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Taking on Excellence: Virginia

Blog Post created by megan.fitzgerald-mcgowan Employee on Jun 12, 2019

For the second blog in our series highlights Sites of Excellence participants, I reached out to Marilyn Cavell with Coal Bank Ridge in Virginia.  Below she shares the journey her community has taken on the wildfire risk reduction path and learn about wildfire risk in Virginia.

Located in the mountains of southwest Virginia just outside Blacksburg, Coal Bank Ridge (CBR) was developed in the early 2000’s with a vision of creating a protected wooded environment for quality, greater than 2,400 square foot homes. The subdivision is guided by a set of covenants and requires owners to be members of its homeowners association. Originally comprised of 57 wooded lots averaging about two to three acres each, the subdivision currently has 37 homes built or under construction (33 are currently occupied). The subdivision is flanked on the northwestern side by a steep, wooded 95 acre conservation easement owned by CBR and protected from development. 

We chose Coal Back Ridge to build our home because of the beauty of the wooded area and its location in close proximity to the town of Blacksburg. In addition, the community offered town water (even though most of the subdivision is outside the town limits) and natural gas, amenities not generally available in similar developments. We love looking out into the woods and observing the constant animal activity including birds, squirrels, deer, and the occasional turkey, fox, or bear. Our neighbors also cherish the peaceful beauty of our wooded community.  

Our Firewise Journey:

In 2007 we were contacted by a Virginia Department of Forestry representative (Brad Wright) who wanted to let us know about the National Firewise USA Recognition Program.   We invited Brad to make a presentation on the value of the Firewise USA at our annual homeowners meeting. With his encouragement and recognizing the value of learning about wildfire preparation and protection, CBR joined and has been a National Firewise USA Community since.   In 2018, CBR was chosen as one of seven communities in the nation as a Sites of Excellence Pilot Program participant. 

What are Our Goals in the Sites of Excellence Pilot Program:   

Our goals are 1) to create a Firewise pilot leadership team (composed of two   property owners and two foresters), 2) to get 100% pilot program participation within our neighborhood, 3) to increase awareness about fire behavior and risk, and 4) to prepare our homes for wildfire by achieving complete mitigation within 30 feet of each dwelling. Each property owner will assess their home and property (with the help of the Firewise team), identify and carry out measures to mitigate fire risk, and document progress over a two-year period. This will take commitment and effort, but the reward would be immeasurable in the event of a wildfire.

What are Some Challenges We Face:

Broadly speaking getting our property owners to engage in Firewise activities takes effort, as wildfire concerns are generally not a high priority. Because CBR is located in the eastern United States where relatively moist conditions exist, people here generally do not fear wildfire to the same degree as those who live in drier, open areas of the western United States. It is easy to think that wildfires simply are not going to happen here. Ironically, that way of thinking may put us at even greater risk. While wildfires do not occur often in our area, they do happen. Coal Bank Ridge is rurally located on a ridge of the Appalachian Mountains where abundant fuel and steep slopes and winds from the southwest present a fire risk to our homes. 

The Firewise USA program has been a valuable tool for raising awareness of fire danger and our property owners are appreciative of our participation. However, it will be challenging for our property owners to achieve the degree of sustained focus on fire prevention required by the Firewise Sites of Excellence Pilot Program. Most challenging will be to get 100% of our property owners interested and engaged. Participation of property owners of undeveloped lots will be difficult as many live outside the area and are not engaged with the community.   

A further challenge is that the very concept of our subdivision runs contrary to the 30 feet mitigation goal.  Promoted as a wooded subdivision, where trees are protected by covenants, many homes in CBR are built with the idea of having minimal impact on the natural environment. 

Overcoming Challenges:

The overall premise of the Firewise Sites of Excellence Pilot Program is that personal responsibility is the preferred approach for preventing fire from destroying homes. Likewise, we recognize that personal responsibility or buy-in on the part of property owners is the best path to full participation. We have established our Firewise pilot leadership team and scheduled a neighborhood meeting to explain the pilot program and promote its value to our property owners. We will discuss and distribute (at the meeting and online) a draft communication/outreach plan that also includes ideas for sharing our efforts with the broader community. Our team will welcome input from property owners. We will discuss and distribute (at the meeting and online) a draft process for implementing the pilot program and communicating with residents. Again, we will welcome input, ideas, and concerns. Also as part of the meeting we will present general fire prevention information and provide the same information online. 

Thank you Marilyn for sharing your story. We appreciate Coal Bank Ridge's commitment to personal responsibility and look forward to your progress over the next year and a half.  Stay tuned for our next blog featuring Arizona.

Photos courtesy of Marilyn Cavell

Is your community ready to take the next step in wildfire risk reduction?  Visit Firewise.org to learn more about how to organize your neighbors and get started.

Sign up for Fire Break Newsletter to stay up to date with the latest news and information on key wildfire issues. You can also follow me on twitter @meganfitz34 more wildfire related topics.

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