Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on August 1, 2022.

Stepping Up

A successful pilot program proves that communities can take the necessary steps to dramatically reduce their risk from wildfire


Two years ago, seven communities across the country accepted a challenge to see if they could improve their resistance to wildfire. The aim was to voluntarily apply more rigorous criteria focused on home preparedness across adjacent properties, with the idea of reducing the kind of home-to-home ignition that has characterized recent community-scale wildfire conflagrations. I’m happy to report that, after a lot of guidance and coordination and a bit of financial incentive, these communities proved that this kind of focused effort on wildfire risk reduction is entirely achievable.

This is good news for anyone living with wildfire, as well as for first responders, local governments, insurers, and nongovernmental organizations seeking to improve fire and life safety in the many locations exposed to wildfire threats. It’s clear that while parcel-level risk reduction is important, community-wide ignition resistance is vital to changing outcomes when wildfires impact the built environment. NFPA’s Firewise USA® program was designed to achieve community-wide safety improvements by educating and motivating residents in high-risk areas to work collaboratively on wildfire risk reduction. It was also intended to keep barriers to participation low by making it easier for people to engage with and ultimately adopt new safety behaviors. Yet recent wildfire disasters, which have included numerous instances of mass destruction of property across communities, has revealed gaps in protection that include limited voluntary work toward reducing home ignition risks. Changes intended to increase the rigor of Firewise USA have also met with resistance.

That’s why we created Sites of Excellence, a pilot program designed to test the viability and acceptance of rigorous Firewise guidelines set by residents and neighborhood groups. At each of the pilot’s seven volunteer sites—in Washington, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia—community leaders identified up to 100 adjacent homes and asked property owners to complete mitigation tasks—based on individual risk assessments—within a specific period.

The results were more than we could have hoped for. Dr. Rebecca Miller, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California, reviewed the outcomes and interviewed local and state leaders, compiling her findings in a report for NFPA, available at nfpa.org/firewise. She found that, prior to the pilot, mitigation work had been completed in common areas or adjacent lands in most of the communities, but little had been done in home ignition zones. As part of the pilot, the required risk reduction across adjacent parcels was completed within the two-year time frame with a participation rate between 60 and 90 percent. In addition to the motivation provided by the Sites of Excellence challenge, participants cited many practices they felt factored into their success, including organized efforts across homeowner associations, the community cohesion that developed as part of neighborhood workdays and direct engagement, and the relationships they built with their state forestry agencies and local fire services.

Miller’s interviews also revealed that more can be done. The overwhelming opinion of those interviewed was that NFPA ought to use this pilot to create more ambitious goals for Firewise sites that want to achieve a greater level of wildfire ignition resistance. Such an effort would help increase community safety, and would provide an opportunity for wildfire safety advocates and potential sponsors to take part in supporting home retrofit and mitigation that benefits their missions and financial bottom lines. Policymakers and elected officials should also note that Firewise sites represent highly engaged advocates for wildfire mitigation who continue to press for meaningful measures that can prevent future wildfire disasters.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler