Window on Lake County: Making Fire Risk Reduction a Priority

Evidence of long ago wildfires sweeping the Artic left behind a charcoal soil layer documenting events of three million years ago; give or take a few. Temperatures might have been 20F higher than today and thick forests spread further to the North. It looks like we’re in for a repeat, as this past year, Arctic fires burned in Greenland. This was not uncommon as 50,000 acres were burned in Alaska and 708,000 acres of forest blackened in Northern Russian forests. Of course, today we don’t have the mammoths, camels and giant sloths from that earlier period. But that’s another story.  

After several devastating years of mega fires in California, the State is building a defense against wildfires. In the news are legislation or plans to set aside firefighting money from insurance policies, large fuel reduction projects, landscape level fire-lines, early warning systems, power shutdowns and escape-route brush setbacks. But there is criticism that this initial approach comes up short for the long run in today’s special situation.   

Any fix should come side-by-side with a hardened, defensible home and a fire ecology approach that matches the new late season high winds and dry fire ignition conditions of a warming world. Hardening an older home against ember intrusion and reducing burnable fuels around its perimeter is the homeowner’s personal defense contribution. Taking natural fire introductions into account for forest programs is ecologically healthier. With over 3 million homes in the danger areas, this coupled home/forest approach would probably be more insurable as well. Do it all if we can afford it, but let’s prioritize for the most effective home protection.

Because of the press for housing and to escape the cities, people moved into today’s wildfire prone areas known as the wildland urban interface (WUI).  Consequently, wildland fires now impact more neighborhood communities and individual homes than ever before.  Individual homeowners and community groups in state-wide and national programs such as Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, and local programs including Boulder County Colorado’s Wildfire Partners, have responded to these impacts by greatly increasing the amount of WUI prevention work around individual homes and communities.  Yet despite the increased level of prevention activities, many homeowners continue to see their insurance premiums either increase or not renewed due to impacts from wildland hazards. The models are established by several providers such as Verisk, Core Logic, and others and typically do not account for hazard reduction factors by homeowners and community groups.

Fire prevention projects at the single parcel and community level have been on the rise, and funding sources have increased to help fund these projects.  But there is also a significant increase in wildland fire research impacts to buildings, with recommendations published by the Insurance Institute for Building & Home Safety (IBHS) and other organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  Collectively, these research and education efforts are pointing toward an overriding factor of structure ignition during wildland fire events – that of ember intrusion into the structure itself, or ember ignition of perimeter materials that result in structure fire.  The question now posed is how to account for all of these preventative efforts relative to the landscape level risk factors in current insurance models. 

It takes only one ember to blow past defenses and fall in an unhardened house environment requiring firefighter intervention, which may not be available. Embers can travel over a mile in high wind conditions. While we wait for the insurance companies to catch up, the knowledge of this ember risk leads to recommendations in prevention actions that go beyond the existing mega-fire protection proposals. Ask yourself, is your home ready for the next ember shower fire season?

Jim Steele

Jim Steele is a former Lake County Supervisor in District 3 on the County's North Shore. He is a retired State Water Quality Scientist, Registered Professional Forester, Endangered Species and Water Rights Consultant and has taught graduate level courses as an adjunct professor at Cal-State University, Sacramento.

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