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Summerhaven, North Carolina

Residents of sleepy Summerhaven, NC wouldn’t accept the fact that their community was at risk for wildfires, so, after locating the highest at-risk area - the only single-lane road that led in and out of the community - they went to work, collaborating with local officials to tackle this challenge. As a result of their efforts, they were officially recognized as a Firewise Communities/USA® site in 2011.

Summerhaven NCSummerhaven is a small community located in the southern Appalachians, east of Asheville, in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Similar to the nature of many small communities, access in and out of Summerhaven is quite limited. There is essentially only one single-lane road, with a few places to pass, that both evacuating residents and incoming emergency vehicles would have to use in the event of a wildfire. This poses many safety hazards due to the fact that the road starts at an elevation of about 2400 feet and quickly climbs to about 3200 feet within a mile, making a hasty evacuation even more complicated on this steep road.

Local residents recognized the safety issues that this road posed, not only due to its dangerous incline, but also from all of the wildlife that has overgrown its borders on both sides of the road. The road is bordered by drainages on either side that are overgrown with laurel, rhododendron and large stands of dead eastern hemlock trees that were killed by invading insects. Essentially, this road was the community’s main source of evacuation in cases of emergency and was a complete fire hazard. Its overgrown woods would become fuel in the event of a wildfire.

Though residents were aware of this impending fire hazard, they needed the support of the Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program to give them the tools to organize efforts and coordinate functions. With the help of local Swannanoa volunteer firefighters and the North Carolina Forest Service, they were able to hold a community work day on October 8,, 2011. To this day, residents continue to remove flammable materials from around their homes, and the North Carolina Forest Service have created a fire break through a dense stand of rhododendron on the north side of the community. Plans to do so on the south side are already underway. In addition, they’ve made a decision to cut back flammable vegetation along portions of the road in order to improve ingress and egress during the event of a wildfire.

Summerhaven is an excellent example of a community taking what could have been a disastrous situation and, with the help of local fire departments and the Firewise Communities Program, creating a defensible space to help reduce the likelihood that their homes will catch fire in the event of a wildfire. They were officially recognized as a Firewise site on September of 2011, and continue to make efforts to reduce wildfire risk in their area.