In it for the long haul: Oracle’s 15-year journey in Firewise USA®
Living in an area that experiences wildfire is a commitment, a journey that continues over a lifetime and is never done…the way that community engages in preparing for and living with fire just changes over time. Firewise USA® seeks to guide residents on that journey, providing a framework to keep people engaged, reminding them that action is required every year. Since 2002, communities across the nation have answered the call to action with more than 1,800 sites active in the program today. Reflecting, it is always amazing to see those sites who joined early and keep going. To learn more about this long-term engagement, I checked in the with community of Oracle, a Firewise USA® participant since 2005, hitting their 15-year anniversary last year.
Oracle is a small community at the base of the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. While most communities around us are desert communities, Oracle has a mixture of desert and at the higher elevation there are manzanita, oak and mesquite trees. We have had wildfires in and around our community with the most notable one this year, the Big Horn fire. We are very grateful there were no homes or lives lost. However, this is not the first fire our community has experienced. In 2002 and 2003 the Bullock Fire, The Oracle Hill Fire and the Aspen Fire occurred….shortly before the Oracle Firewise Community was conceived.
In 2005, Oracle Fire District personnel, Larry Southard and Albert Ortiz and a group of eight or nine individuals led by Frank Pierson began the task of forming the Oracle Firewise Community. Their goals were to teach the community defensible space techniques, provide a brush disposal site for the community and provide an evacuation plan to the community in the event an evacuation was necessary.
Fifteen years later, our goals have basically remained the same. Our approach has changed. To educate the community, we have:
- Regular meetings to which the public is invited to attend.
- Held annual “Townhall” meetings covering topics such as creating defensible space around their homes, evacuations, insurance, etc. We have invited numerous local people who are experts in the topics presented. (I should note, due to COVID 19 we have not held a Townhall meeting this year, but we do have one planned for 2021.) Additionally, Oracle has an annual parade and celebration in the spring with a car show, vendors, etc. The Firewise Board takes this opportunity to meet people and educate them about wildfire risk reduction techniques, how to use a fire extinguisher, etc.
- We have written, printed and mailed to every homeowner in Oracle, a newsletter covering the same topics as we have covered in the Townhall meetings. This year our newsletter focused on “Ready, Set, Go”.
- The brush disposal site is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. for the property owner to bring brush only…to reduce dry vegetation and fuel around their home. There is a minimal cost for each truck or trailer load which in turn offsets the cost of the brush disposal site.
- The additional money that has been collected from the brush disposal site has paid for the Emergency Evacuation System for Oracle. It is a voluntary system, in which Oracle residents can sign up for and in the event of an emergency, the Oracle Fire District will contact each person in the system with pertinent information about the emergency. It was used simultaneously with the PENS (Pinal Emergency Notification System) this summer when our residents were directed to prepare for evacuation and in some areas required to evacuate.
- Several articles written by various members of the Firewise Board have been published in the local paper, the San Manuel Miner. The Oracle Fire District has allowed our Firewise activities to be included on the website and on their Facebook page.
- Packets of Firewise brochures have been left in the real estate office to welcome new members of the community and educate the new homeowner Firewise techniques and the constant concern we have for wildfires in our community.
- Last, we have partnered with the Mountain Vista School (grades K-8) in providing instructional material for Fire Prevention Week. Many of our Firewise Board members are also members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and it is not uncommon for members to provide traffic control for the children during Fire Prevention Week when they go on walks around the community. It is our belief the children will bring the information home to their families and retain it for the future.
Reading through their list of ongoing activities, you can tell that this community truly is committed. One thing that stood out is how they have worked to make their vegetation drop-off reasonable in price. Having it affordable encourages folks to stay at it, rather than being a barrier.
Over time it can be easy for a community to lose interest. Another item they shared in our call was a little competition they put out in the community. To help keep participation up and create a bit of fun, Oracle Firewise started an annual “Property of the Year” award. Since 2008 they have recognized the best personal property and to the best business/ public property. The award is for making your property Firewise by reducing vegetation and trimming, weed eating and reducing ladder fuel, creating a defensible space against potential fires around their personal or business/public property. I love how creative this is and how it can really bring folks together, working towards that common goal.
One of the final pieces they shared really hits on the heart of success in any of these efforts – people and the importance of relationships.
Our membership changes however, there are approximately six or seven individuals who joined the Oracle Firewise Board shortly after it was formed. Because of our location and the concern for wildfires and our community, they continue to serve the community as a member of the Oracle Firewise Board. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a tremendous relationship with the Oracle Fire District. While we try to support their activities, Chief Jennings and Office Manager Acosta are totally supportive of the work and projects we are involved in.
A big thank you to Marry Harris and Rachel Opinsky for taking the time to respond to my request and for the conversation. I appreciate the opportunity to share your achievements and look forward to seeing more of Oracle’s continued success.
Is your community ready to take the next step in wildfire risk reduction? Visit Firewise.org to learn more about how to organize your neighbors and get started.
We love hearing from communities and sharing your experiences with others. Visit our contact us page to share your stories, success, strategies for overcoming barriers, etc.
Photo credit: Oracle Fire District Facebook page