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Fire Adapted Communities

A structure surrounded by a thick, lush forest of trees and tall brush.
Pre-fire risk reduction work to remove fire fuels around structure. (USDA Forest Service image)

Wildfires do not stop at property boundaries. More than 70,000 communities and 44 million homes are at risk from wildfire in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – where vegetative fuels and the built environment meet. Over the last ten years, more than 35,000 structures were destroyed by wildfires – an average of 3,500 a year.

Pre-fire risk reduction, on a variety of fronts, can help communities adapt to wildfire. Fire adaptation means communities take mitigation actions so they can live with wildfire without harm and without extensive wildfire suppression efforts. The U.S. Forest Service developed, supports, and promotes community fire adaptation.

A key component of community fire adaptation is that there isn’t one silver bullet that reduces risk; there are many tools that, when used together and strategically, reduce risk. And it’s not the responsibility of one agency or group to mitigate; it’s the responsibility of everyone who lives and works in the community. Fire adaptation happens when local multi-jurisdictional stakeholders work together to identify risk, mitigate it, and maintain the work over time.

A strucuture in a forest after the risk reduction process has removed much of the surrounding flamable brush and trees.
Risk reduction after removal of fire fuels around structure. (USDA Forest Service image)

Fire adaptation is not a recognition program and it’s not a checklist. A community doesn’t achieve “fire adapted community” status or certification because the work to reduce wildfire risk never ends. Foundational tools of fire adaptation include:

  • A local multi-jurisdictional mitigation group to share risk reduction responsibility in the community. This core group teaches, mentors, and develops trusted relationships with local residents and other stakeholders to foster on-the-ground mitigation. Research indicates face-to-face communications with trusted community leaders is the best way to share information about mitigation and to move residents to do mitigation work on the ground.

  • A community wildfire protection plan (CWPP) which identifies where wildfire risk exists, outlines ways to reduce or mitigate that risk, and helps do the risk reduction work on the ground. It’s not enough to have a CWPP, it must be updated and implemented. The risk reduction tasks must be accomplished and maintained. Read: Best Management Practices for Creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

  • Hazardous fuels treatment inside and around the community on public and private lands. This means the landscape can experience wildfire (small and manageable wildfires or prescribed burns) and its benefits without the threat of catastrophic wildfire. In addition, a fuel buffer around a community and reduced fuels inside the community keep wildfire at bay and provide safe zones for residents and firefighters alike. Fuel reduction projects often involve smoke, so its important residents understand the value of fuel treatments and tolerate the temporary inconvenience of smoke that could reduce the long-term risk of wildfire. More information at USFS Prescribed Fire and The Fire Learning Network. 

  • A volunteer or career fire department or fire protection association plays a big role in reducing risk from wildfire and being ready to respond should a wildfire occur. Research shows that firefighters are a local trusted authority in delivering the mitigation message and in helping stakeholders do mitigation. Fire departments are also often the local hero in coalescing local stakeholders in wildfire risk reduction actions on the ground. Fire departments and Sheriffs are critical to evacuation training, designation of safe zones and evacuation routes, and promotion of wildfire prevention messaging. More information at Ready, Set, Go!

  • Defensible space around structures means flammable fuels like leaf piles, unmown dry grass, lawnmowers and gas, lawn furniture, propane tanks and wood piles, leaves and needles in the gutters and on the roof, and flammable trees too near the home are removed or stored in more appropriate places. This defensible space provides a fuel buffer for the structure and a place for firefighters to do structure protection if the home is defensible. More information at Firewise and Living with Wildfire.

  • Resilient structures are less susceptible to ignition from embers – the primary cause of structure loss. A resilient structure, for instance, is constructed of less flammable materials, has a class “A” roof (not a cedar shake roof or siding), has metal screen over eave vents, and under decks. More information at Wildfire Disaster Safety

  •  Wildland urban interface codes and ordinances can define best practices for construction and location of new development in a WUI community and outline resilient materials for developments. For instance, some communities don’t allow cedar shake roofs, siding, or fencing in high risk areas. Others restrict new developments in high risk wildfire risk areas where it’s difficult to protect structures at risk. Codes and ordinances are location specific and designed to meet local needs. Not every community has the capacity or funding to develop, implement, or enforce codes and ordinances

An open area within a forest cleared of growth.
Removing trees to create wildfire defensible space around a community. (USDA Forest Service image)