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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Currently, Elgin is working to earn national recognition for its efforts to prepare for wildfires. The national Firewise Communities program offers a series of practical steps that individuals and communities can take to protect themselves and their property from the risk of wildfire, and more than 224 communities across the United States have earned the Firewise Communities/USA distinction. At the heart of the Firewise program is a focus on personal responsibility. Communities are encouraged to adopt a long-term, proactive approach to protect their homes and resources from the risk of wildland fire — before a fire starts. The program's website, www.firewise.org, contains a wealth of information that is easy for homeowners to understand and use. The site also provides information and training resources to help firefighters develop a cooperative approach to wildfire protection and promote firefighter safety in the WUI.

Firewise has worked well for the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District. The program helps facilitate a community atmosphere. Rather than prescribing a national solution, the Firewise Communities program emphasizes a local decision-making process whereby diverse interests can come together and determine solutions that are most appropriate for their community.

When homeowners take the time to make their homes Firewise, firefighters can bump the fire around by burning out or by suppressing the fire once it reaches the low fuels. If we need to pull out of the area into the fire pass, it's a lot easier and faster for us to reenter the community and clean up around the homes and pick up any embers or hot spots left behind. When we are working in a Firewise area, we don't need to focus on cleaning up around the homes. We know the residents have already accomplished this, saving valuable time that we can spend focusing on other important strategies, such as creating fuel breaks.

When residents perform Firewise work — such as thinning trees, creating defensible space, clearing out dead leaves and debris, and moving wood piles, among others — it is far easier for our firefighters to move in and foam a house and then move on to the next one. It is safer for the firefighters knowing that the homeowners have taken the first steps in ownership for living in a WUI area. I look at firefighting as a community problem, not just a fire department problem. Community involvement is the only way we are going to be able to live in areas at risk for wildfire.

Firewise Works

Communities throughout Arizona are working hard to become Firewise, but this is not just a local solution. Across the country, similar situations have occurred. A recent fire occurred near "The Retreat" subdivision near Santa Rosa, FL. As required by Martin County, the subdivision was built with Firewise in mind, including a wildfire hazard assessment before construction began. The development used limited combustible construction and had an adequate water supply, two forms of egress and a 30-foot home ignition zone from the bordering preserve area. There are about 100 homes in the subdivision, and the 50 that could have been in the fire's path were saved because of the Firewise work that was performed. The estimated cost of the property saved is $20 million to $25 million.

In May, the Lake Ham wildfire occurred in Gunflint, MN. Nearly 55,000 acres burned, and some homes were damaged. However, dozens of homes and likely lives were saved due to the community Firewise work and the sprinkler systems installed in the area. Again, firefighters in the area are attributing the save to Firewise.

The list goes on, but the recurring theme is that when residents become Firewise, it allows firefighters to do their job and can save their homes from potential damage. In addition to protecting homes and property, creating a defensible space also provides for firefighter safety when responding to a wildland fire. Firefighter safety is a top priority during all fires, and the focus on firefighter safety increases as the homes become more difficult to access.

A Safer Environment For Firefighters

The mission of Firewise is for homes and communities to withstand wildfire without the intervention of the fire service. However, it is still critically important to make it possible for emergency vehicles to get to homes when needed. It is difficult for firefighters to do their jobs if residents do not do theirs. Since California's Esperanza fire in November 2006, there has been much debate over the role of firefighters and to what limits we are to defend property. Several causal factors have been cited for the deaths of those four heroic Esperanza firefighters.