Participants of a recent learning exchange discuss landscaping do's and don'ts outside a community building in Eagle, Colorado. Credit: Emily Troisi, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

The Art and Science of Home Wildfire Evaluations

By: Wendy Fulks, with contributions from Eric Lovgren

Topic: Communications / Outreach Ignition-resistant home construction

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

This past spring, FAC Net asked our members some questions about their core FAC practices. We wanted to understand more about their work on, and interest in, things like:

  • Improving local workforce capacity for mitigation work;
  • Informing and rehearsing evacuation;
  • Providing slash pick-up or drop-off; and
  • Cultivating local champions/volunteers.

Another practice we asked about was “developing/providing home ignition zone assessments and education.” More of our members, by far, reported “excelling” at this practice versus any other practice.

So, clearly, wildfire home evaluations can be a key part of helping communities live with wildfire. On the face it seems obvious why these assessments are important. We need homeowners to reduce their vulnerability to wildfires, and to do that they need specific advice about what to do. At a June Fire Adapted Colorado workshop in Eagle, I learned that there’s much more to it.

Wildfire Home Evaluations Are Important Because …

This was the first topic of discussion for the 18 people gathered around a table in the Emergency Operation Center in Eagle County, Colorado. Participants reported that, in addition to being a strategy to spark action in homeowners, they also use home assessments to:

  • Enforce building codes and land use regulations;
  • Help public safety agencies track risk reduction progress over years or decades;
  • Inform first responders about hazards to be aware of in the event of a wildfire; and
  • Initiate long-term relationships with homeowners.

Rapid vs. Comprehensive Assessments

Most participants reported that they conduct two types of assessments: rapid, “60-second” assessments from a public right-of-way, and comprehensive, “60-minute” assessments with the homeowner(s) participating in a walk around their home and property. The rapid assessments yield an “adjective” risk rating (e.g., low, moderate, high), and most comprehensive assessments produce a set of property-specific recommendations. Practitioners use the curbside or “60-second” risk rating’s results to motivate residents to request the comprehensive assessment.

In some instances, the comprehensive approach is needed to fairly apply building code and land use regulations. Other programs conduct comprehensive assessments to motivate owners to act by offering a certificate for completed mitigation that the homeowner can give to his or her insurance company. (Allstate and USAA Insurance recognize Wildfire Partners-issued certificates as proof of proper mitigation. State Farm recognizes them for renewal business.)

Two dogs enclosed by a wooden fence that touches the home

These pups seem unaware that there should be a nonflammable barrier in between wooden fencing and a home’s exterior siding. Credit: Wendy, The Nature Conservancy

Many fire departments provide comprehensive assessment services for free; however, some organizations feel that if they charge a nominal fee, residents will be more likely to follow through and participate in the assessment.

We Need More Standardization

The group headed into the field twice to practice using two different apps for conducting comprehensive assessments. As I observed the professionals (and learned about real stucco vs. flammable, plastic “stucco,” the existence of inclinometers, potential unintended consequences of removing trees, etc.) it quickly became apparent that there’s some subjectivity to the process as well as differences of opinion about what residents need to do.

Participants inspecting a wooden deck; such inspections can be a critical component of home wildfire evaluations

Workshop participants discuss various deck-related wildfire vulnerabilities. Credit: Wendy Fulks, The Nature Conservancy

Many practitioners spoke about the need to consider what a homeowner would be likely to do given time and economic constraints, and what they care about aesthetically. There truly is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to wildfire mitigation, and discussions underscored the importance of giving owners an achievable path to prepare their property for the return of fire. We also generally agreed that it is best to highlight what the owners are doing right on the property, rather than simply handing them a long list of needed improvements. Relationship building is just as important as hazard identification.

The National Fire Protection Association has created a national Home Ignition Zone training curriculum, and they are also developing a certification program for assessors. Programs like Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners and Eagle County’s REALFire invest a great deal of time in field training for new assessors. However, with so many things to consider, it’s going to be a challenge to get most assessors consistently providing the same recommendations.

Jacks and Jills of All Trades

In addition to coming away from the workshop with a better understanding of some of the challenges related to wildfire home evaluations, I also returned home with added respect for those who do this work. After a day and a half of discussion, I concluded that a good mitigation specialist needs to be part building inspector, fire ecologist, deal broker, fire fighter, landscaper, communicator, botanist, psychologist, information technology specialist, forester, editor and photographer. And they need to have credibility and a professional demeanor, as well as the ability to walk onto a property and create a lasting impact on that owner in 60 minutes or less.

Please use the comments section below and tell us what you think should be done to improve the standardization of comprehensive home wildfire evaluation recommendations.

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11 thoughts on “The Art and Science of Home Wildfire Evaluations”

  1. Great article Wendy! Thank you!

  2. Pam Wilson says:

    Awesome article Wendy! A very engaging read. Thank you for participating in the event and providing your insights.

  3. Einar Jensen says:

    I appreciate the insights and the balance of standardization with personalized messaging. In the end, the face-to-face time with homeowners is tedious but a far more effective tool for me than a generic presentation at a community meeting.

  4. Wendy Fulks says:

    Hello Einar! Glad you enjoyed the blog. I have so much to learn from folks like you who are out there doing this work. Your comment about face time reminded me of this Yale School of Forestry blog in which the author contends: “One of the most important factors in your ability to influence landowners is the relationship you forge with them.”

  5. Wendy Fulks says:

    Pam, Eric Lovgren did a great job organizing the workshop and contributing to this post. I learned a great deal from him.

  6. The face to face contact is so important. It’s the personal touch that can make a difference. We are about to do a “get ready for fire season” event in the next few weeks here in southwest Australia for when the bushfire season starts in late October. We’ll aim to visit a couple of properties as examples of what can be done. It’s early days for us with Firewise concepts, but we need to involve residents and neighbourhoods in our many bushfire prone areas.
    Articles like this give us helpful ideas about what to try and how it can work.

  7. Wendy Fulks says:

    Hi Peta. Thanks for your kind words.

    We’d love to hear how your event goes. Several of our members are also using demonstration properties in their outreach efforts.

  8. Gloria Erickson says:

    Great Article, Wendy! That one on one contact with the home/land owner is oh so very important to building trust and nudging them to action!

  9. Chris White says:

    Wendy, I think standardization comes in the form of consistent data and methodology. From a data perspective we need both macro (wildfire environment context) and micro (home ignition zone). In Eagle County they utilize No-HARM wildfire data to provide the area-wide wildfire context (macro), staff then conducts the home ignition zone evaluation. This provides the full picture for regulation and education. It is possible to have a favorable home ignition assessment but if that house is located in a severe risk environment , the score or assessment need to be amended to reflect this. I think homeowners are becoming more aware and understand the need for a broad spectrum risk analysis (neighborhood level and ignition zone level). Eagle County is a great example of this. GIS technology has improved so significantly since I started in wildfire mitigation and it is a great tool to provide nation-wide consistent data. I think we can look to the data side of this equation to provide a foundation of consistency, with locally tailored home ignition assessments to provide a scientifically defensible assessment.

  10. Wendy Fulks says:

    Gloria and Chris, Thanks for your comments! Both of you know so much more about this topic than I. I appreciate you sharing your expertise with me and with our readers.

  11. Great article! I totally agree that being able to do home assessments requires a multi-faceted, transdisciplinary toolset. When I worked in Lake Tahoe for CalFire conducting hundreds of assessments several years ago, I realized that in order to be truly successful in engagement with homeowners, you really did have to have a wide-ranging body of knowledge that encompassed the local ecology, political atmosphere, community limiting factors, etc.

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