Mitigating for Wildfires with NFPA’s Firewise USA initiative

What we’re talking about

The national Firewise USA® recognition program provides a collaborative framework to help neighbors in a geographic area get organized, find direction, and take action to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and community and to reduce wildfire risks at the local level. Any community that meets a set of voluntary criteria on an annual basis and retains an “In Good Standing Status” may identify itself as being a Firewise® Site.

The Firewise USA® program is administered by NFPA® and is co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. While the NFPA® administers this program, individuals and communities participate on a voluntary basis. The NFPA® disclaims liability for any personal injury, property, or other damages of any nature whatsoever, whether special, indirect, consequential or compensatory, directly or indirectly resulting from participation in the Firewise USA® program. The NFPA® also makes no guaranty or warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of program guidance.

To learn more about NFPA’s Firewise USA program visit


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It’s been a historic year for wildfires across the U.S. especially in hard-hit California and the western states. The fires keep coming as well and how can communities and individuals mitigate against these firestorms? On this episode, we’ll share information on the National Fire Protection Association’s FireWise USA initiative. This is Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community. 

Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Paget. Hey, thank you, Steve Henderson, and welcome to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. 

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This year has been a disastrous and historic wildfire season, no doubt. In fact, in early October, California alone surpassed 4 million acres burned so far this season. Over 8,000 fires have been recorded this year and the west is still burning. 

Responders in Oregon, Utah, and Colorado have been battling fires as well for weeks. How can homeowners mitigate against these destructive firestorms? There is an initiative available called FireWise USA. It’s a voluntary program by NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association. 

It provides a framework to help neighbors get organized, find direction, and take action to help reduce the ignition sources around their homes and in their communities. Today, there are over 1,500 participating sites in the program, and we’re excited to be joined by Megan Fitzgerald McGowan. She is the program manager for the FireWise USA initiative. 

Megan, welcome to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. Hi, Greg. Thank you so much for having me here. 

I’m really excited to speak with you and share with your listeners about the FireWise USA program and just proactive ways to be safe in a wildfire area. Absolutely. Let’s begin with FireWise. 

A little bit about how the program got started with NFPA. Yeah, so the program was started in 2002 as a pilot. NFPA is kind of the owner and the administrator, but it was developed in partnership with the USDA Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, the National Association of State Foresters, and a lot of government organizations really trying to figure out how do we address this wildfire problem on private property. 

And so NFPA is kind of that organization that could come in to help tackle that being a self-funded nonprofit. But really, it’s to address a concern that’s been researched and that we’ve been aware of since at least the 1980s. In the 80s, the Forest Service was looking at homes, the construction material, what they were made of, and the distance from crown fires to see what things impacted their survivability. 

And research went on throughout the 80s and 90s. We’ve seen just from a history of large fires when communities burn, you might have that home that’s left standing and that question of why are they here? So people were looking at that. What were those conditions that left that home, you know, livable, surviving the fire while others burned? And from all of that research and knowledge, this program was developed to help share them with residents and communities. 

Like there are proactive steps that you can take to reduce your risk from wildfire and improve your chance of surviving. And the whole idea is that if neighbors work together, their homes influence each other, and so they’ll have that greater chance of survivability. As I mentioned at the top of the show, this has been just a horrific year for wildfires out west. 

Are you seeing any examples of where FireWise has supported homes surviving or communities having less of an impact from some of these just horrendous fires? We have seen that, you know, and it is hard because when we watch these fires and we know communities will be lost, you know, to go down there and to get that story, it can be difficult. But we recently had some colleagues in California visiting FireWise USA participants who had done a lot of work, very proactive, using the latest science and showing that it makes a difference. One example that comes to mind that I was just told about the other day was a lady was having some landscaping work done, and our partners at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, IVHS, have been putting out some great fact sheets with us on conditions of the home, but really that sort of five-foot space from the base of a home being non-combustible. 

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So this lady had told her landscaper, I want all this bark mulch out, I want rock within that five-foot area. And they got that done, and that made the difference for her home and it surviving a wildfire. You can see where the fire did burn through the bark mulch she still had in her yard, and when it hit that rock, it stopped. 

We had a great example out of Texas earlier this year, a community that’s been a part of the program for a long time. The residents have done the work around their homes. They’ve leveraged their participation to get shaded fuel breaks, so that’s kind of on the perimeter of the community, that adjacent forest land doing thinning and fuel treatments to help reduce the overall volume of vegetation there. 

That combination of efforts saved that community from a wildfire that was threatening them. So we do see those positive examples. It is a lot of work to make it happen, but it goes so far and it means so much when you can point those things out to show that homes can survive and do survive. 

Yeah, you know, and hardscapes do a nice complement to a property. If you put in a lot of rock and decorative rock around your home, people think, oh my god, it’s going to be horrific looking without the standard pine mulch or the pine straw, those things that people typically want to use because it’s free or cheap to put around their home. But really, you know, a little bit of more money investing into a hardscape landscape is really can pay dividends if you do have a wildfire. 

So that’s a really great point there. When you talk about the Firewise initiative, how can communities start a program? Does it have to be supported through like a local government agency or can it just be individuals or how does this work? Yeah, that’s a really good question. So kind of from the administration point of the Firewise USA recognition program, we do partner with the state agency that houses the state forester to kind of be the gatekeeper. 

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They help facilitate communities joining the program and they’ll review applications. But the intent is really to be grassroots. So the criteria, the things that people have to do to get into the program, like obtain a risk assessment or do work within the community can be spearheaded just by those residents. 

We love to see collaboration between and, you know, the residents or community can be organized under an HOA if that’s how they are. It can be two private roads of neighbors that want to work together. It’s really what works for that community and what fits them fits the program. 

It can be kind of tailored, but we love to see them collaborate with maybe their local fire department or other fire expert, whether it’s through a state forestry organization, maybe a fire safe council, conservation district. There’s many partners out there to then leverage their knowledge of wildfire behavior and expertise to help those residents identify the correct risks and priorities for action, just because it can be kind of overwhelming. So it can definitely be grassroots led from on the ground or done in partnership with those organizations. 

So in relation to starting a FireWise program, is there like a checklist or an application that an organization goes through in order to get inducted into the program? Yeah. So if those people who are interested visit, that’ll take you to the the FireWise landing page on the NFPA website. And from there, there’s a big red button that says get started. 

And all of the steps for recognition are going to be on that page. So it’s kind of organized around the idea of first, you have to be organized. So you form a board or a committee, and it can be three, five, however many people are ready to go within your site and want to help lead and be proactive. 

And then to obtain a risk assessment. Again, this can be led by the residents themselves. We have a template on that page to help walk them through it, or in partnership with some sort of fire professional. 

And then you’re going to plan it from that risk assessment, your board or committee will identify priorities for action and develop a three-year action plan. And it could be the first year is a lot of that education outreach. And we’re going to try to get everyone to clean up all their pine needles this year, those different things. 

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And then kind of working your way down. The big things that they’ll have to report in their application are hosting at least one educational outreach event. This could be an informational meeting. 

Maybe it’s an email campaign. In the time of COVID-19 and safety precautions, we’ve seen a lot of sites doing Zoom meetings or other online platforms. Maybe they host a viewing party for a webinar. 

And then it’s being a minimum investment. So we require people to do work. The program is all about reducing risk. 

And it’s the equivalent of one hour of work per home. So if you’ve identified 100 homes in your community boundary, that’s 100 hours of work. And we value it at the national volunteer rate. 

We’re using the one from 2019. It’s $25 and some change. So it’s not money paid to NFPA, this investment piece that gets reported. 

It can be hours worth. It could be money spent on contractors or a chipper. But it’s just something that will then meet that total. 

So those different things are then put into our online management portal. So that’s at And I can send you links if you need these. But there they’ll fill out their community profile application. 

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And it’s pretty step-by-step. Walks you right through everything you need. And then at the end, you submit it online. 

So we’re completely digital. In 2002, we started with a pilot program. And there were, I think, 12 sites. 

Or it might have been 18. Then we dropped down to 12. At the end of that, and then over the years, the numbers increased. 

So as of 2020, we have over 1,700 participating sites. So we’ve taken our process from paper to digital via our online management portal. So a participating current in good standing site can go there to do the renewal application. 

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And for those who are trying to get their community on board, everything they need will be there to help them fill out the application and get through that step. I understand, actually, there are even some grants available from NSPA. For example, the National Wildfire Prep Day in the spring that communities could perhaps identify an activity or a program that they could submit for a potential grant that would even help with some of their outreach efforts. 

Would that count for some of their certification processes for that year? Yeah. And a quick point of clarification, it’s recognition. So just in the world of certification, it has a very specific meaning. 

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And NFPA does, we have professional certification. So our program is recognition. We provide a certificate of recognition that they meet criteria. 

But we’re not out there on the ground inspecting everything and then certifying you are fireproof or you’re 100% guaranteed. So I know it’s a small but it’s pretty important to us to maintain that separation with that term. But yes, in terms of that annual educational outreach piece or that investment piece of like hosting a chipper day or doing a work party, partnering with our prep day program and that grant that we’ve had available through our partnership with State Farm is an excellent way to do that. 

And we see a lot of that each year. We’ll see potential or current firewise sites apply for their wildfire preparedness day grant. Just saying that this is what’s going to go towards educational outreach. 

Maybe it’s for brochures or hosting a meeting. And it’s a great way to kind of use that day as a rallying point to get their community interested and engaged in what this is all about to start with. So maybe that’s the first time they ever do a work day looking at the wildfire risk for their community. 

So thank you for asking about that. It’s a great, great opportunity. Stay with us when we come back. 

We’ll ask Megan if there are any financial benefits in participating in the Firewise program related to your insurance policy premiums or any other costs in protecting your home. We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. 

Now here’s a preview of our next episode. We sit down with District Supervisor James Gore from Sonoma County, California, a community hit hard by this season’s devastating wildfires. In fact, they’ve been hit hard in the past as well. 

We’ll hear how mitigation efforts are paying dividends in protecting the public. In 2017, specifically with the Tubbs fire and the Sonoma Complex fires, when I say we got caught on our heels, I mean that very, very, you know, very personally. We lost 5,300 homes. 

24 people in Sonoma County lost their lives. Many others were injured, hurt. It was a true response in a panic mode. 

Now back to your host, Greg Paget. And welcome back. In this episode, we’re joined by Megan Fitzgerald McGowan, Program Manager for the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA initiative. 

It’s aimed at identifying projects and activities to mitigate against wildfires. Megan, earlier we were talking about some of the benefits of participating in the program. Do homeowners or communities receive any kind of financial benefit for insurance premium discounts for participating in the program? At this time, there are a couple of insurance companies that partner with Firewise USA to offer insurance discounts. 

So we have a longstanding relationship with USAA. USAA members who live in a Firewise site in certain states so far that are designated, and that information is on our website, are eligible to receive a discount on the wildfire portion of their plan. And then just this week, Mercury Insurance in California announced their partnership with us in offering a discount to their customers if they live in a participating Firewise USA site. 

We also see the California Fair plan offering a discount as well. So it’s a small group right now. There is interest out there, but we really try to reinforce that participation in doing these actions hopefully will lead you to that greater peace of mind and knowing you’ve done all you can do to protect your biggest asset that you own or that you’re putting money into. 

So that’s where we really try to place the emphasis of the program. Can you provide us some best practices of some programs that you’re aware of that have really had success over the years with this initiative? Yeah, you know, one of the things that we see commonly throughout the United States, because the program is from the East Coast to the West Coast, is kind of leveraging that partnership. Let’s say it’s an HOA and they recognize that participation in Firewise USA is important for their community. 

They might use some of their fees or their organization to help do annual chipper days. And if the community can provide a place for residents to take that material from their property, whether it’s down limbs or trees, that brush that they’re clearing out, then they tend to get greater participation. And another area, I recently spoke with a community in Arizona, their name is Oracle, and this community is pretty small and it’s a lot of retired individuals, older individuals, and they just have this great sense of volunteerism. 

I mean, they shared with me how many different nonprofits they have, but it’s that connecting with other people. You have to talk to your neighbors, you have to have conversations for this work to be successful. And so we see that for sites that are really well organized or have those different volunteer groups, they’re more likely to get greater participation of people actually doing the work on their property. 

You know, if you have 100 homes and only 10 participate, that’s not enough. We’re not seeing the level of work that we need to see being done. But if you then start to talk to your neighbors and you grow, more homes get involved, you’re going to see better chances of survival, you’re going to see that increased wildfire preparedness. 

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So, you know, organizing events for people to kind of rally around and then talking with folks and engaging and connecting, I would say are the two best practices to achieve that greater sense of survivability from a wildfire. How has this year’s historic wildfire season impacted your program? Are you seeing an influx of people inquiring how to get started or are you just hearing a lot about people asking you for tips or resources or how to be better prepared for wildfires? How is the correlation there with your program? Oh, it’s kind of all of the above, but we are seeing a lot of interest. You know, California being the most impacted by these wildfires, we’re seeing just a lot of growth there, a lot of interest, all for different reasons, but across the whole state. 

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And my contact in Arizona has been sharing with me that the fires they had this year, just kind of north of Phoenix, have really spurred people into action there. So they are working on with some other communities on more sites, more participants for Firewise. So we do tend to see when fire seasons or fire years are bad, we see more interest kind of that winter and that following spring. 

And, you know, from my perspective, I love just seeing people want to be proactive. I wish I didn’t take that example, but we do get stuff in the off season. But, you know, as much as we can offer individual resources and guidance for those communities, we will. 

And I just want to say that, too. We love Firewise. It’s a great program. 

It’s not for everyone, but in FPA, within our wildfire division, we have a lot of resources that can just help that individual homeowner guide their actions on their property. And that might be where they need to start. Maybe they’re not ready to connect with their neighbors yet, but taking action, you know, around your home, looking at your construction and starting to work in your home ignition zone, your zero to five feet and out from there. 

It’s a beginning. It’s the start of your wildfire journey and then connecting with your neighbors down the road when it’s appropriate or when it works for everyone. That’s just as important. 

So whether it’s the program or individual action, we try to support all of it. That sounds really great. If you could just recap for our listeners again how they can learn more about the Firewise program by visiting the NFPA website. 

Where should they go to look for those resources? Yeah, you can learn more about the Firewise USA recognition program at and that is on the NFPA website. There you’ll be able to learn more about becoming a recognized site, how to access the portal. We have fact sheets and videos to help you through your individual actions on your own property and if you have questions, you can contact us from there as well. 

Thank you very much. That’s Megan Fitzgerald McGowan with the Firewise program with the NFPA. We appreciate your time on sharing the details of this great initiative on mitigating against wildfires. 

Thank you so much. And don’t forget to join us for our next episode as we continue discussing how communities can mitigate against wildfires. We’ll be joined by James Gore, one of district supervisors from Sonoma County, California, as he shares what his county, the state of California, and even some national groups are doing to educate elected officials in mitigating for disasters. 

Be sure to also follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook to learn more on preparing, mitigating, responding, and recovering from disasters. And when you follow us, you’re always the first to know when we post a new podcast. I’m Tidal Basin’s Greg Paget. 

Thanks for listening. You’ve been listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate. For more information on this episode, visit our podcast page at You can download previous podcasts, learn more about the programs we discussed, and suggest a topic for a future episode. 

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