Photo Credit: At a recent training, New Jersey’s newly certified FAC ambassadors worked in teams to build comprehensive wildfire preparedness plans. Photo by Bill Brash, New Jersey Fire Safety Council

Written by Bill Brash, President, New Jersey Fire Safety Council

New Jersey contains approximately four million acres, 1.1 million of which are in the Pinelands region. The Pinelands are a fire-dependent ecosystem containing vast forests of pitch, shortleaf and Virginia pine, as well as stands of blackjack, post and scrub oak. It is an area of high fuel hazard and fire risk. New Jersey is almost 50 percent forested, so much of the state, including the Pinelands region, is in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The WUI is a challenging convergence of suburbs and wilderness, where even the smallest wildfire can significantly impact dozens, if not hundreds, of homes.

An aerial view of New Jersey's wildland-urban interface shows dense vegetation surrounding pockets of residential areas.

An aerial view of New Jersey’s wildland-urban interface. Credit: New Jersey Fire Safety Council

However, as in many states, only a few people in New Jersey are employed to increase wildfire awareness. There never seems to be enough time or staff to visit all of the at-risk communities, return all of the phone calls, follow-up after each community presentation or keep each Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) up to date and relevant.

New Jersey’s wildfire preparedness plan chugged along for several years, adding a Firewise community here, another there, slowly building a core of interested and involved communities throughout the state. A dedicated few were writing CWPPs and completing priority projects. It wasn’t until 2013, when the New Jersey Fire Safety Council joined the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net), that we realized things could, and should, be much different.

The 2014 Colorado Springs FAC Net meeting was groundbreaking for us. As we learned about fire adaptation efforts happening across the country, we recognized things that we were doing well, things that we weren’t doing so well, and best of all, things that we should start doing.

Several people involved with New Jersey’s plan sat down one morning after the meeting and brainstormed goals and steps related to creating a comprehensive wildfire preparedness plan in New Jersey. After several pots of coffee and a spirited discussion, we identified four essential components for creating the kind of wildfire preparedness that New Jersey needed.

The Components of Our Wildfire Preparedness Plan

The four essential components to New Jersey’s wildfire preparedness plan are:

  1. A nonprofit organization able to partner with state and local governments and provide flexibility, advocacy and outside resources.

At that Colorado Springs meeting, we learned the value of a statewide nonprofit that is able to seek funding from sources not available to state governments. A nonprofit has flexibility and when partnering directly with a state fire agency, it can help the agency meet goals that might otherwise be difficult to attain due to government restrictions.

2. An expanded base, that reaches outside of the traditional wildfire community.

To build a larger base, we sought a partnership with the “environmental” community and began to reach people outside of the traditional “wildfire” community. Wildfire and environmental groups don’t always talk to each other, yet oftentimes we share common goals. We sought a way to harness the environmental community’s efforts in order to increase wildfire awareness and resiliency. We partnered with Sustainable Jersey (SJ), a statewide nonprofit that offers a program for municipalities to voluntarily apply for and receive “points” for sustainability efforts. Partnering with SJ, we created an entire suite of wildfire preparedness actions for which municipalities can receive points toward bronze and silver certifications. Now, we have environmentalists advancing resiliency through wildfire preparedness actions that they first encountered through SJ.

3. More people capable of providing guidance to local municipalities interested in wildfire preparedness.

We then looked to increase the capacity of our wildfire preparedness initiative by selecting 15 people and training them as FAC “ambassadors.” These individuals were primarily our local contacts for Firewise, CWPP and Ready, Set, Go! efforts. They had distinguished themselves as knowledgeable, committed individuals, and we wanted to tap into their initiative. We extended a personal invitation to each of them for a training session, during which we provided them with reference guides, a field experience,  two meals and a team-building exercise. At the end of the day, each ambassador received a certificate (suitable for framing) and a FAC ambassador shirt for them to wear as they “preach the preparedness gospel” to others.

Sample certificate, with logos and signatures to make it official!

Certificates were awarded to each FAC ambassador after they completed the workshop.

Two of our ambassador training graduates recently traveled to Mystic Shores, a community interested in becoming Firewise, to explain the process and to share their experiences with wildfire preparedness. A third graduate wrote a piece in her community newsletter about the origins of her involvement in wildfire preparedness and how her municipality has continued to improve its preparedness efforts by forming a local Fire Safety Council.

  1. A statewide network of local fire safety councils to communicate preparedness goals to governing bodies, and to coordinate efforts.

In order to assist New Jersey’s municipalities in navigating the alphabet soup of wildfire programs, we formed local Wildfire Safety Councils (WSCs). WSCs are the parties responsible for disseminating information “down” to residents and “up” to the state government. In addition, we assigned them the tasks of keeping their CWPPs current and conducting a minimum of one information/awareness event each year.

One lesson we learned early on from the FAC Net was that we needed a “force multiplier” to help get us to where we wanted to go. Our force multipliers have become our collaborative network (that includes both the wildfire and environmental communities) and our local knowledgeable, now formerly trained FAC ambassadors.

Most importantly, we learned: We’re all in this together, and together we’ll get to resiliency faster.

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