Know someone who lives in a fire-prone part of California?
As fire season lengthens and wildfires increase in intensity, Californians living in fire-prone areas are having a harder time finding affordable home insurance — if they can find coverage.
With that in mind, state officials this week unveiled a “Safer from Wildfires” framework to improve fire safety and reduce casualties. The goal is not just to save lives, but also to reduce premiums and make coverage available in more areas.
The framework sets out a list of upgrades that individual homeowners should make and preventive measures that local governments and community groups should take. Rather than breaking new ground in fire safety, it draws on best practices outlined by consumer group United Policyholders, the Insurance Institute for Business & Homes Safety, and Cal Fire, among others.
Many of the items on the list are already required for homes being sold or new homes being built in high fire risk neighborhoods. And some of the recommended upgrades are expensive, although less than a fire destroying your home.
The recommendations are the result of an effort launched a year ago by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and several public bodies involved in firefighting and prevention.
Today, Lara said, 13 insurers with 40% of the state market are offering discounts to homeowners who have made fire safety upgrades or live in communities that have. His office is weighing regulations that could force more insurers to follow suit, with the new framework potentially serving as a benchmark for determining who qualifies for lower rates.
The state is also investing more money to help communities and landlords meet the standards set out here.
Here are the recommendations of the framework.
Make homes more fire resistant
There are six recommended structural upgrades to ‘harden’ your home against the risk of wildfire, and specifically the risk of your home being set on fire by burning nearby trees or buildings or by blown embers from a distance. Some of them carry price tags north of $10,000, while others are DIY jobs. The steps are:
• Installation of a Class A rated roof for fire resistance. For an explanation of the qualities that make a Class A roof, see the US Department of Agriculture’s Surviving Wildfire site or the Homeowner’s Wildfire Mitigation Guide published by the University of California.
• Create a 5-foot-wide zone around the house that resists hot embers, such as laying gravel or stone walkways in place of mulch beds.
• Remove combustible materials, such as untreated siding, from the bottom six inches of exterior walls.
• Block the entrance of hot embers by covering the ventilation openings with fireproof metal screens.
• Install double glazed windows or fire shutters. Single-glazed windows may not prevent the heat of an intense fire from igniting your curtains and setting your house on fire.
• Close the eaves to prevent hot embers from drifting into your attic.
For more detailed suggestions, see Cal Fire’s Building Your Home Site List, its Low-Cost Renovation List, and Preparing Your University of California Home Web Page.
Reduce risk near you
The framework provides for three types of property improvements around your home, most of which include things you can do yourself. They are:
• Clear vegetation, debris and other combustible materials—think “tinder”—under your deck(s).
• Move sheds or other combustible structures at least 30 feet from the house. (Don’t worry, garages don’t count.)
• Comply with state and local requirements for “defensible space” around the home, which means trimming trees, removing dead vegetation, and reducing the amount of potential fuel for a fire.
Take action at the community level
Lara noted Monday that a homeowner’s safety upgrades can be compromised by neighbors who are unaware of hazards on their own properties. Community-wide efforts are therefore crucial.
The framework defines the following “mitigation elements” for communities to adopt:
• Clearly define community boundaries, then obtain a community fire risk assessment from the local fire district or state fire agency.
• Identify an evacuation route clear of any invasive vegetation, as well as an emergency plan.
• Find the financial resources to support the upgrades needed to achieve “clear risk reduction objectives”. Cal Fire offers fire prevention grants that can pay to clean firewalls and remove combustible materials, but the dollars are only available to government agencies, tribal groups, and nonprofits.
• Develop plans with measurable annual goals to reduce wildfire risk in the community, as well as measures to increase awareness and education of community members about these risks.
Currently, 10 insurers offer community discounts to owners, although they do not all use the same criteria. The new framework offers a standard that all insurers could use to assess a community’s mitigation efforts.
Where to find help
A good place to start is your local Fire Safe Council, which you can locate on the California Fire Safe Council website. These groups are developing wildfire plans, educating local homeowners on prevention, and tackling bigger projects to protect their communities, such as clearing brush and creating fire breaks.
For example, the Meadows Fire Safe Council in Altadena offers to inspect properties and advise homeowners of safety upgrades they need to make, said group spokesman Bill Ramseyer. Plus, he said, “we’ll be helping people get the job done, in terms of physically bringing in our people with the chainsaws and the weed whips.”
That help, however, will not extend to replacing someone’s roof or windows, Ramseyer said.
Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, said one of the challenges for landlords is the lack of funding for this type of expensive improvement to an individual property.
The California Bureau of Emergency Services provides grants to local agencies to help low- and middle-income homeowners complete wildfire mitigation projects, but they’re limited to county pilot programs so far. from San Diego and Shasta. The agency says it aims to expand the program statewide in 2023.
In the meantime, the agency has a $100 million grant program to help vulnerable communities get federal assistance for a variety of disaster-related purposes, including creating defensible spaces and upgrading structures. As with wildfire mitigation grants, the money goes to governments and local organizations, not directly to individuals.
Some counties have taken matters into their own hands by creating funds to help homeowners directly. One example is Marin County, which approved a special levy in 2020 to fund a new county wildfire prevention authority. This group offers grants for home hardening and defensible space projects.
A family packs up and evacuates as a bushfire approaches their home in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017.