Published on July 1, 2019.

Striving for Excellence

New Firewise pilot program tests how far communities can go to protect themselves from wildfire


There are more than 1,500 communities throughout the United States that participate in NFPA’s flagship wildfire prevention program, Firewise USA®. While participation in that program alone demonstrates a commitment to taking steps to preventing life and property loss in wildfires, staffers in NFPA’s Wildfire Division recently began wondering if some communities could go even further in their efforts to protect themselves.

“We wanted to see if some communities wanted to try to take this to the next level,” said Tom Welle, manager of the Wildfire Division’s Denver office.

Earlier this year, the Wildfire Division launched a new Firewise pilot program called Sites of Excellence. The program includes seven communities in seven states that will be monitored over the course of the next two years to see if they can accomplish a set of predetermined, ambitious goals, and if it makes sense to apply those goals to the larger Firewise program.

The impetus for the program, Welle explained in May, was the fact that despite efforts from programs like Firewise, the US has continued to experience large-scale property loss in the country’s biggest wildland blazes. In California last year, for example, the Camp Fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history, destroyed some 19,000 structures, mostly homes. “The bottom line is what we’re seeing with these large-loss fires is that we’re just not getting enough done,” Welle said. “Residents aren’t getting enough done, especially in the home ignition zone.”

The home ignition zone—the area including home structures and their surroundings, which when improperly managed provide an opportunity for embers from a wildfire to ignite the home—is the focus for the Sites of Excellence program. In each community, Welle said, up to 100 homes will be selected with the goal of creating ideal wildfire prevention conditions on and within 30 feet of every home. Activities to accomplish this could include clearing vegetation around the home, replacing combustible wooden roofing with noncombustible materials, and replacing mulch with rocks.

The program participants include communities in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In a recent interview with Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, who along with Welle is running the Sites of Excellence program, Rick Best, the leader of the pilot site in Texas, explained why his community, known as 7-R Ranch, wanted to participate in the program. “We want to better understand the threats from the canyons, look at the homes and their setbacks from the edge, and what work has been done in the home ignition zone,” Best said, according to a blog posted by Fitzgerald-McGowan in May. “The Sites of Excellence program gives us an opportunity to systematically assess each home and communicate the results to each homeowner. I believe it will help us get to the next level of participation in our community.”

Read more on the Fire Break blog

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan