Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on March 1, 2018.

Impact Players

Volunteer programs have the power to reduce community wildfire risks and help advocates achieve regulatory goals

As wildfire educators here at NFPA, we often advocate vociferously our belief in the effectiveness of community-based wildfire risk reduction programs to minimize the destruction caused by wildfire. But are we kidding ourselves to think that these voluntary efforts can really make an impact? Some people think so.

In December, a New York Times article looked at local wildfire mitigation efforts in Oregon and considered the value of community wildfire engagement efforts such as NFPA’s Firewise USA™ Recognition Program. If you aren’t familiar, programs like Firewise help residents organize and sustain volunteer wildfire mitigation efforts in their communities based on the best ways to prevent home ignition in wildfires. Some interviewed for the Times, however, believed that advocates of such programs are kidding themselves, arguing that the efforts are ineffective and give people the false notion that they’ll be safe if a wildfire rolls into town. For these critics, the only valid solution is stricter regulations requiring fire-resistant building materials.

While I agree that adopting building regulations to reduce wildfire risk is necessary and valuable, I disagree that volunteer community programs do nothing to help solve the problem. That said, I think we can use such criticism as a reminder that we constantly need to work to ensure that residents who participate in programs like Firewise are not simply hopeful, but well informed and active. It’s also a great opportunity to consider ways, beyond the obvious fuel mitigation efforts, that programs like Firewise dramatically reduce a community’s risks to wildfire and help advocates for more regulation achieve their goals.

For one, programs like Firewise introduce residents to important basic fire science, which is part of the information we offer. For instance, when residents learn what an ember is, dispelling the myth that wildfire destruction is caused by a wall of flame, they better understand what they can do to reduce the chance of structural ignition. The Times article raised this point, noting that, as a result of fire science, people have changed their landscaping practices when they learned of the combustibility of juniper plants, and communities have eliminated requirements for wood shake roofs, which have been found to be combustible in wildfire events.

Second, if done correctly, voluntary efforts like Firewise are sustainable and ongoing, not a fad that disappears once the next public safety issue grabs the public’s attention. Local government buy-in at the start is necessary so efforts are not just demonstration projects lacking larger social change. Firewise requires an annual renewal to encourage a recommitment by residents to the ongoing work and updates to local action plans so they don’t reflect old assumptions and activities.

A third benefit to the program, one that advocates for more regulation should pay attention to, is that when major wildfire disasters strike, a well-informed and engaged community that is already voluntarily reducing risks will be more likely to accept sensible regulation for home design and construction—community members have a better understanding of why the event occurs and how it impacts their properties. They also are more knowledgeable about their roles in the solution and who else is engaged in the effort, which helps with evacuation, planning, and other crucial parts of managing a wildfire event.

NFPA and its partners are not advancing a false sense of security. To the contrary, volunteer-led risk-reduction activities arm residents with the information they need to be proactive in better managing the risks of wildfire in their communities. The solutions they learn are science-based as well as locally owned and implemented. Without this understanding of the risk and engagement around solutions, residents won’t see the need for more regulation in the first place.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.