What is “Firewise” and Why to Attend a Firewise Workshop

Spoiler alert on this article’s Part II: Why… Because workshops are FREE, extremely informative and in addition to learning about Firewise you will learn how to apply for cost-share opportunities that make implementing Firewise activities affordable and cost-effective for you. OK, back to the article…

Tree stand after Firewise treatment
Firewise communities reduce wildfire risks by thinning overgrown brush and tree stands as seen in this wildland-urban-interface location where slash is waiting to be chipped and dispersed. Photo: Steve McConnell/WSU.

Part I: What is Firewise

The Firewise Program has its origins in the 1985 fire season during which 1,400 homes were destroyed making fire managers acutely aware that the “wildland urban interface” where residences mix with undeveloped forest and open lands was an unavoidable reality of contemporary firefighting. It’s also a problem that it is national in scope; in other words, wherever there are forests. The term “Firewise” was coined in the early 1990s to identify the growing knowledge that landowners could use to reduce their fire risks. A website by this name was launched in 1997 by the National Fire Program Association.

Focused first on simply raising awareness of the potential for fires in semi-urban settings, Firewise program managers moved on quickly to the task of developing and providing information about the simple and practical techniques homeowners could use to reduce the risks of home destruction by wildfire.

The two greatest risks to homes during wildfires are: 1) Flammable roof, vulnerable to the embers thrown during a wildfire and, 2) Vegetation close to a house which can catch fire and generate enough heat or flames to ignite siding or other parts of the home’s structure.

Firewise went to work with this information to learn more about how structures burn and, in particular, what causes them to ignite. This led to the “International Crown Fire Experiments” of 1998 in the Northwest Territory. Scientists set large fires in, on and near structures of various types to obtain high quality data about how close vegetation could be to a structure yet not put that structure at risk of igniting from radiant heat. The three main takeaways from this research were that you can significantly reduce your fire risk by:

  • Clearing flammable trees and shrubs 30 feet or more from structures,
  • Making sure small flames in grass or shrubs cannot touch the home, and
  • Using nonflammable roof materials to minimize the damage that embers can cause.

With reliable, quantitative data in hand, Firewise and its partners disseminated information broadly with the primary message being “Your home CAN survive a wildfire.” Publications and videos are great tools but hands-on workshops put homeowners in direct contact with experts and enable attendees to ask specific questions about home materials, vegetation options and other factors that may affect their home’s survivability.

A playground in Mullen Hills Terrace, a Firewise community in Spokane County
A playground in Mullen Hills Terrace, a Firewise community in Spokane County, displays the results of proper wildfire risk reduction that still leaves adequate landscaping. Photo: Steve McConnell/WSU.

The interconnectedness of homes in the wildland urban interface – the neighbor with the row of arborvitae that abuts the side of your garage that abuts your house – quickly became apparent, and this led to the next big step – Firewise for Communities, not just individuals. The National Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program was begun in 2002 with a dozen pilot communities. A template was made for this voluntary program that allows for flexibility and respects the differences between communities. Training was provided to state forestry agencies to develop and assign state Firewise liaisons to help reach out to potential Firewise communities seeking to use the Firewise program template and become a designated Firewise Community. Today, there are more than 700 active Firewise communities in 40 states and the program is growing, we hope, at least as fast as the number of at-risk communities.

Part II: Why

Organizing a Firewise Community can be a challenging task as it is a voluntary program and requires the cooperation of homeowners who may have little in common except living in a defined geographic area and having a preference that their house not be engulfed by flames. Some Firewise communities are large gated communities on a hill and some are small trailer parks down by the river – the minimum requirement is two neighbors. In almost every occasion that a community is successfully formed, the work that made that happen began with one or two individuals who were spark plugs – people whose interest and energy inspired the rest of the community to join in.

There are some requirements for a community to get and retain recognition as being a Firewise Community, although there are many benefits as well, such as funds to implement an annual Firewise event, assistance from local and state experts in assessing and addressing specific risk factors, and cost-share funding to accomplish those goals. Currently the Washington State Department of Natural Resources seeks to increase Firewise communities in the state. New Firewise communities in eastern Washington may be eligible for some additional grant funds to conduct activities in their community. For more information contact Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, 360-902-1391 or megan.fitzgerald-mcgowan@dnr.wa.gov

Firewise workshops are designed to assist community “spark plugs” and provide them the technical information they need to make a compelling case for becoming Firewise, as well as provide a flexible tool kit they can use to encourage community involvement and match need to the community in which they live.

2014 Spokane-area Firewise Workshop
Participants in a 2014 Firewise workshop near Spokane take a field trip to a site being thinned to Firewise standards.

Firewise workshops provide a great overview to all homeowners of the technical aspects of protecting homes from wildfire. But where they excel is in providing a community perspective for assessing fire risk and discovering the most cost-effective ways to reduce that risk to acceptable levels. These programs also introduce attendees to Community Wildfire Protection Plans that have been prepared for almost every county in the state. These plans are rich with information about the historical prevalence of fire in any given area as well as the resources available to suppress fires. A review of past fires through wildland urban interface location is presented along with analyses of what went right, what did not and what could have been done differently. The analyses focus on the level of preparedness communities had had and how that preparedness factored in to fire outcome.

A new innovation to Firewise workshops in eastern Washington is a field tour for a first-hand look at situations that put communities at risk and the changes that were made as a result of a community becoming Firewise. In summary, Firewise programs provide YOU the tools you need to be effective. There is no time like the present to help your community as well as your home survive a fire. Attending a Firewise workshop is an excellent way to begin your journey towards that goal. And, as you may have heard… Firewise workshops are FREE and extremely informative. In addition to learning about the program, you will learn how to apply for cost-share opportunities that make implementing Firewise activities affordable and cost-effective for you.

Firewise zone concept
Firewise emphasizes creating zones with increasingly strict controls over vegetation the closer one gets to flammable structures. Image: Firewise.org

The next Firewise workshop scheduled in northeast Washington will be May 17 and 18 in the Spokane area. Keep an eye on the WSU Extension Forestry webpage for additional workshops around the state. In the meantime, take note that May 7 is Wildfire Community Preparedness Day.

By Steve McConnell , Forester, WSU Extension Program

Where to get more information: Firewise.org and Fire Adapted Communities