Raising the Bar for Firewise USA™ Sites: Oregon County Pilots a Local Firewise “Four-Star” Rating Program
Author: Gary Marshall
In 2015, several Project Wildfire steering committee members attended the National Fire Protection Association’s Backyards and Beyond Conference. A common theme of the conference was that many of the nationally recognized Firewise USA™ sites could do more to mitigate the risks of wildfire.
To become a nationally recognized Firewise site, one or more community members typically work with their state’s Firewise liaison or local fire agency representative. Together, they complete an assessment of their area’s wildfire risks and defensible space (i.e., a “community assessment”) and then create an action plan (i.e., an annual mitigation plan) that identifies locally agreed-upon improvements that the community can implement. Then, the community must observe a Firewise USA Day, during which they work on a local wildfire risk reduction project. A minimum of $2 per capita, per year, is required to obtain/maintain certification. Keep in mind that one volunteer hour is worth $24.16, so it doesn’t take many hours for most neighborhoods to meet this investment requirement.
The conference highlighted that once Firewise status is received, some communities stop working on their annual mitigation plan, or they lose interest altogether and terminate their local program. After returning from the conference, our group started discussing the idea of a Firewise rating system. We didn’t know what kind of rating system would work best, but we wanted to try something out. So, we reached out to Tom Welle, NFPA’s wildfire field office manager, and asked if Deschutes County could pilot a rating program with oversight from his office, and Tom agreed.
A steering committee focused on developing this idea then met about a month later. The committee continued to meet for several months and invited representatives of homeowner groups, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the USDA Forest Service, local fire departments, Firewise USA and Project Wildfire to attend. We also held a focus group with residents from a Firewise site.
Some of our perceived issues regarding central Oregon Firewise sites were that homeowner participation varies, recognition can generate a false sense of protection, and sometimes local Firewise boards lose focus of their original intentions.
We felt that if the pilot program rated current Firewise sites, it would empower residents to reach an elevated level of success and recognition. We also thought it might encourage additional resident participation, assist firefighting operations, improve firefighter safety, and help set priorities about how to use community wildfire protection plan grant funds.
Through much deliberation and several meetings, we decided to call the program the “Firewise Community Four-Star Rating Program.” Many people understand the association between four stars and excellence. Whether it be a four-star general or a four-star hotel, the number of stars establishes an entity’s standing.
The Rating Process
First, an existing Firewise site must voluntarily request this audit. They then provide the assessment team with a map of their neighborhood’s boundaries, as well as the physical addresses of all of the properties within those boundaries that contain one or more structures. Next, trained firefighters assess all of the structures within the neighborhood and assign a rating. This is not a neighborhood assessment, nor is it a thorough home assessment. Rather, it is a brief snapshot from a firefighter’s point of view regarding the properties’ hazards. The assessments are called “dashboard home assessments” and involve looking at areas on and around each structure. We are looking for the presence, or absence of combustible roofing materials, debris on the roof and/or in the gutters, firewood piles (within 30 feet of the home), combustible vegetation (within five feet of the home), ladder fuels, and adequate tree spacing.
These assessments can either be completed using a mobile device app or on paper. Using the app, it takes about 90 seconds to complete each property assessment. Assessments are meant to be completed from the street, in front of the property. Once the risk data are recorded, the user sends the information to a remote computer that crunches the numbers using a weighted scoring matrix. A score is calculated that reflects the property’s risk. The higher the number, the higher the perceived risk. If a structure is not easily viewed, the property gets a failing score, which prompts the Firewise board to make an appointment with the resident to conduct an assessment at a later date.
Once the numbers for each property within the entire Firewise site are entered, a total score is calculated based on the percentage of defendable properties, which determines the number of stars a community receives. The rating system is as follows:
Current Status and Plans
This program takes initiative, time, field assessments and some funding, but the Firewise Community Four-Star Committee feels it is worth our time and effort and views the program as an investment in our county’s 25 Firewise sites. It is our duty to encourage and empower residents to prepare adequately for inevitable wildfires.
As of November 2017, we have completed six community ratings, and those sites received 2–4 gold stars. We have more assessments scheduled for the coming months. We are hopeful that the Firewise Community Four-Star Rating Program will help inform arriving firefighters, should a wildfire occur, and it also offers additional incentives. Once the evaluation is completed, residents are eager to get the results and their new badge of honor. In addition to receiving a sign with stars, this achievement is usually announced through a homeowners’ association newsletter and or an annual neighborhood meeting. Interestingly, one Firewise Board member requested that we didn’t rate their site any higher than three stars, as he wanted the fourth star to be a goal related to their work for the following year.
Our team believes that the best way to ensure that Firewise sites make continuous steps toward meeting their goals is to encourage residents to participate in programs like the Firewise Community Four-Star Rating Program. We also understand that this type of program may not work everywhere, but for our local area, this was that missing step to evaluate ongoing community participation.
Gary Marshall started his firefighter and emergency medical service in 1977. Gary retired in 2012 as Bend, Oregon’s deputy fire chief and fire marshal. Gary currently works for the Sisters Fire District as their community risk and fire safety manager. When Gary is not in the office, he is on the road or in an airport, on his way to teach a wildfire class for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), or to consult with organizations as an NFPA wildfire field representative.
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