Tennessee Success Story: First Firewise USA® Community
Bolivar Fire Department takes the lead to make their city the first in Tennessee to be Firewise USA® Certified
Few things travel more ominously than the sight of an ember on the wind. The destructive capability of the orange glow is enhanced because it can land anywhere, and land out of reach. A gutter full of dry pine needles could catch it. A barn roof with worn wood too close to a wooded area might be a resting spot.
A cabin on the next ridge.
Robin Bible, a Fire Operations Unit Leader with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry, once followed a trail of destructive embers as they bounded up a mountainside in east Tennessee setting fires, which consumed one cabin after another. The calamity didn’t stop until the fire reached the top of the mountain in triumphant tragedy. Smoldering debris was strewn behind.
So when a forward-thinking city like Bolivar, Tennessee, comes to the Department of Agriculture looking for aid to make the city a certified “Firewise USA® community” and prevent those kinds of calamities, the state’s wildfire experts, like Bible, greet the city enthusiastically. Bolivar is heavily forested community in west Tennessee and in 2015 it became the first city in the state to achieve Firewise USA® certification.
A year later, no one could dispute the city’s foresight.
In 2016, one of the most destructive fires in the history of the state raged in Gatlinburg and Sevier County, killing 14 and consuming over 2,200 structures. Bolivar residents, like other residents across the state of Tennessee, watched newscasts with horror. The citizens of Bolivar rested better knowing they had taken some steps to avoid catastrophe.
“Not only did we say we did the right thing, we said we are glad to be at the forefront of it and being proactive rather than reactive,” said Sarah Rice, the administrative aid to the Bolivar Fire Department. “It is a time-consuming project to get one of these communities up and running (as Firewise USA® certified). It takes commitment and an all-in attitude.
“So seeing the devastation that happened in Gatlinburg put us a little more at ease here because we knew we were ahead of the game.”
Primarily it has been rural communities, and property owner associations, not municipalities, who had gone through the process of achieving Firewise USA® certification. Bolivar, with a population of approximately 5,000, and 157 miles west of Nashville, not only was the state’s first city to be re-certified, it gets re-certified every year.
“It is about making defensible space,” Rice said. “There are parts of town that aren’t threatened at all, but there are parts majorly threatened. We identified six neighborhoods that were at the top of being threatened and began to focus on those.”
The Bolivar fire department under the direction of Chief Lynn Price took the lead. It used fire department staff, but also volunteers for clean-up days from the community, the Red Cross, churches, and youth groups. The fire department also tied into city resources, like sanitation.
“It is a very forested area and there was a real concern that if a fire came into the community it could be devastating,” Bible said. “They really came to us and their fire chief was instrumental. We didn’t have many communities in west Tennessee so we were very excited to get Bolivar into the program.”
The interface—cities and wildfire—occurs everywhere, it doesn’t just occur in the mountains.
“It occurs all across our state,” Bible said.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry has three wildfire mitigation specialists who are contracted through the Resource and Conservation Development Districts. They fan out across the state to promote the Firewise USA® program and work with communities. Interest rose in 2016 after 87,000 acres burned in the state, which included the tragedy in the Smokies.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times it takes having a bad season where people see the potential of what can happen,” Bible said. “Since 2016 we have had these communities come say ‘we’re really at risk here. We saw what happened in the Smokies. It scared a lot of people.”
Bible said the department has provided grants to communities interested in the Firewise USA® program. There are incentives for homeowners to build a home more fire adapted, such as putting a roof on the home that won’t burn, using fire resistance materials, and Firewise USA® landscaping.
One significant initiative to eliminate fuel around cities and towns is the Tennessee Certified Prescribed Burn Partner Program. There are parts of the state that have not had any fire and the amount of fuel has built up to dangerous levels. The program teaches landowners, homeowners, and forest consultants how to do a prescribed burn properly. So far there are 313 people who have passed through the program, Bible said. There is also a Tennessee Prescribed Fire Council.
Bible said each year there is a “Fire Adapted Communities Workshop” in Knoxville. People swap stories about what works. Bible heard the story of a community that wanted to reduce a fuel load on a steep hillside so it brought in goats to chew down the vegetation.
“You have to have a sparkplug,” Bible said when talking about the key to making a community safer. “You’ve got to have someone that really believes and cares enough to organize your committees to really work through it and carry it through and make sure the work gets done.”