As wildfires ignite landscapes and communities during this active fire year, interest in community action to improve wildfire safety is at an all-time high. Folks are seeking out the Firewise USA recognition program in greater numbers than ever before, with hundreds of new sites in the process of having their applications approved. This is great news, but when articles come out that a new site has met the criteria, the headlines often say that the community has become “Firewise-certified” or “earned their certification from Firewise.”
What’s in a name? And why doesn’t “recognition” smell as sweet to copy editors as “certification?” Often, the brief articles I see celebrating a community’s hard work to become safer from wildfire will use NFPA’s information about Firewise verbatim, and will talk about the community being recognized for its efforts, even when the headline says “certified.” All this would be simply a fussy English major’s headache, if it weren’t for the real concern our program team has about what “certification” and “certified” imply.
A quick web search showed a pretty consistent pattern that certification applies most often to people, not to groups, and implies a high professional standard of achievement that allows an individual to access a certain job role or professional qualification. Certified accountants come to mind. One of the few certifications I found applying to an organization had to do with the ability of organizations to access specific government funding. And of course, NFPA develops and provides certifications of various kinds to help fire inspectors, electricians, and others demonstrate technical competency in their fields.
NFPA’s national recognition of neighborhoods where residents organize and follow guidelines to become safer from wildfire doesn’t apply to individuals (and certainly not individual homes). Yes, there are criteria that have to be met, but they are fairly flexible and are intended to encourage people living in high-risk areas to get started on a years-long, community-wide journey toward greater safety. Unlike a certification, Firewise USA recognition is not an end-point, nor the end-all-and-be-all of wildfire safety.
The more we see “certified” and “certification” being tossed around in articles and online conversation, the more the perception of Firewise USA seems to become warped and conflated with individual homes meeting some mythical standard of safety or insurability. This perception is understandable, especially in California, where more and more people living in high-risk areas have experienced insurance rate increases or have had to shop for insurance when their carrier declines to continue covering their property. However, we simply can’t claim that any given property is safer or its risk has been reduced just because the minimum community-wide criteria have been met on a voluntary basis. While we’ve seen positive effects on overall community safety over time, Firewise recognition is not a magic wand we wave to make a home with a flammable roof and overgrown vegetation safe from wildfire. Recognition is our encouragement and acknowledgment that communities have taken the first steps toward safety, and toward a sustained effort to change the results when wildfire strikes.
Photo: Community members presented with Firewise USA Recognition sign, NFPA.