Even though wildfires got off to an alarming start earlier this year, the threat of wildfire danger across Arkansas has fortunately lessened. But because of many factors, including storm damage, many areas are still at risk. In an effort to prevent fires in our State, the Arkansas Forestry Commission continues encouraging communities to join the National Fire Protection Association's Firewise program.
The Commission's Firewise team works collaboratively with statewide fire departments on issues of wildfire prevention, response, and awareness-building. The program provides excellent hands-on training to firefighters, teaching them to recognize the unique challenges presented where developed areas are in close proximity to forested areas. In Arkansas, almost all communities fit this profile.
The program encourages local solutions for safety, involving homeowners in preparing in advance for the risk of wildfire. It educates firefighters on ways to communicate with residents about the particular risks in those surroundings, so that brush, grass and forest fires don't have to become disasters.
A major component of the program is the development of Community Wildfire Preparedness Plans. By identifying high wildfire-risk areas, departments can make wiser decisions about station locations, resource allocations and the distribution of safety material. And this is valuable training, because wildfires present different challenges than structural fires.
That knowledge alone makes communities safer. And, by completing different steps in the program, fire departments also earn grant money that is used to purchase wildland firefighting gear, making communities safer still.
Additionally, when community fire departments obtain their Firewise certification, it improves the department's Insurance Service Office ranking. This could potentially lower insurance premiums for area residents. And one day, Arkansans in communities that have obtained Firewise certification may automatically receive lower insurance rates, as is the case in California.
I'm proud that for almost 10 years, Arkansas has had more Firewise communities than any other state. Last year, one of those communities - the town of Norphlet in Union County - was one of five recognized nationally for its fire-mitigation efforts. Norphlet, like many other towns in Arkansas, has been a Firewise community for several years. The high recertification rate indicates that Arkansas communities see much value in the program.
Interested communities can receive help from Forestry Commission staffers, who are willing to visit fire crews and walk them through program requirements. This support is especially useful considering that most Arkansas fire departments are volunteer-based. Firewise is an easy-to-understand program with handouts, resources, how-to guides and carefully planned training initiatives.
So far this year, the Arkansas Forestry Commission has suppressed more than 1,000 wildfires that burned approximately 15,000 acres. More than 75 structures have been lost. We are hopeful that Mother Nature will bring mild weather to Arkansas, thereby lowering wildfire risk, but our communities must always be prepared to protect lives and property. Firewise is one of the best ways to insure that preparation, and it's easy. By investing time in training, communities across Arkansas can avoid devastation from fires and maintain the signature lush beauty that our State is known for.