Walden a model of fire safety

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Walden, the densely-wooded neighborhood off of N.C. 42 East, has received national recognition for its fire-prevention efforts.

More than a year ago, the community began working toward certification by the federal Firewise Communities/USA Program, which teaches homeowners how to reduce the risk of fire through “simple, smart practices.”

Because it is heavily wooded, Walden is at risk for fires, and residents formed the Walden Firewise Board to protect the neighborhood. For help, the community turned to the Clayton Fire Department, N.C. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Association of State Foresters and the National Fire Protection Association.

At a recent Town Council meeting, Walden residents accepted the Firewise award from Hannah Kearney of the Johnston County Forest Service and Larry Such of the Clayton Fire Department. Walden joins 26 other communities in North Carolina in receiving the award.

“Walden is now a model community, and we’re so excited that they are now the first in Johnston County to earn the coveted certification in the Firewise Communities/USA Program,” said Stacy Beard, the town’s public information officer.

Gary Wood, Firewise coordinator for North Carolina, said the award was “a long time coming.” Wood used to live in Walden.

“We just knew how the heavily wooded home sites, heavy fuel loads, limited access and topography could spell disaster,” he said.

The entrance to Walden is a single-lane strip of pavement closely hugged by shrubs and trees. The exit is a separate single-lane strip. That setup is not ideal for fire truck access.

Years ago, a spark from the nearby railroad set off a small brush fire that began to blow toward the neighborhood. Residents and firefighters put out the blaze, but the threat of losing the 89 homes in Walden never left the memory of Wood or community organizers like Paul Uzzle, president of the Walden Homeowners Association.

Uzzle said he welcomed the new certification. “We’re very excited about it,” he said. “It took a lot of work and a long time. I think it will benefit the community and help make us safer.”

To earn the certification, residents cleared brush from their yards, widened turnaround areas for vehicles and made house numbers more visible for emergency-response vehicles. Still to do is providing additional access to the neighborhood “for emergency purposes only,” Uzzle said.

Walden also put on a seminar last September that included fire-safety instruction from the Clayton Fire Department. Uzzle said about 50 people came, representing perhaps one-third of the community.

“Nobody has anything negative to say,” he said of the program.

Not all residents know about the program, and some do not see a great need for fire-safety certification. Carolyn Harper, a 14-year resident of Walden, said she did not think fire was a big hazard.

“We haven’t had any fires around here, not that I’ve heard of,” she said. “In the summer, people are pretty safe about disposing of their greenery.”

Harper said she did not attend the September seminar.

Fire Chief Lee Barbee said Walden was on top of his mental list of areas with fire hazards, and he added that getting it certified will help the fire department certify other communities:

“Now that we’ve got this one under our belt, hopefully we’ll be able to use them as an example for when we go out and try to get more participants,” Barbee said,

Fore more information about the Firewise program, go to firewise.org or ncfirewise.org.

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