USA — One news clip hit home as John Shannon, Arkansas’ state forester, watched television reports last month on the fast-moving brush fires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced the evacuation of more than 250,000 people in Southern California.
“A mom was crying near her car, and back behind her house on the hillside behind her was a raging inferno, and she was asking ‘Where are the fire engines,'” Shannon said, recalling the fear and panic in the woman’s voice.
The state forester said the image was a sober reminder of the danger of wildfires, but it also was a near perfect example of the importance of FireWise, a national program designed to help communities prepare for such disasters.
Arkansas leads the nation with the number of FireWise communities.
“During a real wild fire emergency there will not be enough fire engines,” Shannon said. “People’s homes will have to survive on their own, without help.”
FireWise, administered in the state by the Arkansas Forestry Commission, helps cities and communities develop a first line of defense against wildfires, Shannon said.
Like the Southern California brush fires, which appeared to spread with impunity, the FireWise program has spread like wildfire in Arkansas since it started 2003, Shannon said.
So far, 67 cities and communities in the state have completed the program and are designated FireWise communities, Shannon said.
California, with 22 FireWise communities, ranks second.
Shannon credited the program’s popularity in the state to forest rangers and a special unit within the Forestry Commission that does nothing but educate people on the program.
“This is all voluntary, and our main purpose is to educate the home owners and those in the community,” said Christina Fowler, information officer for Arkansas FireWise.
The objective, she said, is for the community to be ready should a brush fire ignite in a nearby forest.
If proper precautions are taken – removing leaves from gutters, removing brush, dead wood and trees from yards, keeping low limbs and growth pruned, removing highly flammable plants, such as cedar trees – the homes and other structures could withstand a fast moving brush fire, Fowler said.
“We’re increasing the awareness of homeowners in an area,” Fowler said, adding that when certified as a FireWise community, residents know the evacuation route if there is a wildfire, they know where to get food and where to go for shelter.
Among the cities and communities currently certified as FireWise are Holiday Island, Hot Springs Village, Norman, Oden, Pencil Bluff, Pleasant Plains, Sims and Story.
Fowler said a recent study estimated as many as 4,000 cities and communities in Arkansas are vulnerable to wildfires.
Communities wanting to participate must conduct a fire assessment and complete a project, she said.
As an incentive, communities which are designated FireWise are eligible for up to $3,500 in federal grants.
The first $1,000 is awarded after a fire safety assessment has been done on at least 80 percent of the structures in the community.
The remaining $2,500 is to be used for equipment needed to keep the fire threat low, she said.
In Holiday Island, for example, the community purchased a large wood chipper, which is used to cut up fuel – branches, underbrush and limbs residents find around their homes – wildfires need to spread, she said.
Jack Deaton, fire chief of Holiday Island, which is surrounded on three sides by woods and forests in northern Arkansas, said each community must also do a FireWise project.
Holiday Island residents improved the area around the fire station.
Underbrush was removed from an area extending 30 feet around the fire station, low limbs were cut and leaves and other vegetation was removed.
Booths also were set up at community events to discuss FireWise and how it could save a community from brush fires, he said.
“At first it took a lot of selling because everyone thought we were going to clear cut all the trees,” Deaton said. “We don’t encourage anyone to cut good live trees. We just want them to clear out the brush and low limbs.”
Along with residents cleaning up their yards, the Holiday Island Suburban Improvement District also is requiring new homes to be built with metal roofs or asphalt shingles. Also, flame-resistant wood is encouraged for decks.
“This really has cut the calls on brush fires getting out of hand,” the fire chief said.