Firewise USA FAQs

How do I get started?

The benefit of Firewise is that it is a relatively simple process that communities can do entirely on their own! The Firewise USA program is intended to give you and your neighbors the grass-roots framework for organizing yourselves to reduce risk. Firewise just establishes the requirements communities must meet, but how communities meet those requirements is up to them; communities should set up a system that works best for their community. You can request that SBCFSC staff speak to your community about the Firewise process and benefits in addition to help with organizing your community and/or assisting with the application process. That said, your Firewise committee should be able to start the assessment and application process on their own using this guide. Please refer to our “Getting Started” page for additional information and links. 

How long does the Firewise USA process take?

It depends! Some communities are already aware of their wildfire risk, meet the minimum Firewise requirements, and are organized enough to quickly go through the application process. For these communities it could take 4-6 weeks to a couple months. 

Communities that lack an organizational structure and/or are less aware of their wildfire risk will take more time to develop the type of structure needed to create a successful and self-sustaining Firewise community. The SBCFSC is here to provide any and all assistance to the communities willing to put in the work and become a Firewise community. 

After becoming a nationally recognized Firewise community, maintaining Firewise recognition only requires a few hours per year, not including the risk reduction investment and educational event(s) you’ll host in your community.

How much does the program cost?

It’s FREE! There is no cost to participate, and no money changes hands. The assistance of the SBCFSC is also free of charge.

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 prepare their homes, communities, and families to become more resistant to the impacts of wildfire. 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. But being “Firewise” goes beyond preparing your home, it also involves building connections with your neighbors and preparing for evacuation. 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.

I don’t live in a “Wildland” – Is my home really in danger?

The terms “WUI” or “Wildland Urban Interface” 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, especially considering that embers can travel more than 1 mile from the wildfire front. 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 wildfire. 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?

At the moment, individual improvement efforts by homeowners are not typically 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 relatively small if they were available. 

But the California Department of Insurance is now requiring insurance companies to give discounts to homeowners who harden their home and do defensible space. This new policy will start in 2023 and it is yet to be determined how exactly the program will work or what amount of a discount homeowners will get. 

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. HOWEVER, communities with Firewise USA status are more likely to retain carriers and policies.

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

Five insurance companies currently offer insurance discounts to residents who live in a Firewise community: USAA, Mercury, California Fair Plan, State Farm, and Rivington Partners. Residents should contact their insurance agent to determine how to apply a discount to their policy. The level of knowledge about Firewise will vary between agents, even in the same insurance company. Some agents may simply ask for the community’s Firewise certificate (ask your community leader for this), while some may want concrete proof that you live in a Firewise community. In the latter case, you should know that the Firewise program has partnered with a third party company called Verisk that insurance companies can check with to ensure a home is within a Firewise recognized community. Instruct your insurance agent to contact their Verisk representative to verify that you live in a Firewise community. 

All residents regardless of their carrier 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.

Is Firewise just for homes? What about apartments?

Firewise recognition is not restricted to single family homes. Residents who live in or property managers who own apartments, retirement homes, condos, etc. can also apply. Each unit in the building will count as a dwelling unit. If there are 10 units, then a minimum of 10 volunteer hours (or the monetary equivalent) must be completed. Firewise community can be comprised of a mix of housing types (so, single-family homes and condos). 

What if my community or HOA does not want to be Firewise recognized?

While it is best to involve as much of the community as possible, there are a couple approaches that can be taken to still get residents interested involved in the Firewise program. One, just know a subsection of the community can still apply for Firewise as long as there are a minimum of 8 dwelling units. The HOA does not have to be involved if they don’t want to be. It is important to remember that the Firewise site boundary has to be contiguous, but drawing the boundary can be done in a creative way to meet this requirement. If the uninterested homeowners later change their mind, they can always be added into the Firewise community at a later date. 

You can also request that a representative from the SBCFSC speak to the community to try and encourage hesitant homeowners to join Firewise.

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 also join in, just continue to invite these inactive residents into wildfire related meetings and activities. 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.” 

It is hard to get my community members together to discuss Firewise, what should I do?

Some communities are more involved than others and that’s okay. Just remember, wildfire preparedness is a marathon and not a sprint. SBCFSC staff can help with community organization by giving a presentation and providing food and beverages to try and encourage residents to learn about Firewise. We can also provide free Firewise brochures to hand out to neighbors. Additionally, hosting a fun community get together, like a potluck or cookie exchange, is a great way to just get neighbors together to build community connectedness where neighbors can get to know each other. Interest in Firewise can be talked about during the get together. 

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 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 a wildfire specialist or the SBCFSC 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. Click here to schedule a free home evaluation with the SBCFSC to learn more about defensible space.

My community’s application was approved by Firewise, what now?

Congrats on receiving Firewise recognition! The purpose of creating a 3 year action plan as part of the Firewise application process is to provide a guide for the community to follow to reduce their risk. It is up to the community’s Firewise committee to motivate and help the community complete the items on the action plan. It is highly recommended to host a meeting with the committee to review the items listed under year 1, assign committee members to lead certain tasks so items are not forgotten, schedule regular meetings (monthly, biannual, whatever works for the committee), and make a plan for accomplishing the items listed on the action plan. If the community has an HOA, it is recommended adding a Firewise position to the HOA board. 

If there is any way the SBCFSC can help with any action plan items let us know! We are applying to lots of grants to help communities with defensible space and home hardening. Additionally, we can connect communities to other organizations or County representatives who were not included as committee members who can assist with other action items, such as prescribed burning, evacuation planning, etc.

My community 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 and decreasing risk during an evacuation. But 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.

The 3-year deadline to update our action plan is coming up and we have not completed all the items. What do we do?

That’s ok! You will not be dropped or fined for not completing all items on your action plan. This just means your community should form a new plan to try and complete those items or consider removing them from the new action plan if they are not feasible.

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.

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