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Firewise USA FAQs

What is the Firewise USA program?
The Firewise USA Program encourages local solutions for safety by involving homeowners in taking individual responsibility for preparing their homes from the risk of wildfire. The program provides resources to help homeowners learn how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together to take action now to prevent losses.

Initiated in 2002 with 12 pilot neighborhoods, the national Firewise USA™ Recognition Program now has more than 1,600 active member communities in 40 states, as well as a participation retention rate of 80 percent over the past decade. The program, aimed at homeowners, provides specific criteria for communities regarding wildfire preparedness, and based on this criteria, offers national recognition for their work.

How long does the Firewise USA process take?
The process takes anywhere from one month to one year to complete, depending on engagement and participation among neighbors. The Firewise committee, which steers and manages the process, should expect to invest at least 8 hours in the assessment and application process. Planning events (2 per year) and engaging neighbors may require extra time, but is usually easily manageable even by people with busy schedules. The work (“investment”) is often work that is already being completed by you and your neighbors. The Firewise USA program will help ensure that you focus on the right areas – hardening your home, removal of the RIGHT vegetation, and will maximize the efficiency of your hard work.

Ongoing maintenance of your recognition status usually only requires about 4-8 hours per year, not including the risk reduction investment and educational events you’ll host in your neighborhood.

Why is the Firewise USA program needed?
As America’s population continues to expand, much of the development to accommodate that growth has flowed into traditionally natural areas. A trend toward migration from urban centers and suburbs into formerly rural and wild areas places many more people in the path of potential wildfire. Threats to life and property from wildfires and costs for suppressing them are expanding at an astounding rate.

Since 1970, more than 20,000 homes and 30,000 other structures and facilities have been lost to wildfires. Once a fire starts, there is only so much fire service professionals can do to protect structures. The Firewise USA Program empowers individual homeowners to take an active role in protecting structures before a fire starts.

What makes a community “Firewise”?
Firewise communities are those that have taken appropriate measures to become more resistant to wildfire structural damage. Firewise techniques include minimizing the risk of home ignition by carefully landscaping around residential structures such as thinning trees and brush and choosing fire-resistant plants, selecting ignition-resistant building materials and positioning structures away from slopes. In addition, communities that have earned the special distinction of being recognized under the Firewise USA™ Program have followed a systematic approach to organizing and implementing a Firewise mitigation plan in their neighborhood.
How much does the program cost?

It’s FREE! There is no cost to participate, and no money changes hands. The $24.14 annual (minimum) investment is simply recorded in the work you complete, or in the money you spend to reduce the hazard and risk on your own property. Although the minimum is set based on the number of homes in your site, you don’t need to record the investment for each neighbor. The investment is cumulative, and most Firewise USA sites far exceed the minimum, even when only a fraction of the neighbors participate.

Do my Fire Department and the Fire Safe Council need to guide our Firewise committee through every step of the process?

No. The Firewise USA program is intended to give you and your neighbors the grass-roots framework for organizing yourselves to reduce risk. Your Fire Department and Fire Safe Council should be kept informed of your progress and will be there for you when you need support or run into questions you are unable to answer. That said, your Firewise committee should be able to start the assessment and application process on their own.

Who is our “Regional Coordinator”?

CAL FIRE Captain Gene Potkey ( is the identified “Regional Coordinator”. However, once the process is started the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council will be added access and will assist with the coordination efforts.

How do I select the homes in our site?

We usually encourage Firewise Committees to select a site boundary based on how you would describe your neighborhood. Ask yourself – “what neighborhood do I live in?” Your answer is probably how you’ll define your Firewise USA Site. It should be a contiguous boundary, encompassing all of the homes in your neighborhood, even if all of the homeowners may not participate (though we’ll encourage them to join you!).

What happens if my neighbors don’t participate?

That’s OK. Few communities will see 100% participation. Many communities only see 20%-25% participation, though we hope everyone will contribute. Participation is voluntary, and when neighbors see results, and a cleaner neighborhood, they’re likely to join in. This is a lifetime process, so they’ll have time to warm up to the concepts even if they don’t join in “year-one.”

I’m tracking hours and expenses for our firewise committee. Can paying someone else for work for firewise projects on your property be included in your investment calculations?

Yes, if you pay someone else it can be listed as a cash expense. Examples – hiring a tree company or landscaping work and maintenance (as long the work is done to remove hazardous plants or install fire-resistant plants, create a fuel break, or improve a home’s fire-resistance).

How do I get an insurance discount for living within a Firewise USA site?

Some, but not all, insurers provide direct discounts for residents in recognized Firewise USA sites. USAA is one that advertises this discount. The California “FAIR” plan also provides discounts. Importantly, recent evidence suggests that residents of Firewise USA sites are less likely to see “non renewal” letters from their insurer (a growing concern for California homeowners). All residents should ask their insurers for a discount and/or recognition that they live in a Firewise USA site, but there is no guarantee that all policyholders will see a discount for participating in the program.

What is the cause of most wildfires?

An overwhelming number of brush, grass and forest fires (between 87 and 96 percent) are caused by people, according to statistics collected by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and the National Fire Incident Reporting System. While about 20% of all such fires are intentionally set, most human-caused fires are accidental and related to careless disposal of hot embers, ash or cigarettes. Regardless of the cause, local fire departments in the U.S. responded to an average of 356,800 such fires annually between 2004 and 2008. See the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and NIFC Fire Statistics for more information on wildfire causes and frequency.

I don’t live in a “Wildland” – Is my home really in danger?
The terms “WUI” or “Wildland Urban Interface,” “wildfire” and “wildland fire” can be misleading when it comes to the chance that your home could be ignited by a fire that starts outside in brush, grass or woods. With just the right conditions – a dry, hot, windy day – and an ignition source — a spark from a vehicle, machinery, or a carelessly tossed cigarette – your home could be in fire’s path faster than you might imagine. The 1990 Painted Cave Fire destroyed 427 buildings, many of which were in relatively urban areas of Santa Barbara and Goleta.
If a fire starts, won’t the Fire Department put it out?
Local fire departments are the first responders, and always make their best efforts to deal with fires of any kind. But fires in brush, grass or forests pose a special challenge. First, it may take firefighters longer to find out about the fire if it starts in open spaces or wildlands. They may not get a call until the fire is threatening homes.

Wildfires grow in strength as they run uphill or are blown by winds. A fire in steep and hilly terrain makes it difficult to access with a fire truck or even on foot. If your home or neighborhood is remote from water supplies and has narrow, winding roads and driveways, it is especially challenging to fight fire at each structure. If dozens of homes in your area are threatened, chances are there are not enough firefighters, fire trucks, or water supplies to protect every home.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that firefighters will be able to protect your home during a wildfire. It’s your responsibility to prepare your home and private property before a fire threatens your area. Taking action now means your home or community has a better chance of reducing the damage from wildfire without additional protection.

Won’t my insurance cover damages from a wildland fire?

Assuming you are adequately insured, most homeowner policies do typically cover property losses caused by brush, grass or forest fire. However, most policies do not cover home landscaping and plants that could be destroyed in a wildland fire. And no policy can replace personal items such as photographs, artwork and other memorabilia. The Insurance Information Institute recommends an annual insurance check-up so that you understand what is and is not covered in your homeowners insurance policy. You can also create a home inventory to help get your insurance claim settled faster in the event of fire loss.

If I make my home safer, do I get an insurance discount?
Homes in recognized Firewise Sites in California may be eligible for an insurance discount from some carriers, including the California FAIR plan and USAA. All insurance carriers consider Firewise USA status of a neighborhood when writing and renewing policies.

Typically, individual improvement efforts by homeowners are not reflected in discounts to their policy premiums. Most insurance rates are set using other factors, including community fire protection resources such as the presence of fire hydrants. In addition, fire protection is only one small piece of the insurance policy, so discounts for fire protection would be fairly small if they were available.

In areas where wildfires have caused damage in the past, you may find that insurance companies are conducting on-site inspections to recommend wildfire safety actions or in some cases, canceling policies. Companies that incur large losses from wildfire may be less likely to continue to offer insurance in areas that they consider high-risk.

Communities with Firewise USA status are more likely to retain carriers and policies.

What are the most important things to do to protect my home?

Most homes that burn during a wildfire are ignited by embers or firebrands landing on the roof, in gutters, on or under decks and porches, or in vents or other openings in the home. Hardening your home may be the most important step you can take to protect your property and family. Other homes burn from small flames (surface fire) that can touch the house – such as dry grass that can allow a fire to run right up to the siding. This risk can be reduced by creating and maintaining Defensible Space. Fire Safe Councils and the Firewise USA Program is a great place to start and find resources and steps you can take around your home and the adjacent landscapes.

I want to be Firewise but how do I engage and encourage my neighbors in the process as well?
Using Firewise principles on your property will start to reduce your likelihood of damage and loss. Homes or other property within 100 feet of your home can be a risk factor if they are not Firewise. Here are some ideas to help you work with neighbors to be safer: Check the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council or the FireWise USA website for tips on mentoring your neighbors and starting a Firewise USA™ site in your area.

NFPA’s online wildfire catalog has free brochures, DVDs and other useful materials to share with your neighbors.

Attend a Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council meeting and inquire if a fire expert can come to a neighborhood meeting to discuss Firewise principles. Your local fire department can also help answer your questions and point you in the right direction.

Will being Firewise compromise my landscaping or the local ecosystem?
Today’s fire resistant building materials can be attractive and complement the area’s culture and style. Firewise landscaping techniques can actually improve the aesthetic quality of your home by clearing out dry and dead vegetation, and allowing space between trees and plants. Firewise landscaping can use native plants, can be “water wise,” and can promote healthy populations of bees and other beneficial animals and insects.
How can I be firewise and keep my trees and shrubs?
Preparing your property for fire does not mean removing all your trees and shrubs. There are many things you can do to make your home resistant from embers or firebrands that may involve simply removing overhanging branches or limbing trees up from the ground.

Remember that healthy, well-maintained trees or forest land on your property will provide many benefits and not necessarily pose a major risk for wildfire spread. Your site-specific risk depends on the species and arrangement of the vegetation, as well as other factors. Consult an arborist or forester to learn more about the health of your landscape. Removing or thinning out certain species of trees and shrubs may be necessary to maintain the health of the rest, but complete removal of mature trees is not normally required to create a fire resistant landscape.

My neighborhood is already Firewise, isn’t that enough?

No, being a Firewise USA site is a great step toward improving the chances of a home’s survival from wildfire. But your home and neighborhood is just one important part of a whole community that requires protection. This means residents must look at everything at risk from including businesses, infrastructure, cultural resources and natural areas. Fire Adapted Communities, an initiative coordinated by NFPA and USDA Forest Service addresses this “whole” community approach.

Long term maintenance is critical. The Firewise USA process is ongoing, and must be undertaken every year for as long as people intend to live in your neighborhood! This process should eventually become a lifestyle adaptation, with good choices of vegetation and building materials and design, and routine upkeep and maintenance becoming part of the culture of your community.

What is Fire Adapted Communities and how is it different from the Firewise Program?
Fire Adapted Communities is a collaborative approach to reducing wildfire risks throughout an entire community and helps connect all those who play a role in wildfire preparedness like community officials, planners or developers, residents and business owners, emergency responders, insurance representatives and land managers and public utilities, with the organizations and programs that provide resources for their (these) specific wildfire preparedness needs. NFPA’s Firewise USA Program is a key component of the fire adapted approach and provides the framework to help residents reduce the risk of losing their homes and property to wildfire.
Our community just had a fire, isn’t it too late to become Firewise or create a Fire Adapted Community?

No, it’s never too late. Even if your community recently experienced a fire, the recovery phase is a great time to create a plan that highlights Firewise principles you can start using around your home today. By opening up a dialogue with town officials and your local fire service, residents can also address such issues as protecting businesses, parks, utilities and other important community assets. Become a member of the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council to learn more about your role in wildfire preparedness and what you can do.

Much of the material found in this section has been reproduced from NFPA’s website, © NFPA
Thank you to FIRESafe MARIN for the use of material from their site:

We need your help

Support the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council. Become a member, and help us achieve our mission of promoting wildfire safety across the County through education and action.


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