On The Line

Empowering Communities In the Wildland/Urban Interface

Once thought of as a problem primarily in the western U.S., wildland fires that border developed lands are now a reality not only in the west, but in the south, the Great Lake states, and other parts of the country as well. As the nation’s population grows, development pressure has extended the built environment into areas that have historically remained wild. This trend has created an extremely complex mixed-use landscape, which in some areas has come to be known as the wildland/urban interface. As home construction encroaches on forest lands, grasslands, farms, and other fire-prone areas, both lives and property are put at risk from wildland fire.

Losses of life and property and the costs of suppressing wildland fires have increased at an astounding rate. Since 1970, more than 10,000 homes and 20,000 other structures and facilities have been lost to wildland fires. Annual appropriations for the National Fire Plan, the policy foundation for federal and interagency fire management activities have surpassed $2 billion (see the Observer, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, p. 17). These costs and dangers have risen dramatically due in part to the buildup of hazardous fuels, increased home construction, severe drought, and a lack of community-based wildfire mitigation planning policies.

Wildland/Urban Interface

For planning, mitigation, and educational purposes, it may be useful to consider the wildland/urban interface not as a location, but as a set of conditions. Though the interface is typically defined as a geographic area, it is also appropriate to think of it as a set of underlying conditions that exist–or could exist–in nearly every community in the country. Wildland/urban interface factors include weather patterns, vegetation types, building and road construction, average lot size, topography, hydrology, and other variables that combine to make some communities more vulnerable to wildfire than others. Trying to pinpoint the wildland/urban interface is therefore difficult. U.S. Census data indicate that nine of the 15 fastest growing areas in the country are already considered wildland fire-prone areas or are moving toward this designation as a result of rapid growth and accompanying urban sprawl.

Wildland fires are not going to disappear. Living successfully with them will require long-term vision and commitment among a wide group of policy makers and stakeholders to address the root causes of fire hazards. Such a shared vision must look beyond traditional fire response and suppression mechanisms to address community vulnerability, mitigation, and ecologically sound land management.

Firewise Community Programs

Under the aegis of the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program, federal and state agencies, safety organizations, and first responder groups are working together on a public service initiative called the Firewise Communities Program. Firewise is managed by the Wildland/Urban Interface Working Team, a consortium of agencies and organizations that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Federal Emergency Management Agency, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Emergency Management Association, National Association of State Fire Marshals, National Association of State Foresters, National Fire Protection Association, and U.S. Fire Administration.

Firewise was designed to educate homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, and others about the hazards associated with fire in the wildland/urban interface. Firewise educational programs and workshops empower participants to take an active role to protect their homes and businesses and create communities that are well-versed in wildfire mitigation activities.

Firewise programs address many aspects of mitigation and community planning, including creative landscaping, home construction and design, fire-resistant structures, and fire hazard recognition. Firewise workshops prepare community leaders and fire service professionals to recognize the wildland/urban interface, deliver fire education to residents, and incorporate Firewise planning into local planning activities through collaborative decision-making.

Examples of techniques that property owners can employ include creating a defensible space around residential structures by clearing trees and brush, adopting targeted landscaping practices, selecting ignition-resistant building materials, positioning structures away from slopes, and working with fire protection agencies to develop emergency access to properties.

Firewise workshops have been given nationally since 1999. Workshops feature interactive discussions, mapping exercises, and wildfire simulations. There have been over 3,000 workshop participants, including community representatives, municipal planners, business leaders, homeowner association members, and fire service professionals. Many participants continue to work with their communities to implement wildfire mitigation programs. The national workshop series has also generated dozens of local and state workshops reaching many more with the Firewise message.

Firewise Communities/USA Recognition Program

In the spring of 2003, Firewise is launching a nationwide program to recognize individual communities for taking action to protect people and property from the dangers of fire in the wildland/urban interface and for maintaining an appropriate level of fire readiness. Called "Firewise Communities/USA," this program was created for small communities and neighborhood associations interested in mitigating wildland fire hazards through adoption and implementation of programs designed with assistance from state forestry agencies and state and local fire staff.

To earn Firewise Communities/USA status, communities must meet the following criteria:

  • enlist a wildland/urban interface specialist to complete a community assessment and create a plan that identifies agreed-upon solutions to be implemented by the community;

  • sponsor a local Firewise task force committee, commission, or department to maintain the Fire-wise Community/USA program;

  • observe a Firewise Community/USA day each spring that is dedicated to a specific Firewise project;

  • invest a minimum of $2.00 per capita annually in local Firewise projects; and

  • submit an annual report that documents continuing compliance with the program.

  • The twelve communities that participated in the pilot phase of the program have already been recognized by Firewise. Communities who are interested in learning more about this program or applying for Firewise Communities/USA recognition can visit http://www.firewise.org/usa.

    Technical Support and Information Resources

    Firewise program staff provide direct assistance and advice to communities engaged in planning and mitigation of wildland/urban interface fire hazards. In cooperation with state and federal partners, staff help to identify local needs and integrate Firewise planning concepts and philosophy into local multi-hazard mitigation plans, as well as connecting communities with appropriate tools, techniques, and technologies to further Firewise activities. Select communities around the U.S. have been awarded mapping software packages to help assemble and interpret data to improve their local fire and mitigation plans.

    In addition to the wealth of material on the Firewise Communities web site, the program is continuously developing informational materials to help communities understand and address wildland fire issues. Firewise information products include a stakeholder newsletter, landscaping and home construction checklists, mini-documentaries, CD-ROMs, school education projects, and more.

    Why Firewise?

    The Firewise Communities vision is that wildland fires can occur in the future without the loss of homes and structures. The program’s goal is to foster the creation of homes and communities built, designed, and maintained to withstand wildland fire without the intervention of the fire department. By working together on this shared national problem, community leaders can create local solutions.

    Jim Smalley, Firewise Program and National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Massachusetts

    A list of workshop locations and dates for 2003 is available at http://www.firewise.org.

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