July 24, 2012 – WALKER COUNTY, Texas – Want to know how to successfully implement wildfire prevention, mitigation and preparedness programs? Look no further than Walker County, where community officials and homeowners are showing Texas how it’s done.
In 2005, community leaders met with Justice Jones, wildland urban interface and prevention coordinator for Texas Forest Service. Concerned about homes in close proximity to the Sam Houston National Forest, the group’s mission was to identify wildfire risks, create mitigation strategies and devise a plan that would empower residents to protect their homes and property. The effort evolved into the first countywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan in Texas.
The plan guided community leaders as they worked with Texas Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-risk areas and secure grant funding to clear dead vegetation, thus reducing the potential for wildfires to spread.
One group of homeowners even pooled $15,000 for a mulching project. Those homeowners – residents of the Elkins Lake community – created their own wildfire risk assessment and action plan, ultimately meeting criteria for the national Firewise Communities USA program, the first in Walker County to do so.
Huntsville Assistant Fire Chief John Hobbs made it his personal mission to educate Walker County citizens about the Ready, Set, Go! program, a national effort through which fire departments teach residents how to prepare their homes and families for wildfire, understand current conditions and evacuate early when necessary.
“They’ve accomplished so much in a very short amount of time,” said Texas Forest Service Director Tom Boggus. “The bar is set high for the rest of our state.”
And Walker County residents put their preparedness strategies to the test last year, as 104 wildfires burned more than 6,700 acres in the area.
Eight Walker County homes were destroyed in 2011 but 139 were saved – thanks to the efforts of firefighters and, in some cases, homeowners who planned in advance.
Butch Davis, the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator, said he’s proud of what the community has been able to accomplish in a unified effort.
“When you’ve got as many risks as we do, this is time well spent,” Davis said. “If we don’t save but one life, it was worth every hour devoted to this project.”
Texas Forest Service’s Jones added that Walker County has created a model that other communities can follow.
“What we strive for is awareness and empowerment,” he said. “In Walker County, the community has backed our mitigation and prevention strategies. They believe in this. That’s the real success story.”
To learn more about how to protect your home or community from wildfire, visit http://texasfirewise.com/.
Justice Jones, Wildland Urban Interface and Prevention Coordinator
Jared Karns, Wildland Urban Interface Specialist
April Saginor, Communications Specialist