Help your community become a Firewise model community

The Firewise Communities/USA program provides information that property owners and communities can utilize to minimize losses during a wildfire.

The goal of the Firewise Communities/USA Recognition Program is to reduce the loss of lives and property to wildfire by building and maintaining communities in a manner that is compatible with natural surroundings. Community responsibility is a key element of this approach. Thoughtful planning in the design of a safe community as well as effective emergency response is emphasized. Individual responsibility for safer home construction and design, landscaping and maintenance is also stressed.

The recent Duck Lake wildfire in the Upper Peninsula’s Luce County clearly demonstrates how very destructive a wildfire can be. Fortunately, there was no loss of life or serious injury during this wildfire.

Burning 21,609 acres, the Duck Lake fire has the distinction of being the third largest wildfire in Michigan history according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). It destroyed 136 structures including 49 homes and cabins, including one store and one motel, 23 garages, 38 sheds/outbuildings and 26 campers.

As property owners and local officials in Luce County recover and move forward from this devastating event, there are steps they and people in other high risk areas can take to mitigate losses during future wildfire events.

Certainly, individual property owners can take actions recommended by Firewise to better prepare their own property for future wildfires. If, however, an entire neighborhood association or community does so, vulnerability to wildfire damage will be even more greatly reduced. 

To encourage communities to be proactive, Firewise provides recognition and support to those communities that complete the process of becoming a Firewise model community. They offer a reference guide that outlines the five steps a community must take to qualify as a Firewise Communities/USA recognition site. Having a community assessment completed is the first step. This provides critical wildfire information by identifying the location of structures, the geography and type of vegetation in the area, while noting both strengths and vulnerabilities in terms of wildfire risk.

A Firewise board comprised primarily of interested property owners then needs to be formed. This group receives the community assessment document which they use to create an action plan, step three. This board is responsible for implementing the action items they’ve identified as well as submitting an annual renewal form to maintain their Firewise Communities/USA recognition status. This is generally achieved by completing a minimum of one action item per year.

The plan does not need to be elaborate. It is recommended that it include at least three agreed-upon, doable action items that will improve their wildfire readiness.  The community must invest a minimum of $2/capita in local wildfire mitigation projects annually. This can include volunteer hours, equipment use, time contributed by agency fire staff and grant funding.

An annual Firewise event is the fourth required step. Holding a Firewise Day can be accomplished in a variety of ways including chipping days, fair/education days, or working together to clean up a common open space area in the community. The intent of the event is to have a community-oriented project of a scale that can be accomplished by neighbors working together getting to know one another, building community spirit and pride while hopefully having some fun.

Once these four steps have been completed, an application must be submitted to the state Firewise liaison for review and approval of the application before forwarding it to the national Firewise program director.

The annual renewal process involves a similar report form that indicates the required components have been completed.

For those communities interested in learning more about how to become a Firewise model community, please visit the Firewise website.  The reference guide including the application and renewal forms can be downloaded or ordered in hard copy.

Currently, there are currently 763 Firewise model communities in 40 states actively working to reduce their wildfire risk. In 2011, ten of these communities were recognized for having maintained model community status for the entire ten years of the program’s existence.

At this point, Michigan has only one model community, Ausable River Estates, in Roscommon County.  Association Chairman Duane Pinkelman, in a recent email to Firewise Program Manager Michele Steinberg, commented, “From training we have received through Firewise, we realize that we must be our own first line of protection against wildfires.”

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension has Firewise staff who can provide educational displays, presentations and handout materials. These staff are located in Houghton, Marquette, Roscommon, Montmorency, Manistee and Van Buren counties but can provide programming in neighboring counties. 

Contact information for these individuals as well as our state Firewise liaison, Paul Kollmeyer (MDNR) can be found at MSU Firewise website.

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