Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 55, May/June 2004
Fire Ecology II

The Firewise Communities program: Promoting wildfire protection in the wildland-urban interface

by Alix Rogstad

"The goal of the Arizona Firewise Communities program, like that of the national Firewise Communities/USA program, is that homes and other structures will be designed, built and maintained to withstand a wildfire without the intervention of the fire department."

[NOTE: The names "Firewise," "Firewise Communities," "Firewise Communities/USA," and "Arizona Firewise Communities" are the trademarks of their respective holders.]


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In the United States, urban expansion and development in recent decades has led to increasing numbers of homes and businesses being built in areas that were previously wildland -- a trend that has been amplified by the desire of many urban dwellers to live "close to nature." However, what many people fail to realize is that anyone living within this wildland urban interface (WUI) faces the threat of wildfire. Additionally, the urban mindset they often bring with them -- "fighting fires is up to the Fire Department; it’s not my responsibility" -- does not translate well to the WUI, where challenging conditions like steep terrain and limited access can strain firefighting resources to the utmost of their limits.

In addition to urban expansion, combinations of other factors have contributed to the dramatic changes seen on the landscape today that ultimately affect the way fires burn in wildland and WUI areas. These factors include fire suppression policies, variable climatic patterns (cool and rainy to severe drought), natural forest growth, decreased logging operations and the introduction of invasive species.

Wildland fire policy in the U.S. shifted in the 1910s, in reaction to land managers' years of negative experiences in wildland areas. Over 3,780,000 acres (1,529,766 ha) burned in Wisconsin and Michigan in October 1871, killing over 1,500 people (NIFC 2004). The Hinkley fire in Minnesota (September 1894) killed over 400 people and was so large the exact acreages burned were unknown. During the same month as the Hinkley fire, another fire raged in Wisconsin that consumed several million acres and took an unknown number of lives (NIFC 2004). In the summer of 1910, practically the whole western U.S. was on fire. Hundreds of fires burned through thousands of acres of wildland forests and grasslands. "The Big Blowup," as the summer came to be called, consumed approximately 3,000,000 acres (1,214,100 ha) of timber, destroyed whole towns, and took the lives of 85 people (Thybony 2002; NIFC 2004). Partially due to these devastating wildfires, the newly created U.S. Forest Service began a policy of aggressive fire suppression that continues today.

The western U.S. also saw a marked increase in livestock grazing when settlers moved west between 1850 and 1910. As cattle, sheep and goats were dispersed across the landscape and consumed the fine fuels (grasses and herbaceous plants) within the forests and across the grasslands, there was no longer enough fuel to carry ground fires. Due to higher than average rainfall between 1900-1920 across the southwestern U.S., unusually large numbers of tree seedlings sprouted in the forests; many survived to the sapling and pole stage because of the availability of ample resources (moisture and sunlight). Simultaneously, a decrease in logging activities occurred due to environmental and economic concerns, resulting in the removal of most commercial logging operations and mills from portions of the West by the 1950s. Without periodic removal of small-diameter trees either by humans or by natural fires, forests quickly became over-crowded and dense, which contributed to the build-up of fuels on the landscape that we see today. Additionally, with the introduction of invasive species in much of the western U.S., natural fire regimes have shifted. Some areas (such as portions of Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona) are burning more frequently than they ever did before, resulting in a change of dominant vegetation on the landscape. The combination of large amounts of fuel in the wildlands and the ongoing drought experienced by much of the western U.S. has created a good scenario for fires that can, quite literally, explode into devastating infernos.

Unfortunately, the reality of these threats has been all too amply demonstrated in recent years. During 2002, for example, over 6,900,000 acres (2,792,330 ha) burned in wildfires throughout the U.S., 1 million acres (404,685 ha) in the West. In the state of Arizona that same summer, over 600,000 acres (242,810 ha) burned, primarily in the Rodeo-Chediski fire, one of the most devastating wildfires in the U.S. in the past century. There is still plenty left to burn: U.S. fire experts suggest that the occurrence of large wildfires, particularly in the West, will continue for at least several years due to the current heavy fuel conditions and the ongoing drought.

Genesis of the Firewise program

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Federal agencies in the U.S. with wildland responsibilities have long recognized the need for educating the public about the risks associated with living and visiting the WUI. Following the large-scale fires at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in 1988 (1,200,000 acres [485,640 ha] burned as a result of 248 separate fires) and the devastating wildfire in Oakland Hills, California, in 1991 that destroyed 2,900 homes, these agencies came together to discuss the development of an educational program that could reduce the risk of property loss due to wildland fires (USDI-NPS 2003). This was the genesis of the Firewise Communities/USA Program, sponsored by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), based in Quincy, Massachusetts. The overall goals of the Firewise Program are to provide citizens living in the WUI with the knowledge and techniques required to maintain acceptable levels of fire readiness near their property, thus ensuring that firefighters will be able to use their resources most effectively during wildfires. To work, the program involves people from all segments of a community, drawing upon the community’s spirit, resolve, and willingness to be responsible for reducing its ignition potential and thus its vulnerability to wildfire.

Following the May 2000 fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico (a controlled burn that escaped and ultimately burned almost 50,000 acres [20,204 ha]), the national Firewise program began to be recognized as a new approach for educating residents about the risks associated within the WUI. One strength of the Firewise approach is that, although coordinated at the national level, it is applied on a state-by-state basis by state agencies working closely with federal partners and can be fine-tuned by each state to meet conditions specific to that region.

The Arizona Firewise Communities program

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Fig. 1 - thumbnail link
Link to Figure 1, ~65K

In Arizona, the Cooperative Extension Service, headquartered at the University of Arizona, determined the need for action in 2000 and partnered with the Arizona State Land Department and other tribal and federal agencies to develop a program that could be implemented statewide. Funding for the program became available in September 2002. The program that was developed is called "Arizona Firewise Communities" and is provided to the citizens of Arizona through workshops, literature, demonstration sites, informative displays, and lectures.

The program is publicized throughout the state by partner agencies (Arizona State Land Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, and the U.S. Forest Service) and partnering corporations through a variety of venues such as newspaper articles, bulk mailings, billboards and signs, radio advertisements, and interpretive visitor centers. Typically, an individual community member will recognize that his/her home, family and neighborhood is at risk from wildfire (frequently during the peak fire season when the community or an adjacent community is threatened), and will contact the state's Fire Education Specialist through the Cooperative Extension Service for more information. The community representative and the state Firewise committee then discuss the educational opportunities available through the Arizona Firewise Communities program. In some cases, local fire department personnel will take the lead to bring educational opportunities and materials to the community by obtaining funds through state fire assistance grants or other available educational grants.

With the assistance of the community member (or other identified community leader), workshops are developed and conducted that include presentations on forest and ecosystem health by experts and researchers in these disciplines, as well as by fire professionals and local fire and emergency responders. Hands-on experiential exercises are conducted during each workshop; these show participants how to look at the landscape where they reside and assess the wildfire hazard for their community. Workshops also identify steps that can be taken to reduce the potential of property damage or loss during a wildfire. Once individuals understand the implications of "doing nothing," they become interested in taking action to mitigate the risks that face their community. Most communities become interested in pursuing Firewise recognition after attending a couple of educational workshops in the community and becoming more familiar with the process.

Arizona Firewise literature has been developed and is available to Arizona residents on a multitude of topics including:

  • a homeowner’s checklist of wildfire preparedness,
  • wildland home fire safety,
  • property wildfire hazard severity ratings,
  • defensible space,
  • Firewise plant materials,
  • fire resistant landscaping,
  • recovering from wildfire, and
  • soil erosion control after wildfires.

Additional fire prevention publications, appropriate for school children as well as adults, are available through federal agency partners.

Potential demonstration sites are identified in at-risk communities throughout the state, and the Fire Education Specialist or a member of the state Firewise committee works with local community members to conduct on-site mitigation measures (usually fuel reduction) and to publicize the demonstration site within the community. Informative Firewise displays are also prepared and placed in some of Arizona's at-risk communities. Many displays are located at county-level Cooperative Extension offices, local public libraries, city and town halls, and in front of prominent community businesses. These displays are periodically updated and rotated to other at-risk communities. Firewise literature is distributed in conjunction with both demonstration sites and informative displays.

During 2003, through workshops, presentations, and display booth opportunities, the program reached 1,962 Arizona residents; over 900 residents were reached between January and June 2004. More than 45,000 publications have been distributed throughout Arizona since September 2002.

The Arizona Firewise Communities web site was launched in September 2002, and includes such information as:

  • risks associated with the WUI,
  • why it is important for individuals to take preventative action, and
  • updated listings of upcoming workshops and lectures around the state.

Becoming a "recognized" Firewise Community

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Through the Arizona Firewise Communities program, individuals, communities and towns throughout Arizona are encouraged to take steps toward reducing their risks, with the result being safer families, neighborhoods and communities. Communities achieve "Recognized" status by completing six steps:

  1. Conduct Initial Site Visit: a team of community members invites a local Firewise representative to complete an initial site visit to the neighborhood or community to address questions;
  2. Create a Community Firewise Board/Committee: community members from various groups (e.g., homeowners, fire professionals, elected officials, community planners, urban foresters, and others) are identified to oversee the program and make decisions such as identifying priority sites and mitigation measures;
  3. Complete a Site Assessment: the community's degree of vulnerability to wildfire is identified by a team of fire professionals and community members trained in Firewise assessment techniques, and a written report of the findings is completed and submitted to the Community Firewise Board/Committee;
  4. Create a Community Firewise Plan: the Community Firewise Board/Committee uses these assessment to create area-specific solutions to its identified WUI issues and to identify priorities for action;
  5. Implement Solutions: action is taken by community members (working in tandem with the Community Firewise Board/Committee) to mitigate the identified WUI issues, based on the Community Firewise Plan priorities;
  6. Submit Application: upon completion of previous steps, a written application for "Recognized" status is completed and forwarded to the Arizona State Land Department for approval. Upon approval at the state level, the application materials are forwarded to the national program headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts for national recognition.

Firewise recognition requires the commitment of interested community members, a high level of community involvement, a lot of hard work, and at least 2-3 years to accomplish. To maintain "Recognized" status, a community must:

  • continue to complete mitigation measures to reduce its WUI vulnerability (updating its Community Firewise Plan as necessary),
  • sponsor WUI educational activities within the community, and
  • submit reports of its activities annually.

Since the inception of the Arizona Firewise Communities Program, 10 communities within the state have initiated this process; one community has been awarded "Recognized" status, and 3 communities are expected to achieve recognition by August 2004.

The goal of the Arizona Firewise Communities program, like that of the national Firewise Communities/USA program, is that homes and other structures will be designed, built and maintained to withstand a wildfire without the intervention of the fire department. The program fosters a strong sense of community among participants, and landowners are educated about what they can do to protect themselves, their families and their communities from the loss of property due to wildfire. There is never a 100% guarantee of protection against wildfire damage, but if suggested actions are implemented there is a higher probability that people's homes and communities will survive, or even avoid, the potential devastation of wildfire.


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NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center). 2004. Current wildland fire information. Boise, ID: the Center. Online:

Thybony, Scott. 2002. Wildfire. Tucson, AZ: Western National Parks Association. Tucson, Arizona.

USDI-NPS (United States Department of the Interior-National Park Service). 2003. The official website of Yellowstone National Park: Wildland fire. Yellowstone Natl. Park, WY: the Service. Online:




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Author information

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Alix Rogstad is a Fire Education Specialist and Area Extension Agent for the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arizona. You can reach her for comment at

Additional web resources

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The Firewise program

Arizona Firewise Communities

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

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