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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Among the factors worth noting is that the structure the firefighters died trying to protect had been identified in 2002 as "indefensible from wildfire," meaning that the home and its surroundings had not been cleared of fuels or made accessible for firefighters to protect, making it nearly impossible to save. California is now taking action to update its fire hazard maps, and homeowners are being instructed — and even required in some areas — to take more personal responsibility when it comes to preparing for wildfires. Moving forward, in the event of a wildfire, homes that are indefensible may be passed by.

This is an important issue in our area as well. In Elgin, home evaluations are conducted throughout the year. Firefighters talk to residents and encourage the creation of defensible space. In our area, 30 feet is requested, but 100 feet is preferred. Specific guidelines for creating defensible space and the recommended distances vary based on the region of the country and the local conditions. Defensible space has been proven effective time and time again. It significantly reduces fuels from properties, which helps firefighters guide flames away from homes and other structures while remaining safe in a cleanly landscaped area.

The Growing Interface

Evaluations and fire mapping have become increasingly important as firefighters serve to protect homes in the WUI. The National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program uses the term "interface" in a generic way to describe any area where potentially dangerous combustible wildland fuels are found adjacent to combustible homes and other structures. Expansion into fire-prone areas will continue as people seek to enjoy scenic views and backyard wilderness. However, building in these areas could come with a price — for both the homeowner and firefighters.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), in the West alone, 38% of new-home construction is adjacent to or intermixed with the WUI. Firefighting in these areas is often difficult because tactics for fighting wildland fires differ substantially from those for structure fires. Water availability and home access via clear roads and large driveways are often limited.

The trouble, however, isn't simply the large number of people moving into the wilderness — forest health is also a concern. In many areas, fire-suppression activities have led to forests that are dense and overgrown. Potential fuel covers the forest floor. In fact, in some communities, residents are not allowed to clear brush around their homes because of local ordinances that prohibit vegetation removal. This presents an extremely dangerous and difficult situation for residents and firefighters alike. The recent fire in Lake Tahoe destroyed more than 250 homes and is a prime example of an unprepared WUI area. Most of the destroyed homes, which were hidden away in the dry forests that had not been thinned, burned within the first few hours of the wildfire's start.

Only one tiny spark is needed to create an extreme wildfire. Natural fire is healthy for our forests and a natural part of the ecosystem. However, homeowners in these areas need firefighters to protect their property.

Because firefighters are potentially endangered each time a home is built in the wilderness, it is important for homes built in the WUI to have not only defensible space, but also Firewise construction, as a form of self-defense. Wildland firefighters will continue to protect homes, lives and property from the threat of wildfire, but we may not be able to defend every home. We are witnessing a great deal of cooperation and community involvement in the town of Elgin. We applaud the Firewise work that our residents have performed, and our continued success fighting wildfires depends on not only the men and women battling the blaze, but also the residents helping themselves.