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Building a Successful WUI Community Risk Reduction Program

Scott McGill | September 15, 2022

7 Minute Read

wui community risk reduction - sign warning of extreme fire hazard

What does a successful Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Community Risk Reduction (CRR) initiative look like? For many communities, success means forming a risk reduction partnership between the community and fire agency.

These partnerships generally evolve from public awareness, education, and voluntary participation, and then mature into a mandatory defensible space inspection program with enforcement and cost recovery.

To map out the course ahead for your partnership, it helps to know where you are now. We’ll take a look at the different stages of WUI Community Risk Reduction initiatives in a minute (and how they become more successful over time), but first let’s clarify what success looks like for these programs.

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8 traits of a successful WUI Community Risk Reduction initiative

8 steps for a successful WUI Community Risk Reduction initiative

What are the stages of evolution for WUI Community Risk Reduction initiatives?

The first thing to understand is where your community is on the evolutionary scale of WUI Community Risk Reduction. Many fire officials are so busy with the day-to-day work that they don’t know exactly how developed their CRR programs are, relative to other communities.

You can think of WUI Community Risk Reduction programs as evolving through 4 distinct stages. They generally begin with general awareness, then move into structured public education, then to voluntary participation in safety efforts, and finally to mandatory participation. Within this evolution is a shift from a public or cultural understanding to an institutional or legislative framework.

As wildfires worsen nationally, the trend is to move toward the more developed stages of this process, and many jurisdictions are following this evolving pattern. Assess where your jurisdiction falls here, so you have a better grasp of what may need to come next.

 3Di — 4 stages of WUI evolution

 1. Public Awareness

Many local agencies will need to start at the beginning, which is to raise public awareness about wildfire risks. In this stage, observable trends are taking shape. People may have read and seen the devastation caused by wildfires in neighboring communities, and might start to understand they are at risk too.

Here jurisdictions may share information about wildfire risks with the public and local political leaders.

To do this successfully, you must start within your own agency. As someone responsible for your jurisdiction’s fire safety, you must first raise the awareness of other local leaders and fire agency staff. One of the best ways to do this is to develop a vision, a message, a plan and be consistent. You will want to educate yourself about how others have achieved success.

As you build expertise around the risks and solutions, your department can have a bigger impact with citizens and local leaders. As legislators learn about how devastating a wildfire can be to a town — and the potential for loss of life, property, jobs and the community’s tax base — they will begin to recognize the need for risk mitigation.

To increase public awareness, find ways to better communicate risks and solutions:

  • Provide information and resources on your fire agency’s website
  • Participate in community meetings, and engage in discussions
  • Consider opportunities to set up a booth at a popular local store
  • Communicate with local newspapers or news channels, both of which will want to help share public safety information
  • Use social media such as Twitter to keep the public informed with everything from general education to urgent messages

2. Educational Programs

Here fire departments may take a more formalized approach to educating the public and political leadership about what can be done to reduce the risk from wildfire loss. This often includes youth education programs, such as the FireWorks program, to educate young people about wildfire prevention.

This education process eventually expands into legislative education, so local leaders can better understand the unique risks and needs of their region. Fire officials must help educate legislators about the types of regulations, ordinances, and general organization required to ensure community safety.

Educational programs can start small and build over time — you don’t need to jump right in with a comprehensive, fully developed progr.

How to provide basic educational programs

  • Provide “before and after” pictures of how WUI Community Risk Reduction can save lives and property. This can have an immediate, memorable impact.
  • Create maps that show WUI at-risk parcels, to help people understand the risks.
  • Present illustrations of defensible space standards, so citizens can more easily visualize how they can reduce the risk of wildfire loss. This helps make safety goals feel more manageable.
  • Introduce property owners to home hardening concepts for existing structures.
  • Take advantage of resources like this S. Fire Administration WUI toolkit. Sites like USFA’s have a wealth of information to help develop educational outreach materials, and to develop wildfire protection plans and training

Raising public awareness and educating the public are necessary steps to get the public to participate in WUI Community Risk Reduction.

3. Voluntary Participation Programs

At this point in the evolution of your initiative, you must develop ways for the public to participate in your vision. While some communities have taken bold steps to mandate wildfire fuel reduction programs, the politics of many communities will necessitate a slower, step-by-step process.

There are many ways to do this, including wood chipping programs (to dispose of hazardous vegetation), grazing programs (where livestock clear brush), defensible space improvements (around individual properties), and more. Sometimes, you can use incentives such as tax credits or free permits for the tasks involved.

Here are a few examples of communities who have implemented programs like these. Consider how you might be able to implement similar programs in your own community:

  • Colorado Springs has developed maps of wildfire risk ratings, offers property owners free on-site consultations with the Wildfire Mitigation office to learn about wildfire risk on a specific property, and runs a neighborhood chipping program to dispose of tree branches and hazardous vegetation. Residents also can receive a tax credit for the costs incurred from wildfire mitigation measures. Read more about Colorado’s wildfire adaptation strategies here.
  • Park City, Utah offers a wood chipping program. The public can sign up for the voluntary program and participate in defensible space and hazardous fuel reduction.
  • In Flagstaff, Arizona, residents participated in approving a $10 million bond to fund Community Risk Reduction activities. The City of Flagstaff has pioneered efforts within the city itself, and has worked proactively with various partnerships to reduce fire danger and protect the community at large.
  • NFPA Firewise USA® is a program that raises awareness, educates, and allows the community to voluntarily participate in the local fire agency’s WUI Community Risk Reduction. The program involves homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in creating fire-adapted communities. NFPA Firewise® USA is very effective as a gateway to a mandatory program for some communities.
  • Silverthorne, Colorado is one of many communities that encourage property owners to hire land management services to use herds of goats to clear brush. Some local fire agencies offer grazing permits to promote community participation as well. Goat Green LLC, is one of many companies that offer managed grazing services. They operate in 15 western states and use 1,500 goats for hire to reduce hazardous fuels.

4. Mandatory Participation Programs

Mandatory participation programs take a similar approach to voluntary programs, with the key difference being legal enforcement. Many California programs would fall in this category, due to the extensive history of wildfires in the state.

Many local fire officials inherit vague and incomplete regulations to guide development and manage the vegetative and structural fuels that exist within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). This includes definitions for determining which properties are at risk.

California legislation requires that the State Fire Marshal develop statewide fire hazard severity zone maps that identify areas at risk. There are 3 zones of at-risk WUI properties: “Very High,” “High,” and “Moderate” Fire Severity Hazard Zones.

Another example of mandatory participation includes defensible space inspection enforcement: a property owner has 30 days to fix an issue, at which point the city trims the property to bring it into compliance and bills the property owner.

The State of California in 2021 adopted Assembly Bill 38 (AB38) which is a mandatory point-of-sale requirement that triggers a defensible space inspection certificate, among other things. Local and state fire agencies can then charge a fee for this service.

If the property remains in noncompliance after a failed re-inspection, it will be cleared by City contractors. The property owner will be invoiced a noncompliance fee, administrative fee, and contractor fee.

Here’s an example section of Los Angeles, California’s mandatory defensible space legislation, showing the requirements for property owners:

"Los Angeles, California owners of property located in the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (VHFHSZ) shall maintain their property in accordance with the Fire Code (L.A.M.C. 57.322). Year-round compliance shall be maintained as described below on all native brush, weeds, grass, trees and hazardous vegetation within 200 feet of any structures/buildings, whether those structures are on the owner’s property or adjoining properties, and within 10 feet of any combustible fence or roadway/driveway used for vehicular travel."

Laws like these significantly improve community participation in CRR programs and help with cost recovery efforts to reduce the financial burden on fire departments and taxpayers.

 What can local fire agencies do to advance WUI Community Risk Reduction programs to the next stage?

As you establish your knowledge and communicate a vision for where your community needs to go next, you will build people’s confidence and willingness to participate. Yes, this is a lot of work, but it’s necessary. If you’re consistent in your message, others will follow your lead.

 Thankfully, you can make your job easier with the right help.

Building a base of supporters

Look to develop supporters within your agency. You won’t have to do everything by yourself once you begin to include others in your vision and plan.

When building relationships, listen to others and include those ideas in your plan. Always think about how people can participate and contribute. Some people may have time to volunteer, some may have financial resources, and others are influencers (a term which doesn’t just apply to social media popularity).

Influencers can spread your vision, message, and plan. They can meet with people, call people, and write letters or emails (and yes, use social media) in support of your vision. They can be an indispensable source of help in your efforts.

Leveraging technology

Modern technology can dramatically improve your ability to raise awareness, educate, and get people to participate in your WUI-Community Risk Reduction initiative.

For example, 3Di Engage is a proven specialized software platform and is used by many local fire agencies to raise awareness and educate the public. This modern technology promotes interactive relationships between the public and fire authority. Managing and evolving a successful WUI Community Risk Reduction Program without modern technology is almost impossible in today’s world.

Technology like 3Di can help you at every stage of the WUI CRR program evolution, such as:

  • Improving public communication: this is as simple as automating email push notices to citizens, but it expands to education too. You can provide interactive maps, and information about the community's risk.
  • Share important data: with mobile-friendly software like 3Di Engage, inspectors can carry satellite imagery, geo-spatial property boundaries, digital code books, and owner-of-record property data into the field. Further, you can display real-time statistics, such as charts and graphs. Being able to share data like this makes educating and communicating with the public easy and clear.
  • Offer opportunities for voluntary participation: with online programs to promote voluntary participation (such as wood-chipping programs, managed grazing, defensible space assessments, etc.), you can offer an easy way for community members to sign up online.
  • Streamlining defensible space inspections: with a specialized app, you have a systematic and automated way to manage property inventory, noticing, scheduling, inspections, re-inspections, enforcement, and cost recovery. Refreshed property ownership and contact information, automating checklists for inspectors and volunteers is accomplished with ease.

From the initial bulk notification at the beginning of the season to full compliance at the end, modern technology is automating WUI Community Risk Reduction programs and processes. What would have taken weeks to accomplish is now only taking days.

Ready to learn about the modern approach to WUI fire prevention management?

Request a demo of 3Di Fire Prevention today.