The Firewise USA® program is thriving in the City of Ashland, Oregon. The city boasts one of the highest numbers of Firewise sites in the country. When I reached out to learn more about how Ashland continues to keep people participating in wildfire risk reduction, I found out that it has a lot to do with the residents themselves. Ashland is a place where neighbors talk to each other face-to-face and Firewise participants in the city have turned that talk into action.
The Firewise program got its start in Ashland in 2011, after a wildfire the previous year made the city think differently about their wildfire risk. The 2010 Oak Knoll fire destroyed 11 homes within just 45 minutes in an area of the city that wasn’t thought of as high-risk. From that point on, Ashland Fire & Rescue knew they had to get residents involved in reducing their wildfire risk. “Firewise was a grassroots way to get the focus on the residents themselves, a bottom-up approach instead of top-down, which has proven to be successful,” says Alison Lerch of Ashland Fire & Rescue. Within the first year of introducing the Firewise USA program, Ashland Fire & Rescue was able to get seven communities on board.
Since 2011, the interest in Firewise has grown year after year and now the city has 35 active communities. Ashland Fire & Rescue staff supports neighborhood Firewise champions through the challenges they may run into with landowner buy-in. One common challenge that communities across the country have is how to deal with the neighbor who isn't interested in participating. In Ashland, residents have dealt with this simply by not giving up on those residents who aren’t participating. They continue to do the work they can around their own homes and find friendly ways to offer education and support to those who haven’t yet taken action.
One tool that has driven a lot of on-the-ground action is Ashland Fire Rescue’s Individual Home Assessment program. The fire department offers this service to homeowners for free. Brian Hendrix from Ashland Fire & Rescue performs approximately one hundred home assessments a year. "Being one-on-one with a homeowner is the most effective tool we have because you are taking all the science and information that is out there and applying it directly to them. They tend to walk away with a better understanding of the actions they can take.” Word-of-mouth about this service has kept Hendrix busy and a visit to one home often sparks interest from neighbors. “Once we go out to one property, neighbors tend to follow,” says Hendrix.
As the program progresses, Ashland Fire & Rescue is encouraging communities to start thinking about expanding their boundaries in order to educate even more people in the city and inspire action. Ashland’s 35 communities, with guidance from Ashland Fire & Rescue, are starting to create their own alliance, with the goal of meeting up to talk about what is working in their neighborhoods and learning from each other. Lerch says she wants the communities in Ashland to know that they are not alone in their efforts and it is a sentiment that can be applied to every Firewise USA site. “We try to remind our communities that they are not just part of their local network, but they are a part of a network of more than 1,500 neighborhoods across the country all working to reduce their wildfire risk.”
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