USAA sharing best practices with the International Association of Fire Chiefs Wildfire Fire Policy Committee at Fire Rescue International 2016. Credit: Susan Darst, Helotes Fire Department

Topic: Defensible space / Firewise Evacuation outreach/planning Wildfire risk assessment Type: Essay

Fire Adaptation Strategies from Across the Nation: My Travels in 2016

Authors: Rob Galbraith

Since 2014, USAA has partnered with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to offer a discount on homeowners insurance for our members who live in a recognized Firewise community in several states. In 2016, I wanted to build on the success of this discount by becoming more engaged at the local level and learn more about grassroot efforts to mitigate the loss of life and property due to wildfire in communities where USAA has members with homeowners insurance.

One of the true joys of my job as the director of property underwriting at USAA is to travel and to meet with a wide variety of groups who are making a difference in their communities. I have been so grateful to have been welcomed by so many, and everyone is rightfully proud of the work that they have done. I have been on enough tours now that I’ve learned to not try and take notes on the way (the underwriter in me). Instead, I simply go along for the ride and listen to the unique story of each community, their biggest threats and what steps they are taking to help reduce those risks, while maintaining fire as part of the ecology in a managed way.

As 2017 kicks off, I wanted to highlight some of the interesting and unique fire adapted communities strategies I saw across the country last year.

Texas: Homegrown Solutions

Rob and Will posing during a break in the field.

During 2016, a lot of my travels took me to the front-lines of wildfire mitigation. Here I am helping clear fallen trees with Will Boettner from Texas A & M Forest Service. Credit: USAA

Some of my biggest 2016 highlights start right in my backyard of Central Texas. I was fortunate enough to partner on joint community presentations with the Texas A&M Forest Service and fire departments in Austin, Georgetown, San Antonio and Helotes. These joint presentations are a highly effective way to get buy-in from residents on local efforts because they are hearing the same message from fire officials and an insurance carrier together. Both fire responders and insurance companies traditionally deal with the aftermath when a wildfire starts, and both offer homeowners the perspective of what life is like after a fire has caused damage to homes and during the long recovery process that follows. San Antonio and Helotes are in the beginning stages of their efforts to engage the public and work on fuels projects. It is challenging as Texas suffers from a perception problem that was succinctly put to me this way: “unless smoke is in the air, people don’t care.” However, they’re making progress and both cities recognized their first Firewise communities in 2016 and recently completed their Community Wildfire Protection Plans.

USAA volunteers and an inter-agency crew in a group photo.

USAA volunteers and me, assisting on a shaded fuel break work day with Helotes Fire Department, San Antonio Fire Department and Texas A & M Forest Service personnel. Credit: Logan Scherschel, Texas A & M Forest Service

Austin and Georgetown have been great mentors to cities like San Antonio and Helotes and serve as an inspiration of what can be achieved in Texas. Austin does a tremendous job in many areas, not the least of which are their rigorous planning efforts, partnerships with a wide variety and diversity of key stakeholders, innovative social media-based outreach, the use of prescribed fire in an urban landscape and more. For instance, they used Periscope to live-broadcast the outdoor breakout sessions at the Central Texas Wildfire Symposium that I attended. They are currently working on adopting the Uniform Construction Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Codes and have invested quite a bit in a fully documented, citywide evacuation plan in the event of a major urban wildfire. Georgetown is home to Sun City, one of the longest recognized Firewise communities in Texas, and local residents there work in tight collaboration with their large community homeowners association. Also in Texas, volunteers from USAA helped with several local Firewise clean-up days and fuels projects by assisting firefighters dragging brush to chippers for mulching.

Colorado: Recognition Programs

Courtney Peterson from the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) does a wonderful job promoting Firewise throughout the state and is helping us get engaged with select communities where we have a lot of members. She is quite open in sharing the education materials that CSFS produces and has encouraged USAA to leverage them to drive a consistent message to homeowners. USAA is one of several insurance carriers that support the Wildfire Partners program in Boulder (in addition to serving on its advisory council) and recognizes the rigor of that designation. We hope to assist in seeing this terrific program, under the leadership of Jim Webster, adopted in other communities both in Colorado and elsewhere.

Arizona: An Emphasis on Learning

In Arizona, we have been partnering with Carrie Dennett from Arizona State Forestry, who does a great job promoting the Firewise program in her state (among many other duties). USAA is proud to sponsor their annual Poster Contest for schoolkids in grades 4-8. USAA supported research by Eric Steffey, a PhD candidate from Arizona State University, by printing mailings and surveys to a diverse sample of residents in the Prescott area. The study sought to better understand social and behavioral trends regarding which communities choose to take action regarding wildfire mitigation. The key finding was the importance of creating a sense of community: when residents feel connected to each other, they are more likely to take proactive steps to mitigate their risk verses if they believe their responsibility is only to themselves. A summary of this study is being compiled and should be available by next month. Feel free to contact me if you’d like a copy!

Hawaii: Unique Circumstances and a Can-Do Spirit

Pablo Beimler standing next to a Firewise kiosk.

Pablo Beimler shows this mainlander the beautiful Waikoloa Dryland Wildfire Safety Park. Credit: Rob Galbraith, USAA

Finally, I had the unique opportunity to spend a day with Pablo Beimler and the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) on the Big Island in September. Pablo’s previous blog post captures much of what he shared with me, but I left so inspired by what HWMO has been able to accomplish with such a unique landscape (where fire is not a natural part of the ecology), being so remote from others and with limited resources. Their can-do spirit, willingness to innovate and strong sense of motivation and engagement has remained with me and inspires me to continue our work at USAA to further collaborate and support FAC Net members and affiliate members in their efforts.

Into 2017

I’m heading into 2017 with tremendous optimism. USAA has expanded the Firewise discount to New Mexico and Utah and is excited to work more with those communities. Back in my home state, I am serving on a planning committee  for Austin Fire Department’s Central Texas Wildfire Symposium and I’m looking forward to working with Linda Haynie and Justice Jones on that project. For those planning to be at the upcoming Arizona WUI Summit and/or the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, I hope to see you there and that you will consider attending my presentation. In addition, I’m excited to continue organizing  volunteers from USAA to assist with fuels projects in communities where we have offices. If you’re interested in more information on USAA’s work with homeowners living in the WUI, note that I am presenting on a California Fire Science Consortium this June. I look forward to making new relationships, strengthening existing ones and continuing to learn from FAC Net members and affiliates!

Author’s note: This post reflects the personal views of the author and is not an official statement or endorsement by USAA.

Editor’s note: FAC Net does not endorse USAA or any other for-profit enterprise.

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