Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on September 4, 2018.

A Good Start

When it comes to community wildfire preparedness, small beginnings can lead to big gains

A public that is educated about wildfire risks will be able to make informed decisions about how to protect itself. That belief is at the core of many of our efforts at NFPA’s Wildfire Division.

Even so, many residents in the wildland/urban interface do not fully understand their risk or how to talk about it. In those cases, how do we cultivate a local culture that is engaged in wildfire preparedness? How do we develop the local dialogue needed for residents to become aware of the problem and embrace solutions?

It’s not easy, but I did see some great progress toward achieving those aims at this year’s Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. This annual event, held on the first Saturday each May, seeks to promote wildfire preparedness and community action. Communities across the U.S. submit proposals to hold education and/or risk reduction events, and many are selected to receive financial support for their plans. Activities are also promoted across the summer in Canada by valued wildfire partner organizations, and for the first time in 2018, wildfire prep day events were also held in parts of Spain and Italy.

I serve on the project funding review committee for Wildfire Community Preparedness Day in the U.S. In this year’s batch of submissions, many communities proposed projects aimed at developing more dialogue between residents and local agencies to advance the public’s understanding of the larger wildfire risk. Some sought to promote proactive approaches to risk, others taught new residents about the area’s wildfire history, and some scaled up the community work happening in one subdivision to bring it to the entire county. The goal for many, as one submitter shared, was to “keep the conversation going beyond our May 5th event.”

A fire department in California, for instance, explained in its submission that it had never before engaged property owners about retrofitting their structures to reduce risk, despite having more than 1,100 homes in the service area built before 1970s-era building code changes were adopted to reduce building ignition risks from embers. The department prep day activities created a dialogue with residents, many of whom were not aware of their increased exposure risks.

A rural fire department in Oklahoma focused its efforts on educating residents about the wildfire risks posed by fence rows and fallow pasturelands, important context in a place where agricultural fires are common. In Colorado, a group distributed wildfire information in Spanish, explaining that these populations had in the past been overlooked during community disaster preparedness activities. Other groups created exhibits on fire-resistant plants and landscape techniques for residents to observe and hopefully replicate at their homes. The list of developmental activities goes on and on.

While many of these activities were modest in scope, the overall impact can be huge. Events like these get people talking, and at least thinking about a threat they may have never before considered.

If our aim is to eventually get more residents, neighborhoods, and communities to engage in wildfire risk reduction programs like Firewise USA®, we have to get them talking. Few residents are going to sign on to a volunteer effort to reduce their wildfire risk before first seeing themselves as part of the solution. Without direct engagement, many of these residents might never begin thinking about risk reduction, never mind taking action. Programs like Wildfire Community Preparedness Day are a good place to start.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler