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Communities take Action

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Before, during, and after a wildfire, organization and involvement help.

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When Gary Marshall, fire marshal in Bend, Oregon, heard that Safeco Insurance wanted to buy the city some new fire equipment after it suffered its second major wildfire in six years, he questioned if it would be the best investment for the community.

"When you have a subdivision with 250 homes and 200-foot flames moving toward it, one more piece of equipment isn't going to save much," Marshall recalls thinking. So he suggested that Safeco instead spend the money on a comprehensive long-term public education program. Today Bend's FireFree campaign is a prime example of how Western cities are getting citizens actively involved in reducing the fire threat to their communities.

Bend, Oregon: FireFree

The FireFree program uses videos, billboards, and outreach programs to raise awareness of the formidable fire threat that exists in this high-desert community at the base of the Cascade Range. Cheatgrass, sagebrush, manzanita, and ponderosa pine are all part of the volatile ground fuels mix that surrounds the fast-growing city. Bend's newer residents had little understanding of the challenges the local environment poses.

Marshall sees the FireFree program as a long-term effort to change public attitudes and fire-safety behaviors. It is critical not only to raise awareness of the fire threat, but also to overcome preconceptions that a fire-safe landscape is an ugly landscape. "We're not suggesting a concrete bunker and a moonscape," says Marshall. "We're just asking that people give themselves a chance by creating a defensible space around their homes." Videos and educational materials help outline effective measures that homeowners can take, including clearing brush and installing landscapes that won't add to the fire threat.

After work began in late 1996, Bend held its first of two FireFree weekends, in the spring of 1998. On these weekends, public and private agencies offered to haul away debris cleared out by residents of 10 vulnerable neighborhoods. Over the course of those weekends, says Marshall, 9,000 cubic yards of debris went to the dump to be recycled as mulch.

Yet problems remained. Despite having cleared away a huge volume of material, residents hadn't always done it in a way that made their homes safer. That meant additional education efforts, including door-to-door visits by volunteers.

Community commitment remained high in 1999, even as the program changed. Instead of hauling away debris, the county opened the landfill free of charge for two weekends. The savings for residents were minimal, but the target date for clearing vegetation helped motivate efforts.

"We had people lined up bumper to bumper," says Marshall. "There were 3,500 participants and we collected 8,800 cubic yards--almost as much as when we did the hauling ourselves." Last summer, success built on success: 4,000 residents cleared out 11,000 cubic yards.

Pat Durland, a Bureau of Land Management fire management specialist, says this type of homeowner participation represents an important shift in attitude. When it comes to fire, he says, Americans have long adopted a 911 mentality, assuming their homes could be saved with a phone call. With wildfires, a phone call may not help.

"In Australia, they tell homeowners in wildlands that they're on their own and emphasize what people need to do before a fire starts," he says. "They get the message that the most effective protection involves the structure and the 100 feet around it, and it's the homeowner who has that responsibility." Bend has brought that message home and provided means for homeowners to act on it.

Topanga, California: Taking charge

Set in a beautiful steep-walled canyon that runs to the Pacific, Topanga is an unincorporated community that embodies the extremes of life in Southern California. Much of the time it is a little bit of heaven, a place close to both nature and Los Angeles.

But Topanga is also classic Southern California fire and flood country, with at least one major wildfire in each decade of the past 80 years. In 1993, a fire driven by Santa Ana winds hit Topanga, destroying 411 homes and killing three people.

One of the biggest problems during that disaster was getting and dispensing accurate information, especially in Topanga's isolated canyon enclaves. As a result of the fire and ensuing confusion, resident Pat Mac Neil and other locals started the grassroots Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. The coalition found that time to build support for a community fire program is when the embers are still hot and smoke is in the air.

Along with supplying fire-preparedness information, the coalition has organized to deal with a disaster as it happens. Volunteers have ham radio–equipped cars to provide timely close-to-home information on road conditions and fire movement. Evacuation sites--including a shelter for animals--have been set up, and 20 volunteers staff a hotline during fire, earthquake, and flood emergencies.

In 1996, the new system was tested as fires in the Santa Monica Mountains burned close to Topanga. The hotline received more than 900 calls from residents, and the community's Emergency Operations Center remained open for 36 hours straight.

"You don't need a great deal of funds," Mac Neil says of a program that costs about $12,000 annually. "What you do need is dedication and a caring for the community. Only a small percentage of the problems that come up can be dealt with by 911. People will need to take care of themselves, their families, and their own neighborhoods."

Bitterroot Valley, Montana: After the fires

One of the hardest-hit areas during the fires of 2000 was Montana's Bitterroot Valley. But even as the fires continued to burn more than 356,000 acres of forest, work was started to reduce the risk of the flooding and mudslides that often occur after a major fire.

The apparatus for community involvement was already in place thanks to the Bitter Root Resource Conservation and Development Agency, where a paid coordinator works with individuals and groups on local and rural issues. Trained county, state, and federal crews eventually handled the heavier jobs, but a volunteer organization, the Bitterroot Interagency Recovery Team (BIRT), worked on such projects as planting, seeding, mulching, and fence replacement.

Many of their efforts took place on private lands, where no one agency was in a position to address problems, says Nan Christianson, Fire Response Project team leader for the Bitterroot National Forest. BIRT, she says, also helped speed up rehab work by providing a direct outlet in the community for grant funds as they came in.

More than 800 area residents volunteered for the team, helping restore 123 acres and protect 23 properties. Volunteers included a class of fourth graders who sprinkled native seeds on the property of an elderly man who was unable to do it himself. "It meant a lot that the kids were able to do something to help," says Josette Hackett, a volunteer coordinator with BIRT. "They missed the summer of 2000, and this work shifted their focus off the devastation of the fire and onto something positive." – Matt Jaffe


For more information on fire safety, call your fire department. Many fire departments in wildland fire areas will perform free fire-safety inspections for homeowners.

FireFree. Details on Bend's fire-safety campaign, plus fire-safety tips and links to other Web resources. .

National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program

National Interagency Fire Center

California Department of Forestry

California Fire Safe Council

University of California Forest Products Laboratory

Copyright 2003 Sunset Publishing Corporation


Contact T-CEP:    310-455-3000   email:
P.O. Box 1708    Topanga, CA 90290