Firewise: Helping Firefighters Protect Their Communities

Joseph DeWolf describes how he is working with his department to educate residents - new and old - of the fire dangers that are present in the wildland/urban interface to help them become "Firewise."


No community wants to experience a wildfire, but wildfires are inevitable. They are a natural part of our ecosystem. In areas out west, like our community in Arizona, it has become the norm for major wildfires to occur any time of year. Just this March, a wildfire broke out in our area and...


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No community wants to experience a wildfire, but wildfires are inevitable. They are a natural part of our ecosystem. In areas out west, like our community in Arizona, it has become the norm for major wildfires to occur any time of year.

Just this March, a wildfire broke out in our area and threatened four houses and a barn full of horses. As the wildfire roared through two-foot-high dry grass and strong winds pushed the flames north of Sonoita, the fire jumped two roads, approaching a small community in our district. The fire was moving quickly toward the community and, all of a sudden, it slowed. There were no fuels for the fire to feed on near the structures, and wildfires need fuels to burn. As the fire slowed, we established a firebreak on a road about 50 feet from the structures. We stopped its spread before it could reach the community, saving approximately $1.2 million worth of homes in the area, not to mention preventing the potential loss of lives and additional property. Was this community lucky? No, this community was prepared. This community was Firewise.

Certainly, our fire department worked diligently to create the fuel break and contain the fire, but it was the Firewise work that saved the community. By creating a defensible space and clearing brush, the community helped us do our job. Who knows what would have happened if the Firewise work had not been performed. Firewise principles stood the test of wildfire in the town of Sonoita, and we witnessed firsthand the benefits that Firewise efforts can produce for our firefighters.

Becoming Firewise

In southeast Arizona, the "typical" fire season has vanished. A major wildfire can break out at any time and, in recent years, this has certainly been the case. 2006 brought several major wildfires to our area, and two of the largest fires erupted in December, causing damage to homes and property. Historically, conditions are right for wildland fires during the late-spring and summer months, usually May to August. But these conditions have stretched into our off-season months as well. A mix of severe drought and high temperatures, as well as an increase in the number of residents who call the wildland/urban interface (WUI) in Arizona home, means that firefighters here must be consistently prepared to react, no matter what time of year. But our firefighters understand that they cannot go it alone. Without the help of residents preparing for wildfires, it is becoming increasingly difficult to save every home. We are urging residents to become Firewise and help us do our jobs.

As fire chief of the Sonoita-Elgin Fire Department in Arizona, I am working with our department to educate residents — new and old — of the fire dangers that are present in the WUI. This means performing hazard assessments in the community and getting the message out about creating defensible space, proper landscaping, using non-combustible construction materials, and other efforts to reduce the area's vulnerability to wildfire. The Sonoita-Elgin Fire Department has only nine employed fire personnel, several of whom work part time. Much of the district's success is due to the almost 70 volunteers who serve in the 350 square miles that encompass our fire district. However, the volunteer firefighters are not the only citizens in the district getting involved. Residents are beginning to understand that, without proper preparation around their property, our firefighters may not be able to save their homes. This is a harsh reality but, as the population in the WUI increases, the entire community is beginning to see why it needs to do its part to stay safe and become Firewise in the process.

Personal Responsibility

Elgin is a relatively small town. But, like many areas out west, our population is growing at a rapid pace. While the population growth is great for the area and economy, it creates a greater challenge for our fire department. Working with communities to become Firewise is in the best interest of the residents and our fire department.

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