentions of Firewise®. In the first six months of 2011, well over 100 stories have made it into major market media outlets talking about how communities are using Firewise to actively prepare to face the wildfire threat.
Firewise is a term coined by NFPA and its partners in 1993 to describe a vision of communities and homes where residents have learned how to build, design, and maintain neighborhoods that can survive compatibly with the natural phenomena of brush, grass, and forest fires. NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program has developed tools and techniques based on wildland fire science to advise and inform homeowners, builders, firefighters, and community leaders on the most effective ways to prepare homes to resist ignition from wildland fire. Its national recognition program, Firewise Communities/USA®, was launched in 2002 to provide a simple action template for neighbors to work together for greater wildfire safety.
When the recognition program launched, there was a vague awareness, though not wide acceptance, of the value of home preparedness and mitigation for wildfire. Most of the attention, whether by the government or the media, still focused on suppression, in the belief that more fire engines, more equipment, more aircraft, and more fire retardant could save homes from large wildfires. As suppression costs have skyrocketed in the last decade — the U.S. Forest Service alone has spent about $1.2 billion annually, on average, on suppression since 2001, more than double its annual average costs in the 1990s — NFPA and its state and federal partners have quietly built an educational and grassroots action program in high-risk communities across the country. The program has grown from 12 pilot areas to more than 700 neighborhoods and 40 states. From 2003 to 2010, these communities collectively invested more than $77 million dollars in local wildfire safety efforts. The Firewise stories we now see regularly in the news still cover local community safety days and workshops, but more and more are beginning to highlight the results of this slow but steady behavior change among people living with wildfire risks.
In March, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety conducted the first-ever full-scale wildfire demonstration at the IBHS Research Center in South Carolina. The demonstration was part of a building science initiative designed to illustrate how easily some commonly used materials and items on or near houses can ignite from windblown embers, and what homeowners can do to better protect their homes.
An untreated wood shake roof burns following the ember shower, as does the mulch and vegetation at the base of the house.
For more on the fire dangers posed by mulch, see the Brush, Grass, and Forest Fires report at nfpa.org/brush.
The (Extra) Cost of Living in the WUI
In July, the blog on the newly redesigned firewise.org featured a post titled "Should homeowners pay higher firefighting costs in the wildland urban interface?"
- It is estimated that nearly 45 million homes abut or intermingle with wildlands in the U.S. Many of these homes are located in particularly fire prone areas, such as the Western Rockies, where an additional 2.2 million homes are expected to be built by 2030.
- U.S. land management agencies spend an average of $2.6 billion annually on wildland fire suppression related activities. In FY2008, these costs reached $4.2 billion.
- Fighting fires to protect structures in the WUI significantly increases the cost of fire suppression activities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General examined firefighting costs in 2006 and found that the escalating suppression costs were largely attributable to efforts to protect private property in the WUI. They also found that protecting WUI property accounted for the majority of the U.S. Forest Service’s cost to fight large fires.
- The USDA Inspector General also noted that homeowners in the WUI, reliant on the Forest Service to suppress fires, had little incentive to ensure that their homes are constructed and landscaped in ways to reduce wildland risks. Few local governments require homeowners to implement wildfire mitigation measures or attempt to control growth in the WUI.
- In addition to the billions spent on suppression activities, the U.S. faces estimated annual losses of $20–$100 billion in property damage and other economic impacts of wildland fires.
Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona have all seen fires threaten and destroy homes this year, but those states can also boast stories of prepared homes that withstood the threat of fire or were easily defended by fire crews because of the actions homeowners had taken long before the fire ever started. The Firewise Communities/USA recognition program can take some of the credit, but Firewise messages go beyond the 700 communities with formal recognition to reach more people and places than ever before. Thanks for this are due to numerous individuals and groups. State forestry agencies have widely embraced the program and its messages and regularly customize Firewise concepts to promote to local residents. The newly redesigned Firewise website at firewise.org has made it easier for users to get to the key resources they need to take action. A new push on social media by NFPA has helped insert Firewise into conversations on such world-wide networks as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And NFPA’s Board of Directors has issued a challenge in the form of a goal: to see more than 1,000 communities actively engaged as recognized Firewise communities by the end of 2013.
To meet that challenge, NFPA has just unleashed a small but brave band of Firewise advisors on the wildfire-prone areas of the U.S. Their role is to support the state forestry agencies, fire departments, and others who want to work with communities on becoming Firewise, while providing the helping hand and encouragement that active communities might need to sustain their ongoing efforts. Since June, these Firewise advisors have found many opportunities to support and sustain Firewise activities. A few examples:
- Northwest Region Firewise Advisor Gary Marshall heeded the call for Firewise education help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and members of the Blackfeet tribe in Babb, Montana. His visit helped teach tribal leaders how to evaluate homes for wildfire ignition resistance and launched a door-to-door education campaign.
- Northeast Region Firewise Advisor Heidi Wagner discovered that Staten Island has the highest risk of home loss from brush fires in the state of New York. She quickly formulated steps to add to the area’s plan for community wildfire protection that can help homeowners prepare their properties.
- Southern Region Advisor Patrick Mahoney recognized a southwest Florida district’s greatest assets for wildfire safety education:
active retirees who’ve brought their neighbors on board to achieve recognition as Firewise Communities/USA sites. He gathered them into a small but powerful coalition prepared to motivate their peers in neighboring areas.
- Fellow Firewise Advisors Todd Chlanda (Central), Faith Berry (Southwest/California), and Keith Worley (Southwest/Texas) have also reached out and found interest in Firewise in places NFPA staff had never been able to reach before. While we know there will be individuals and communities using the basic Firewise concepts to prepare their homes that never become formally recognized, the work of these advisors is already going a long way towards boosting enrollment in the program and expanding the Firewise family.
Much of what the Firewise advisors do is to help people understand the Firewise Communities/USA process. The criteria to becoming recognized include:
- Obtaining a wildfire risk assessment as a written document from the state forestry agency or fire department;
- Forming a board or committee, and creating an action plan based on the assessment;
- Conducting a "Firewise Day" event;
- Investing a minimum of $2 per capita in local Firewise actions for the year;
- And submitting an application to the state Firewise liaison.
Firewise advisors can point communities toward help with the assessment step and show examples of other community action plans. They can help them think creatively about their "Firewise Day," a step designed to heighten awareness of Firewise within the community and to engage residents in action. They can demystify the requirement to invest two dollars per capita by walking neighbors through a simple calculation for the value of volunteer time on Firewise efforts. Finally, they can help communities fill out their simple onepage application and ensure it gets to the state liaison for review and signature.
While this might seem fairly straightforward, the Firewise advisors are also tasked with helping communities already in the program to stay there and stay on track. The program boasts an 80 percent retention rate over nine years. But to lose community participation, even with a small percentage of sites, means it will be harder to create sustainable change in wildfire safety and to spread the program where it needs to be, which is in every community at risk to wildfire in the U.S.
In a recent paper published by the International Association of Wildland Fire, I wrote about the reasons that some communities fail to stick with Firewise. It all boils down to following our simple process. When the process isn’t followed or shortcuts are taken, communities tend to spend a lot of time on activities that fail to help them achieve their wildfire safety goals. Among the problems I identified were plans that focused on areas that were outside homeowner control; a lack of financial capacity; conflicting community agendas; lack of community cohesion; and lack of outside help.
While NFPA and its Firewise advisors may not be able to resolve all of these issues in every community, we can help to support the process, gather resources, and point at-risk neighborhoods in the right direction. Sometimes encouragement, and knowing that someone is listening, is all it takes. As NFPA builds the resources and staffing for its Wildland Fire Operations Division, we anticipate reaching many more communities around the country with our Firewise message, and that those communities will take action to help make their residents safer.
Michele Steinberg is Firewise Communities program manager at NFPA.
From the Firewise blog
The (Extra) Cost of Living in the WUI
In July, the blog on the newly redesigned firewise.org featured a post titled "Should homeowners pay higher firefighting costs in the wildland urban interface?," by Molly Mowery, Firewise associate project manager. The post refers to an Associated Press story about the decision by California lawmakers this summer to charge an annual firefighting fee to people who live in or near fire-prone areas administered by the state. Here’s an excerpt:
This $150 fee will be levied to each structure on a parcel protected by CAL FIRE, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As the [AP] article points out, this is not an entirely new concept. Other western states, including Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, also collect a fee that goes toward the firefighting budget, although these fees are less than $150.
California’s decision is part of its effort to balance its General Fund. Governor Jerry Brown cites his reasoning for the fee to the California State Assembly: "As a result of population increases and urban development in state responsibility areas in recent decades, there has been a significant increase in state costs associated with fire protection in state wildland areas. This bill recognizes that a portion of the costs borne by the state for wildland fire prevention and protection services should be funded by the landowners in these areas."
These words shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some of you may recall an earlier post I wrote in January when I discussed Governor Brown’s statements regarding the need to curb state wildfire suppression costs being spent on protecting rural areas.
In spite of states’ motives to balance their budgets, the "beneficiary pays" principle for firefighting fees raises an interesting debate. Should folks who live in the wildlandurban interface have to pay an extra fee to the state?
What if they are already doing defensible space, and/or paying a local fire prevention fee for the unincorporated area where they live? And does this fee result in reducing catastrophic fire losses? In other words, in order to reduce wildfire suppression costs, shouldn’t we be putting our efforts into mitigation projects such as fuel thinning and educational efforts such as Firewise/Fire Safe Councils?
Join the conversation at firewise.org and link to additional information on states that have adopted similar fees.