Project Neighborly: Prevent Forest Fires, Spark Neighbor Conversation

Anne Mosness learned the hard way what fire can do to a community when she lost her business in Alaska to a warehouse fire several years ago. So it’s not surprising she is part of Hillside Firewise in Sudden Valley, one of several residents with experience in fire fighting, prevention and education eager to share their knowledge so that wildfire risk can be reduced.

Firewise is an internationally recognized preparedness program that encourages citizens to partner with local emergency and forest management resources to reduce a community’s wildfire risk.
While many Whatcom County citizens live close to our region’s trademark evergreens, there is no greater population of households living among mature trees than in Sudden Valley. Heavily wooded, mountainous home sites as well as golf and lakeside properties characterize this planned, private community of some 6,000 people. Trees are important to the community, which maintains strict rules about if, when and how trees can be trimmed or cut. Which means they are also a source of contention, if not along the traditional “tree-hugger v. property rights” lines you might expect.

Could the trees serve as a source of unity rather than division? Hillside Firewise thought so. While Sudden Valley residents may have different visions for the community and its trees, fire is a common concern; everyone wants to protect lives and property from wildfire.

With the help of a Project Neighborly grant to help produce materials, Hillside Firewise and other resident fire prevention experts joined three community gatherings in the South Lake Whatcom area in March, April and May to distribute educational material, answer questions and encourage ongoing wildfire prevention activities in Whatcom County’s most at-risk communities.

Between an annual fund-raising pancake breakfast at the local fire station featuring Smokey Bear, a meeting of the Sudden Valley garden club, a safety fair and an appearance at nearby Glenhaven gathering, hundreds of Sudden Valley and Glenhaven residents learned about the use of fire-resistant plants and how to create defensible spaces around their homes.

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Master Gardeners, native plant experts, DNR, National Fire Protection Association, local fire and emergency personnel and others were on hand with educational materials. People also had the chance to learn how to conduct home and risk assessments. The assessments can help neighbors make their homes and properties safer with simple actions like gutter cleaning, or removing limbs from above roofs.

The events not only gave neighbors a chance to meet each other, but learn about activities that can be done together, sharing skills, tools, knowledge and conversation in the name of safety.
A local scout leader found funds to buy tools for his troops to help with clean up, and organizers leveraged additional resources to support chipping limbs and branches that could fuel wildfire.
The chipping event drew 188 people, and inspired nearby Glenhaven to hold their own.

“This is about what we can do together,” said Mosness. “I couldn’t stop a warehouse and I certainly can’t stop a forest fire. Fire prevention has been a great topic here, with people sharing tools and information, neighbors holding work parties on adjoining lots. All this clean up has opened up our community to light, which strengthens our trees. This consciousness is amazing and went hand in hand with community building.”

The group is now thinking about ice cream social combined with another, half-day chipping event, to continue spreading neighborly safety in advance of July 4th festivities. Meanwhile Mosness has been invited to share material and inspiration with Chuckanut neighborhoods; a good model for other neighborhoods has been established— to use wildfire prevention to strengthen connections that spread…like wildfire.

photos by Alan Friedlob