Devastating wildfires destroyed tens of thousands of California homes this past year. The Camp Fire alone obliterated over 18,000 structures, nearly 14,000 of which were residences, making it the most destructive fire in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
A federal climate report released last month warned that the frequency and intensity of these fires will continue to increase with climate change.
With the 2018 fire season simmering out, preventative measures for 2019 are surely on the minds of homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas.
The increasing number of structures consumed in fires across the state could, in part, be attributed to urban sprawl into fire-adapted ecosystems; that is, the development of urban infrastructure into rural areas where fire has traditionally occurred naturally, according to Stephen J. Pyne, a regents professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.
In an article titled, “Fire Fundamentals,” Pyne emphasized that a substantial body of research suggests hardening houses is the best way to protect towns situated in the wildland-urban interface, or as he described it, “the increasingly fiery border where urban sprawl meets a wild or feral landscape.”
Hardening houses refers primarily to building with ember-resistant materials as well as any other precaution taken to mitigate wildfire risks around the home.
“Most initial structures burn from embers, and then if enough structures are involved, the fire spreads from building to building,” Pyne explained, emphasizing that a number of other factors, including climate change, are compounding the wildfire crisis.
Such was true of the Camp Fire, which Cal Fire called a wind-driven event on multiple occasions.
In Calaveras County, “We are building our homes where fire occurs naturally and burns every five to 20 years,” said Dr. Nancy Muleady-Mecham, adjunct professor of biology at Northern Arizona University.
According to a report generated by the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit (TCU), 32 structures were destroyed in fires in Calaveras County in 2018, 25 of which were residences. The causes for 23 of those fires were undetermined, and the other 12 were attributed to electrical arcing, convection currents spreading from another fire, heat from operating equipment, hot or smoldering objects, heat from flame or smoking materials or hot embers igniting the roof.
The Cal Fire website lists a variety of protective measures homeowners can take to make their houses more fire-resistant, some of which include covering all vent openings, protecting eaves and soffits with ignition-resistant or noncombustible materials, installing dual-paned windows to reduce the chance of breaking during a fire, and avoiding wooden or shingle roofs and instead building with materials such as composition, metal or tile.
Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District Chief Jeff Stone warned that as the weather gets colder, homeowners should be cautious of flue fires.
“This time of year the focus really needs to be on home heating safety,” Stone said. “Flue fires are easily preventable, yet happen frequently. Imploring people to have their fireplaces (or) woodstoves cleaned and inspected annually is the key.”
Cal Fire TCU Unit Chief Josh White stressed the importance of maintaining defensible space, a 30-foot vegetation-free perimeter around the home.
“Creating defensible space has a very serious practical effect and is not only the law, but provides protection to their neighbors,” White said. “It also provides firefighters the opportunity to take a more aggressive approach to fighting the fire.”
White said firefighters are often assigned to clear vegetation for homeowners, which draws time and resources away from fighting the fire directly.
“Many times we do not have enough firefighters, or the time to get to every structure threatened by a fire. This is why it is imperative to do the work now,” White said. “Thinning trees and removing ladder fuels can be done this time of the year. Then in the spring, homeowners can focus on keeping the light fuels (grass, pine needles, leaves) away from the structure. This last step may have to be done multiple times during the spring and summer.”
White said homeowners should also be consistently removing all of the vegetative material from their roofs and rain gutters.
“Not only does this extend the life of a roof and gutter, it provides the resiliency from the ember wash we are seeing with these large fires,” White said. “Burning material gets caught up in the convection column and the winds carry this material ahead of the main fire. The air cools and the burning material falls from the sky, and starts spot fires ahead of the advancing fire. We see this all the time. When these embers land on a roof covered in leaves or pine needles, they catch fire and can eventually burn through the roof or under the eaves.”
Despite the long-term financial savings and promising results updating infrastructure can have to protect homes, the upfront costs of fireproofing the home make it unfeasible for many.
“While we all have to take a holistic approach to wildfire resiliency, we also have to be practical,” White said. “The hardening of a home can be a significant cost to homeowners. Improvements such as new roofs, windows and changing wood decking to a non-combustible material can have significant costs. If homeowners have the resources to tackle these projects, I would applaud them to move forward with the changes.”
Offering financial assistance for fire risk reduction measures has been an emerging topic of discussion among state legislators.
Gov. Jerry Brown passed legislation by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) last year to help homeowners pay for fire safety improvements.
SB 465, the Wildfire Safety Finance Act, allows local governments to expand their Property Assessed Clean Energy Programs (PACE) to homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas.
The bill went into effect Jan. 1.
PACE provides “upfront financing to property owners for energy and water efficiency improvements and seismic safety upgrades to their properties,” and now includes wildfire resilience upgrades to the list of the program’s eligible projects, according to a Sept. 27 press release.
Upgrades include the replacement of wood or shingle roofs and wood signing and installing dual-paned windows.
Financing is repaid over time through the owner’s property tax bill.
In 2018, legislators also tried to create a credit system for insured homeowners to offset costs of fire safety improvements, but to no avail.
A residential property insurance bill, AB-1923 was introduced by Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) in January of 2018. In its early stages, the bill would have mandated insurance companies to provide a discount for insured homeowners that have employed wildfire mitigation measures around their homes, but the insurance industry lobbied and effectively eliminated these provisions of the bill, according to Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.
“When people take steps to make their homes fortified against wildfires, (the insurance commissioner) believes that they should get a credit for that because they’ve reduced their risks,” Kincaid said, adding that the proposed credit system could have been a financial incentive for homeowners to fireproof their houses.
Kincaid urges any homeowner that has received a non-renewal to call the Department of Insurance consumer hotline at 800-927-4357 for advice on finding an affordable insurer.
For a “Home Builder’s Guide to Construction in Wildfire Zones” published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visit bit.ly/2s5Nd3t.