In 2003, the year of the Cedar Fire in San Diego, while parked in an RV, Elissa MacLachlan noticed that some houses were completely burned to the ground and some houses were left untouched. It was then that she learned that there were government programs to help homeowners prepare and secure their homes in case of fire. Fast forward to 2013, when a 2.5 acre fire came a little to close to the MacLachlan cabin and did minor damage to a surrounding cabin, and now MacLachlan is hard at work making sure other people are aware of what they can do to help themselves.
MacLachlan joined forces with local and state officials to promote a presentation of the National Firewise program and encourage involvement. The presentation and discussion took place at Boardtown Community Center in Gilmer County this past Saturday. While the meeting was initially established for the Double Knob Mountain Community, anyone was welcome.
The Firewise program is geared toward homes that are situated in the forest, but really anyone with a home can take some small steps to be more prepared in case of an outside fire. Firewise is geared toward being educated about how to keep your property clear of fire hazards. Presenter Mike Davis, Forest FMO, explained that a common misconception is that fires only happen in the western US and that is just not the case. He presented several fires that have occurred in Georgia and the surrounding area. According to Davis, March, April and November are the busiest times for wildfires.
Davis outlined the core concept behind Firewise as the home ignition zone. It is the focus of the assessment and guides the action plan. Some of the areas that are evaluated are; the structure, perimeter, deck, mulch, vegetation, under the house/deck, fuel tanks, power lines, utility boxes, and hydrants. Firewise can be done as an individual property owner or as a community.
The Georgia Forestry Commission offers a free risk assessment. Rangers from the Forestry will come out to your property and tell you exactly what you need to be aware of. For more information on the risk assessment in your area you can contact the following person.
Pickens/Gilmer County: Seth Pierce 706-635-2363
Fannin County: Tony Harkins 706-374-6232
Davis also reviewed another issue surrounding firefighting which is access. It is often difficult for the fire trucks to get to areas when the fires are in the mountains. The roads are too narrow and curved. Davis spoke about a National Program called, “Ready, Set, Go” that ties in with Firewise that helps with this. The “Ready” is the Firewise portion. The work you do to protect your house it what will save it. The “Set” is being aware of the fire season and what is going on in your area. and the “Go” is knowing when to leave. Chief Tony Pritchett advised the crowd that Gilmer County is set up with a citizen alert system that sends a call or text when there is an emergency in the area. The link to this site is at the bottom right of the Gilmer Commissioners page, but it is also posted below for your convenience.
Wildfire Prevention Specialist Mark Wiles also spoke at the presentation. He explained that the number one cause of fires here in Georgia is carelessness as a result of debris burning. He went on to say that IF your house did burn as a result of a woods fire the insurance company could look at the state of your home in order to determine if they are going to pay or not.
“Have you ever thought about what would happen if your house did burn as a result of a woods fire and maybe you hadn’t cleaned the gutters? Or you hadn’t cleaned around the foundation? You’re insurance agents gonna come up and look at it and what’s he gonna say? Let’s write you a check? Well what happened? Why did it happen? Were you negligent as a property owner in maintaining your property?"
He went on to say they may not ALWAYS question or withhold payment, but they COULD.
Wiles also gave an example of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. In 2007 about 30 homes were lost in a fire near there. Prior to the 2011 fire the community around the refuge were given information on Firewise and participated in the program. In the 2011 fire, zero homes were lost.
He reiterated that the Firewise program works and went on to explain that when a fire happens it often takes time for the responders to get there. The work you do on your home will be what saves it.
The full presentation can be seen below. There were also questions and discussion which are included in that video.
Pierce closed by stating,
“It’s [fire] going to happen at some point and I hope we get enough education and information out to folks, so that they are prepared for it when it does happen”