As Fire Season Approaches, WNC Communities Become 'Firewise'

Aug 17, 2017

With last year’s wildfires still fresh in the minds of many Western Carolinians, safety experts are telling mountain residents to be prepared in case it happens again. BPR News’s Davin Eldridge has more…

Last fall, more than 50,000 acres of land burned in Western North Carolina, including many homes.  So this year, efforts are underway to prevent that, with the help of the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program.

“We’re getting more rain. Hopefully that’ll continue, but we’re going to have a fire season. Usually the month of November, March and April is going to be the prime time for fire season,” that’s Chris Cooper, a ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service speaking with residents in an area outside Bryson City hit particularly hard by last year’s wildfires. “Again, we’re going to have a fire season. It comes every year. You should pay attention to this stuff. It can save your house one day.”

The Firewise program is engaging in community outreach by working with county foresters and local fire departments. So far, about two dozen residents attended meetings in Swain and Haywood Counties. The message at those gatherings was simple: homeowners can take just a few simple steps to ensure their properties are safe from wildfires.

“Our whole program is to educate you on prevention methods, and resources we have to help you mitigate your home from wildfire,” that’s Frank Riley, Firewise liaison to the state of Georgia, speaking to a crowd in Maggie Valley. “This is nothing for us to protect your home. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s fun, and there’s not strings attached. Nobody comes by and checks on you. It’s just a way to protect yourself. The Firewise program, what it does it buys you time until we get there.”

More than 1,400 communities throughout the U.S. have adopted such practices over the years in areas prone to wildfires, and have since been certified as Firewise Communities by the NFPA. The goal is to get more residents in Western North Carolina to do the same, according to Laurel Kays, Project Manager with the state's Resource and Conservation and Development Council.

“Folks who live in hurricane land, they have a plan for when that happens, when that comes through. They know that it’s not something you can always stop, so they got a plan for what happens, and fires are just the same.”

The program has been a great success in neighboring Georgia, says Kays, where there are more than 100 Firewise communities statewide. For instance, she credits the seventy five percent drop in wildfire calls in Towns County to its communities employing Firewise safety practices throughout 2014. While there is a total of just 24 Firewise Communities throughout North Carolina, the goal is to triple that figure in the western part of the state alone—due to the natural prevalence of wildfires in the region.

The task is a challenging one, she says, especially when many homeowners throughout the mountains are often resistant to programs like Firewise, which may come off as regulatory. But because the program is free and entirely voluntary, she’s confident.

“It does take time to work with these communities, and build relationships with them and to help them through this process. I think programs like this are really important—because you can try and tell people what to do until you’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to care unless there’s something in it for them. The reality is where we live, it’s very unlikely at any point we’re going to have any laws or regulations about this stuff. And that’s fine. That’s not what we’re about.”

Because of the obstacles the mountains pose to firefighters, simply relying on them alone to protect homes isn’t enough. So, the Firewise program provides homeowners with a checklist of preventative measures to keep their homes safe from fires, because at the end of the day a fire chief will not risk the life of his crew to save an unsafe residence.

The program advises homeowners to do things like clear their lawns, roofs, decks and gutters of things like needles, dried leaves and debris. This reduces the chance of house fires caused by ember showers, which are expelled into the air from nearby wildfires, and float down onto homes from the air. This was among the leading causes of homes destroyed by last year’s wildfires. The program also advises against certain building materials, such as cedar shake siding and roofing, as well as replacing mulch with hardscaping materials like rocks or gravel. But perhaps the most important measure is maintaining a defensible barrier of at least 30 feet around a home—an area clear of any debris, flammable materials and certain types of trees.