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October 22, 2012 Previous day Next day

 

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As we approach the end of October many of you are hard at work documenting your wildfire safety mitigation activities for 2012, conducting your Firewise Day events and sending your forms in to your state liaison’s office  before the December 31 deadline.


 

But here’s something you may not have thought of. Submit the photos you took during your Firewise Day event to our 2014 Firewise calendar contest . It’s easy and fun to do!


Here’s how it works…as you and your neighbors participate in your event, snap a few photographs of everyone pitching in and helping out. Whether it’s during a “chipper day” or a local fair or landscaping maintenance project, photos are a great way to celebrate your hard work and inspire other residents and communities to get involved. Entrants may submit up to 10 unique and original photos so unleash your inner creative shutterbug and show us your best shot! NFPA will choose the top 15 winning entries to be showcased in our 2014 Firewise calendar. Winners also receive an Amazon gift card.


 

Got questions? Take a look at our official rules then submit your photos, complete with information about the event including the date, where it was held and who was involved. But don’t wait too long. The deadline for submission is November 2! </p>

We hope to hear from you soon! And thanks to everyone who already submitted their photos for consideration. Keep up the great work!

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Five years ago this week, I attended a wonderful conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. The first "Human Dimensions of Wildfire" conference sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire was attended by about 100 of the nation's wildfire researchers, students, and practitioners who focused on the social aspects and dynamics of wildfire in our world. Little did I know that I was about to learn a series of real-life lessons about people and fire.

I flew to Denver on October 22 and drove up to Fort Collins. As we were setting up exhibits and getting ready for the first reception, news about fires in San Diego County, California, began to ripple through the meeting rooms. Researchers, professors and students from southern California were on cell phones and laptops trying to find out what was happening at home. Anxiety mounted as several of them realized their homes were threatened or their neighborhood was under an evacuation order.

My first reflection on what came to be called the Witch Creek Fire (aka the Witch fire or the Witch Creek and Guejito fire complex) was to observe and to share the feeling of utter helplessness when away from home, the inability to be able to reach loved ones, the worry that one's best preparedness efforts would go for naught. How many of us think about the possibility that we won't be able to do ANYTHING when emergency strikes at home - because we can't get back home?  As my colleagues struggled with this event, some deciding to cut their visit short, others to stay and wait to see what happened at home, I wondered what I would do if faced with a similar situation.

As the event unfolded, I remember feeling a sense of unreality and disbelief that the same general area that suffered so badly in the Cedar Fire complex of 2003 was being revisited by this nightmare only four years later. I reflected on what I'd been taught about the phenomenon of wildfire, its history and its ecology: Where fire has been, fire will come again. But, so soon in the same place?

I returned home to Boston on October 26. On November 1, I was back on a plane, but this time to San Diego. I was about to observe what a post-fire scenario looked like, up close and personal. I accompanied a video team, assisted by CAL FIRE and local fire agencies, to document damage and to capture footage that would help us demonstrate Firewise principles and messages. Of many lessons, I remember learning:

  • Home construction, design and landscaping really do have an enormous impact on home survivability in a wildfire
  • One's income level and lifestyle do not necessarily predict likelihood of home loss - but they most certainly affect the ability to recover from that loss
  • Stringent enforcement of regulations for building and landscaping make a positive difference
  • Those whose homes survive also suffer - whether it's survivor guilt, health effects from smoke, post-traumatic stress, or loss of community
  • Those who fight the fire also suffer, both physically and emotionally

As part of this post-fire visit, I took nearly 300 photographs. I'll share a few of those and more about my reflections on this event with you over this week.

Photo of destroyed homes in Ramona, California, by Michele Steinberg, NFPA

The last leg of our 10-day Firewise Alaska journey Hylton Haynes and I were driving on the well known Alaska Canada Highway better known as the Alcan Highway towards the towns of Tok and Delta Junction.  Prior to commencing on our trip the Wasilla locals warned us about the possibility of encountering moose on this stretch. Being visitors we were of course less worried about the hazard and more keen to see a moose.  Fortunately near the end of our 235 mile drive from Wasilla to Tok we were privileged enough to  see one big robust male moose crossing the highway. The moment was too brief for a photo, but memorable nonetheless. 

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Image 1: Scenic view of a glacier located in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park & Preserve on the east side of the AK-1 Highway midway between Tok and Wasilla.

Visiting Firewise sparkplugs in the towns of Tok and Delta Junction we were amazed by the amount of spruce trees and their size.  These trees have narrow canopies, somewhat short in height (less than 50' tall) with a trunk not much larger than my hand and dominate the landscape with a reported density of 5,000 to 10,000 trees per acre.  Let's just say it give new meaning to the saying like 'hair on a dog's back'. 

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Image 2: [A] Locator map - Tok, AK; [B] Self giving a Firewise presentation to community leaders in Tok; [C] Hylton standing on the Alcan Highway heading northwest towards Delta Junction just outside of Tok.  Notice the dense black and white spruce forests to the left and right of the highway; [D] Halfway to Tok from Wasilla

The local officials say when there is a wildfire, which range into the hundreds of thousands of acres per fire, the fire is so intense it causes total tree stand replacement, and takes generations for the spruce to return to their original climax forest status.  The good that comes from these fires is the type of tree that returns after the fire, which is a more fire resistive species such as birch and aspen.  The village of Tanacross just outside of Tok, not only has had recent wildfires but also a severe windstorm which has put much of the timber to the ground.

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Image 3: Native Alaskan town of Tanacross, 12 miles northwest of Tok. [A] Severe windstorm damage that in turn poses a huge wildfire hazard after the event; [B] A view on one of the streets in Tanacross, the mountain range backdrop is simply stunning; [C] A windstorm damaged forest located to the west of the town that experienced a wildfire recently, fortunately no structures were lost; [D] Community clean-up of the windstorm event, fortunately the residual material can be used for home heating

This is an area of the countryside where the town population is about 1,000 people and there is no local tax and it gets so cold in the winter that City Hall closes when it gets to below minus 40 degree mercury mark!  The majority feel if the town services need something the residents will do their best to make sure it happens.  Whether it be a new fire tuck, snow to be plowed or a road to be resurfaced the residents accomplish this largely through donations.  So you can see that many of these homeowners depend on each other to endure this rugged country.  Wildfires, floods and winter storms seem to be the challenges these towns face every year.

The town of Tok has an independent power system which uses petroleum to fuel the generators at a high cost each year to the local residents.  Their goal is to do something similar to what the town of Delta Junction accomplished a few years back, which was to use the natural and abundant spruce wood biomass to fuel the town generator power grid.  Officials from Tok believe once they complete this project it could cut their energy cost in half.

“Two Birds with One Stone”, they said, by creating fuel breaks in the forest and removing trees around homes and access roads reduces the threat of wildfire to the residents, enhances firefighter safety and supplies fuel for the generator and fire places.  Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) and Firewise Communities/USA® are also a hot topic in Tok and Delta Junction.  Neither town has a recognized Firewise Community yet, but the planning has begun.  Many residents use Firewise principals by creating defensible space on their one, two, five or 10 acre lot.  Residents either burn their debris on site or take advantage of one of the Alaska Division of Forestry debris collection sites. But for many rural Alaskan’s, developing a Firewise Community on such large lots is more challenging than their suburban counterparts located in the lower 48.  Finding the “carrot” the “catalyst” to engage the concept to become a nationally recognized Firewise Community/USA® site for these 'rural' or as some would say “wilderness” homeowners is the key.  The Division of Forestry officials who are strong advocates for Firewise principles want to entertain more wildfire prevention and mitigation training within their community with home assessments to follow.  The hope is  that with some additioanl professional training like the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) workshop these rural communites will become more accepting of their wildfire risk mitigation responsibilities.   

Mike Tsvenge, the Delta Junction City Manager said he wants to start small, locate one of his small higher density neighborhoods to use as a model Firewise Community.  We asked, so what will be your carrot to get these people involved? He thought about that for a minute and then said, “You know our residents like good roads, so maybe the neighborhood reward will be a newly resurfaced road when they become recognized as a Firewise Community.” 

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Image 4: [A] Alaska Division of Forestry managed burn pit located in Delta Junction.  A very effective tool not only for fuel mitigation, but also brush disposal because the disposal of brush is done in a controlled environment by fire boss experts versus homeowners trying to do it in their backyards; [B] Fire break on the outskirts of town; [C] Hylton, self and Mike Tvenge meeting to discuss Firewise Communities/USA opportunities in the city of Delta Junction

Hylton and I were excited about the amount of Firewise spirit and enthusiasm in these remote communities, and hope when we do return, we will find that these neighborhoods will have achieved not only defensible space but also have several recognized Firewise Communities/USA.  Out of all of our travels through Alaska, we feel the that both Tok and Delta Junction present the greatest opportunity for future Firewise Community/USA® sites.  The wildfire risk, remoteness, limited resources and minimal governance warrants the community based volunteer solution that the Firewise program affords them.  These community members already depend on each other and by participating in the Firewise Communities/USA® program they will reinforce relationships and collectively reduce their overall wildfire risk profile. 

A special thanks goes out to the the Alaska Division of Forestry representatives - Peter Talus (Tok Acting Fire Management Officer), Jeff Hermanns (Tok Area Forester) and Al Edgren (Delta Area Forester) who made our visit to this part of the Alaska a most enjoyable and interesting experience.

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