Whether volunteer or career, not all local fire departments have the resources to protect their communities from wildland fire–nor should they shoulder all the responsibility for doing so. With this in mind, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has developed “Your Role in Fire-Adapted Communities,” a 14-page guide that suggests residents and communities threatened by wildland and wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires must take an active role in fire prevention and containment.
“Ideally, we’d like individuals, and hopefully communities, to learn how to live within a wildland fire [area],” explains Bob Roper, chair of IAFC’s Wildland Fire Committee. The guide defines a fire-adapted community as “a community of informed and prepared citizens collaboratively taking action to safely coexist with wildland fire threat.”
It Came from Down Under
The original idea for the guide grew out of the committee’s evaluation of an earlier Australian program. Following 2009’s devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, the Australian fire service developed the “Leave Early or Stay and Defend” program as a guide for residents living in areas threatened by fires.
“Around 2007 or 2008, we started evaluating Australia’s program and considering it for the United States,” Roper recalls. “We began to realize it was a leap of faith to think you can train people to defend [their property against a wildland fire].” As a result, the IAFC created their own program to educate citizens on preparing for wildland fires, called Ready, Set, Go. “And this guide is the ‘Ready’ part,” Roper says.
The IAFC guide stresses the importance of the fire service, local officials and the public working together with a cohesive strategy to prevent and contain fires, and it contains high-level advice for each entity. For example, local government officials are urged to carefully consider planning, zoning and ordinances for the region, as well as types of residential and commercial development–even regulations on landscaping, home design and building material use.
But Roper stresses the role that individual homeowners and residents can play–and how firefighters can educate them on that role.
“Firefighters are one of the most trusted professions around, so we’ve asked them to deliver this information and distribute it to their communities,” Roper says. “They’re also able to relate specific issues of fire in their area.” However, he warns that the guide isn’t a how-to for fire departments, as it does not cover how to conduct training or get the message out.
Teaching & Learning
The IAFC has included some valuable information for residents in the guide; it teaches some basic fire science, and gives concrete advice for preventative measures that can “harden a home” against fire, such as keeping roofs and gutters clear of dried pine needles.
“The public has to understand that they are part of the solution,” Roper says. “We’ve explained to [these] communities that if something happens, we can’t have a fire truck in every driveway. The goal is that even if there were no fire resources there to help, that home and that community would still survive.”
Does it work? Roper believes the advice in the guide does get through to people. “The more we get out and do small-group sessions, the more we see that the light bulb does come on,” he says.
These precautions must be ongoing: “The biggest part about building a fire-adapted community is that this is not a one-time thing,” Roper says. “You have to continue to maintain your home and the area around it.”
A Moving Target
What Australian departments found–and U.S. departments are finding, too–is that this type of education must be offered regularly. Because populations are so transitory, new homeowners need to learn what their neighbors already know. When Roper attends local wildfire education meetings, he makes it a point to ask how many of those present were living in the community during a previous fire or fire threat. “Out of about 50 people, maybe 10 or 15 will raise their hands,” he says, “even if we’re only talking five years ago.”
The upshot is that a fire department can’t conduct a public education campaign once and then stop. “People are moving, so you have to keep putting the message out there. This requires a long-term commitment on everybody’s part,” Roper says.
Fire departments alone can’t protect communities in WUI areas; the communities can make all the difference by taking on some of the responsibility.
“I see local fire departments buying tools and equipment so that they can fight wildland fires,” Roper says.” But no department can buy enough equipment to protect the growing number of homes in these areas.”
To access a complete copy of the guide, visit http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/publications/.