Wildfire Awareness Leads to Improved Mitigation Strategies  

Thomas Brown

Team Rubicon develops new techniques for assisting communities with wildfire awareness and risk reduction.

May is Wildfire Awareness Month, but wildfire season is year-round for many areas of the country now. Communities are expanding into previously wilderness areas while the climate continues to shift, and many Americans face serious wildfire risk. As summer approaches, warmer temperatures dry out wildland vegetation—also known as fuel—and increase the chance of wildfire. People across the country are threatened by wildfires—many caused by other people. While humans cause 87% of wildfires every year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, “Most of these fires can be prevented.” And many mitigation efforts can help reduce the impact of those that do start.  

Team Rubicon is active in wildfire awareness and mitigation in every part of the country: what’s relatively unique is our ability to conduct mitigation services almost wherever there is a need. As a nationwide nonprofit organization, Greyshirt volunteers can go where most fire agencies can’t. Most government agencies can’t really work on private lands; federal agencies can’t work on state lands, and state agencies can’t work on federal lands. In contrast, “Team Rubicon can work across jurisdictions,” explains Duane Poslusny, Team Rubicon Wildfire Mitigation Project Manager, “including on private, state, and federal lands.”  

volunteer does wildfire awareness mitigation work
A Greyshirt does mitigation work in Colorado. Photo by Trang Le.

Team Rubicon is leading the way in wildfire awareness and mitigation. In addition to the ability to work across jurisdictions nearly anywhere in the country, Greyshirt volunteers provide a host of mitigation services to communities in need, at no cost to those communities. Training events are frequently offered for volunteers to hone and upgrade the various skills necessary for mitigation, and Team Rubicon’s mitigation services themselves are regularly updated and added to, providing greater returns to communities threatened by wildfire. Every dollar spent on mitigating wildfire hazards, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, can save up to $13 dollars in response and recovery costs after a fire.  

The greatest threat from wildfire is windblown embers carried on, into, or near vulnerable buildings. Research demonstrates that the most efficient method of protecting structures from fire is to fortify the home or business from windblown embers with fire-resistant materials and vent screens, as well as by clearing the immediate area of fuel. Assessing the risks around the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), up to 100 feet of area surrounding the home, is an essential first step towards creating an ignition-resistant home. Started as a pilot within Team Rubicon’s mitigation program in 2022, HIZ assessments have volunteers searching individual homes for potential fire entry points, like unsecured chimneys or vents, evaluating how fire-resistant the home itself is, and advising homeowners on how to replace or upgrade their roofing or siding with less-flammable materials. Ensuring their home is fire-wise is paramount, and homeowners can look to the National Fire Protection Association for an HIZ checklist with simple steps to help keep their homes safe from embers. 

HIZ assessment includes identifying potential wildfire fuel sources on or around a property, such as tree stumps, fallen and dead trees and tree limbs, dry brush, tall grass, leaves, wood piles, bark mulch, and vegetative or other debris. Once the HIZs have been assessed, volunteers move in to reduce the available fuel around homes and within communities. At the house and within 5 feet of it, Greyshirts recommend homeowners create a no-fuel, no-flame zone: installing screens over vents to keep embers out, cleaning combustible debris and other vegetation from gutters and away from wall exteriors as well as removing flammable materials from underneath porches or decks to reduce fuel, and repairing or replacing loose shingles or roof tiles and windows and window screens to prevent embers from entering or fuel from accumulating.  

wildfire awarenss means clear homes of debris
A home, post-HIZ assessment, in Colorado.

In the zone extending 5 to 30 feet out, they remove dead trees, stumps, grasses, dry vegetation, and other potential fuels from the ground, and strip tree limbs up to 12 feet from the ground. Fuel reduction is designed to strategically connect with other pre-existing or manmade fire-resistant areas, further reducing the chance for ignition and enhancing the effectiveness of fuel breaks, another service Team Rubicon provides.  

Fuel breaks are a common method of wildfire mitigation around homes and within communities where volunteers thin vegetation and otherwise reduce the potential fuel load along roads and ridgelines that defend communities as well as evacuation routes. To further separate homes and neighborhoods from flammable vegetation, Greyshirts architect defensible landscape that reduces the speed and severity of an active wildfire, thus serving as fuel breaks. Firefighters and emergency personnel can stage from and retreat to the fuel breaks, community members can place fire suppression equipment there, as well as use it to improve forest health and general community wellness.  

Wildfire awareness includes understanding that the risk comes from more than just fire. Wildfire mitigation not only protects against damages from future wildfires but can also substantially reduce the risk of floods as well. Fires destroy trees and vegetation while burning the ground, leaving the soil less capable of absorbing water. According to FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, the flood risk remains elevated for up to five years after a wildfire. Most fire mitigation strategies also have flood-control benefits, but Team Rubicon recently worked on a new pilot project with the Natural Resources Conservation Team in Trinidad, Colorado, that was specifically dedicated to using wildfire mitigation for flood mitigation. After felling trees for fuel reduction or creating fuel breaks alongside a hill, volunteers dropped those logs perpendicular to the slope, anchoring them to the ground with rebar. Placing these log erosion barriers along the hillside allows sediment to build up when it rains, slowing water erosion, helping plants grow, and preventing flash floods.  

Wildfires will remain a risk for many millions of Americans, threatening lives, property, and the integrity of communities. For too many Americans, every month is Wildfire Awareness Month, and Team Rubicon is committed to helping them prepare for the next fire. From informing homeowners of their risks, to helping communities get ready for wildfire, to exploiting the benefits of fire mitigation to minimize future flood damages, Team Rubicon’s volunteers have a suite of services for vulnerable communities to protect themselves. By working closely with community leaders and local and national wildfire and mitigation organizations, Team Rubicon is already planning and assisting communities in preparing for the next disaster. 

Help Us Get Mitigation Done

Fuel our wildfire awareness and mitigation work and future disaster operations.

Read More Stories