Friday, June 8, 2007

?Firewise? program to lose funding

BLM grant helps homeowners clear brush to reduce wildfire risk


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Blaine County Firewise Blaine County Firewise crew members Blair Choate, left, Cindi Hillemeyer, center, and Terry Thompson stand in front of a large pile of brush they cleared from a home in the Warm Springs Creek area of Ketchum. Federal funding for the local wildfire preparedness program will no longer be available after Sept. 30.

Become more firewise

For additional information on how to make your home more firewise, log on to the Blaine County Firewise program Web site at www.bcfirewise.com. To schedule a visit by firewise crew members, call 1 (877) 578-FIRE, or 788-7474.

A $750,000 federal grant that funds a local program to make homes in high-risk areas more likely to survive wildfire is in its third and final year.

Beginning Sept. 30, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management Communities at Risk grant will no longer be available locally, leaving Blaine County Firewise without its main funding source.

Blaine County, in cooperation with local fire departments, obtained the grant in 2004.

Since then, firefighters working with the Blaine County Firewise program have assessed homes within the wildland-urban interface. As part of their work, firefighters offer recommendations to homeowners and provide free help removing brush and trees.

The wildland-urban interface is the area where homes or other buildings meet forest or other natural fuels.

Throughout the county, Firewise crew members have identified about 3,000 homes located within the interface in Carey, Smiley Creek and the Wood River Valley, Blaine County Firewise Coordinator Angie Grant-Kettleband said. To qualify for the program, homes must be adjacent to undeveloped land managed by the BLM.

Firewise crewmembers have conducted in-depth surveys on about 1,600 of the homes, looking at their wildfire preparedness, Grant-Kettleband said.

The program is primarily concerned with a home's defensible space. That is the area between a house and an oncoming wildfire where vegetation has been modified to reduce the wildfire threat and to provide an opportunity for firefighters to effectively defend the structure, a Blaine County Firewise pamphlet states.

Once a home has been surveyed, it's given a score reflecting how firewise it is, said Wood River Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Nevins, who administers the program. Nevins said Firewise crewmembers leave a packet of information at the home stating its score and listing actions the homeowner can take to improve fire preparedness. He said crews also offer to do fuels reduction.

This summer, Nevins hopes to have crews get around to as many of the 1,400 remaining Blaine County homes as possible.

Early in the program, he said, some homeowners erroneously assumed that achieving proper fire preparedness would basically amount to clearcutting to their property lines.

Rather, he said, proper defensible space may mean routine gardening and landscape maintenance practices such as pruning, mowing, weeding, appropriate plant selection and irrigation. Simply put, it comes down to creating a continuous space around a home where wildfire is deprived of its major fuel sources, Nevins said.

"All we're trying to do is break that chain," he said.

The imminent loss of federal funding for the program comes at a time when insurance companies nationwide are increasingly concerned about their exposure from improperly tended homes within the wildland-urban interface, Nevins said.

"It's going to start affecting people where it hurts in their insurance premiums," he said.

In any given week, Nevins said, Wood River Fire and Rescue receives at least several calls from insurance companies inquiring about the fire preparedness for specific homes.

"It has a lot to do with risk," he said. "They (insurance companies) are really scrutinizing everyone."

Many insurance companies go so far as to send personnel from their offices out into the field to assess the fire preparedness of homes they insure or are considering for insurance, said Dan Cuccia, a senior risk-management advisor for Seattle-based Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. Cuccia spent all of last week in the Wood River Valley assessing homes.

"This time of year is a good time to look at the vegetation around the home," Cuccia said.

Despite the close proximity of many homes in the area to undeveloped public land, Cuccia said, the Blaine County-Wood River Valley area is better prepared for wildfire than many other communities in the West.

"The area seems to be ahead of the curve," he said.

Cuccia attributes some of that preparedness to a characteristic of the Wood River Valley that one might not at first consider: its high level of second home ownership.

When these homeowners are away, they rely on the area's "very robust property management" industry to maintain their homes, he said.

The dangers of an improperly cared for home in the wildland-urban interface extends beyond the individual structure to surrounding neighbors, Cuccia noted.

"Every measure one person can take can help everybody around them," he said.

With the imminent loss of the BLM funding, Nevins encourages anyone concerned about their fire preparedness and who may qualify under the program to contact the Blaine County Firewise program to obtain help before Sept. 30.

"If they feel like they're at risk we'd like to hear from them," he said.




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