Sun City Texas Firewise Community sent the NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division a copy of their latest newsletter, The Firewise Trumpet. The information included in the newsletter was
very telling. We knew they were doing something big in the state in which “everything is bigger!” To start with, Sun City, Texas, is the largest HOA in Texas to become a recognized Firewise Community - a status it has held for over 7 years. It is located in Williamson County and is an active adult 55 and over community. The community is still under development with 7,200 homes currently completed and about 13,500 residents. Speaking of big, the community encompasses 5,200 acres! But Sun City residents realized that they live in an ecosystem that is prone to wildfire, so they have worked hard together with the Texas A&M Forest Service to make residents in their community safer in the event of a wildfire.
Three major steps they have taken include:
- Training, for themselves, community evaluators, landscape professionals, and other neighboring communities.
- Networking, with fire professionals, researchers, and other communities.
- Developing an integrated approach to wildfire preparedness.
Two of the Firewise Group members were fire professionals, so they know the importance of beginning and growing their program depended upon great training for themselves and then sharing that knowledge they gained with fellow community members, adjoining communities, local landscape vendors and others. They enjoyed attending this year’s Backyards and Beyond Conference because they said they were able to see that the value of what they were doing was confirmed by others, including Jack Cohen’s work. They also shared how they benefited from the Home Ignition Zone Training that they have received. They have become so proficient in all things Firewise, that they taught a session at Backyards and Beyond. According to Paul Ohlenbusch, ”We enjoy sharing our experiences with others.” They also find beneficial and share with others the virtual workshops that are available on the NFPA’s Firewise webpage. They told me that they have been able to use all kinds of things that they have found on the Firewise website.
They springboarded from the training they have obtained from NFPA’s Firewise Communities/USA® program and customized it for their needs, training people in their community they then dubbed Home Ignition Zone Evaluators. The Firewise Group currently has over 40 people trained to be Home Ignition Zone Evaluators for 60 neighborhoods in their community. They call them evaluations instead of assessments because assessments have a negative connotation for the people living in their community. The completed evaluations are only shared with each homeowner. They are never turned over to the community standards committee. This encourages voluntary compliance, with many people living in this community embracing these changes. They said that the education is working. The evolution that they are seeing their community making is incredible. According to Paul Ohlenbusch, ”The fact the residents are adopting Firewise concepts even without having a HIZ Evaluation has been rewarding.” They also publish articles in the monthly community magazine to educate homeowners. When fire conditions are bad the association sends out a notice via e-mail. The Firewise Group also provides information on their community sponsored web page.
Each year late in January, the community provides training for vendors who make landscape improvements for homeowners. They have developed this training in collaboration with the Texas A&M Forest Service. They provide them with a recommended plant list. The vendors that successfully complete the class are kept on a list available to residents. Paul shared, “Training landscape vendors lets them apply Firewise concepts in Sun City for other clients.”
The local Firewise group also looks for every possible opportunity to network with others. They find that it not only helps them grow their own program but have also been able to help many others, like real Firewise heroes. They work with their community providing training with their local agency partners and by actively participating in projects that make a difference. This helps residents have a cohesive mind. The residents are comfortable with the program that is carefully run by staff and volunteer’s which is reassuring to the 13,500 residents who live there. Additionally, they have invited other communities to attend their HIZ training to see how it is done. “Our goal is to help other communities develop their program faster”, according to Paul Ohlenbusch.
They also work with the Georgetown Fire Department to help other communities learn how they can become Firewise through a mentoring program. They told me they have been especially working closely with the Assistant Chief. They have had other communities attend a training that they put together to see how it is done. They have even been recognized by their city council for their work. They have also worked closely with Justice Jones, Wildfire Mitigation Division Program Manager, Austin, Texas Fire Department, another Firewise ambassador in Texas and across the nation. They have hosted individuals from USAA insurance company. They took them on a tour of their community and explained to them how they implemented the program. They told me that before they knew about the announcement from USAA a homeowner called them and thanked them for their work so that they got a discount as a resident within a Firewise Community in Texas. Paul Ohlenbusch shared, "That a major property insurance company offers a discount is the break we have been waiting for. Other companies are watching. We are hoping that they will follow USAA's lead and offer a discount soon.” They told me that they have a standing invitation for USAA to visit frequently.
Finally, this community has adopted an integrated method of implementing their wildfire preparedness strategy. They work with a variety of committees from their HOA including the Wildlife Management Committee, Emergency Management Committee, and Property and Grounds Committee which all act as advisory committees to the HOA Board of Directors. This management plan which focuses on the common areas with special emphasis on mowing the first 30 feet beyond the homeowner’s property line improves their safety in the event of a wildfire. Combined with removing Ashe juniper (cedar) it also improves their protection from flooding and improves wildlife habitat. A win-win-win scenario. They have effectively learned how to engage people in making change that creates a more resilient community. “Our program is a success because of the efforts of Dan Dodson and Paul Ohlenbusch and all of our Firewise volunteers who take this matter seriously. Because of their efforts, our community is safer, has mitigated the chances of a wildland fire causing our community harm and our homeowners feel safer because of the work they have done.” Is your community Firewise? It takes the community working together with fire professionals, insurance professionals, researchers and others to make a lasting difference.