Firewise: Helping Firefighters Protect Their Communities

Sept. 1, 2007
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 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.

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,, 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.

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.

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