Wildfire in California
Wildfire Risk Insurance Mitigation Strategies
State regulators, insurers, and consumer advocacy groups are all working to create strategies that can be implemented by property owners to earn premium discounts in an effort to mitigate against the risk of wildfire, and the Department of Insurance continues to work with the trades to try to encourage or make mandatory the availability of premium discounts.
Safer From Wildfires – The Interagency Wildfire Mitigation Partnership
CDI announced a partnership with CAL FIRE, CalOES, PUC, and OPR in February 2021 with the goal of establishing consistency among statewide home and community hardening actions that are applicable to insurance incentives, and focused on retrofits for older existing homes. This initiative focused on creating a shared strategy for policyholders, insurers, and state regulators to reduce wildfire risks built on strong consensus from fire science experts and independent research groups.
CDI reports the public agency partners met internally to coordinate existing expertise, as well as engaged with the Office of Energy Infrastructure, the IIBHS, the California Fire Chiefs 5 Association, United Policyholders (UP), Consumer Federation of America, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, and the Personal Insurance Federation of California to develop its “List of Home and Community Protection Measures.”
CDI notes this collaboration resulted in consistency between its recommendations and those of other stakeholders, namely the United Policyholders’ Wildfire Risk Reduction and Asset Protection (WRAP) initiative, and IIBHS’ “Wildfire Prepared Home” designation criteria, as well as the Office of the State Fire Marshall’s “Low-Cost Retrofit List.”
Wildfire Risk Reduction and Asset Protection project by United Policyholders (WRAP UP)
United Policyholders (UP) is a 501(c)(3) consumer advocacy organization founded in 1991 after the Oakland Hills Fire. UP sought to identify the most commonly accepted home improvements that experts and communities are promoting to facilitate home hardening and fuel reduction. The organization also promotes financial assistance for homeowners to complete retrofits, inspection and certification, and generally advocates to limit the use of predictive models in home insurance rates. UP convened its WRAP project in 2020, announcing it would work with CDI, Firefighters, FireSafe Councils, Insurers, and other stakeholders to create workable mitigation guidelines, inspection and assistance programs, and rewards. This effort culminated in the following 13 recommendations across seven categories:
Roof: The dwelling has a well-maintained Class A roof. Where gutters are present, the roof includes a metal drip edge.
- For homes with metal or tile roofs, gaps greater than 1/8 inch between roofing and sheathing have been blocked to prevent debris accumulation and ember entry.
Exterior vents (e.g., foundation, gable, under eave, and roof vents): incorporate a 1/8 inch metal mesh or are designed for flame and ember resistance (Wildland Flame and Ember Resistant (WUI) vents approved and listed by the California State Fire Marshall or WUI vents listed to ASTM E2886).
Fences: Any wooden fences that attach to the dwelling structure shall incorporate only noncombustible materials (fencing or gating) in the last 5 feet before the attachment point(s) to the structure.
Decks: All combustible materials (e.g., grass, shrubs, or stored materials) must be removed from underneath attached wooden decks or stairways and maintained at least 5 feet away from the decks’ or stairways’ perimeters.
Other Attached Structures (arbors, pergolas, trellis): Any other structure that is attached to the dwelling structure must be made of noncombustible materials. Buildings less than 25 feet from the Dwelling Structure or Attached Decking.
- If another structure (e.g., a dwelling, garage, barn, shed or commercial building) is within 25 feet of the dwelling, the dwelling’s exterior wall that faces the nearby structure meets a one-hour fire rating and includes noncombustible cladding.
- Where windows face the nearby structure, the windows either include dual-paned glass with at least the exterior pane is tempered glass or the windows have deployable metal shutters.
Defensible Space and Landscape: There is at least 6 inches of noncombustible clearance between the ground and the exterior siding of the dwelling. Within the first 5 feet of any dwelling or attached decks, no combustible materials (e.g., woody plants, combustible mulch, stored items) are present around the building or deck(s)or below the deck(s).
For the landscape from 5-30 feet from structure (or property line if closer), the connectivity of vegetation leading to the dwelling structure has been eliminated. The lower branches of trees have been limbed up at least 6 feet above underlying or adjacent shrubs to eliminate fuel ladder connectivity. The landscaping is irrigated and maintained. Vegetation may be grouped and surrounded by areas of irrigated and mowed grass or hardscaping.
For the landscape from 30-100 feet from the structure (or property line if closer), there is separation between shrubs and trees, dead branches and leaves have been removed, lower branches of trees are pruned to curtail the spread of fire and to eliminate fuel ladders.
For dwellings on or adjacent to steep slopes (e.g., slopes greater than 35 degrees), landscape mitigation has been extended downslope and beyond the 100 feet perimeter, where possible, to reduce direct flame contact with or preheating of the dwelling or the underside of any decking.
IIBHS Wildfire Prepared Home Designation
The Institute for Business and Home Safety’s recently announced Wildfire Prepared Home program to provide homeowners with a pathway to meet and maintain a three-year designation that indicates a home has been meaningfully distinguished from unmitigated or partiallymitigated properties. To receive this designation, IIBHS has established a 4 step process. First, before applying an app or web based tool is available to help homeowners self-assess their 8 property for barriers to compliance and get cost estimates for mitigation measures. Then, homeowners that apply will receive an external inspection from an IIBHS authorized company that will also take photographs of the exterior of the home. Next, the homeowner will make an annual demonstration that landscaping around the home is being maintained. Finally, this designation is good for three years with compliant landscape upkeep. After that, the homeowner may reapply.
Wildfire Mitigation Financial Assistance Program
Cal OES administers the State Hazard Mitigation Program, and provides local governments with guidance on developing local hazard mitigation plans. The plan is in a pilot stage in two communities (Shasta and San Diego). Both plans are required to be reviewed by Cal OES and approved by FEMA in order for the local government to receive federal dollars for mitigation.
To expand the use of federal funds for hazard mitigation, AB 38 Wood (Chapter 391, Statutes of 2019) requires the Cal OES to enter into a joint powers agreement (JPA) with CAL FIRE to develop and administer a comprehensive wildfire mitigation program to encourage cost-effective structure hardening and retrofitting to create fire-resistant homes, businesses, and public buildings. It requires the State Fire Marshal to identify building retrofits and structure hardening measures, and CAL FIRE to identify defensible space, vegetation management, and fuel modification activities that are eligible for financial assistance under the program, and authorizes the joint powers authority administering the program to accept federal funds for the bill’s purposes.
The JPA is required to develop a criteria and scoring methodology to prioritize financial assistance provided through the program based on specific factors. In FY 2020-21 Cal OES requested $25 million in general funds to administer $75 million in federal grant funds. Cal OES notes its program goals in the upcoming years are as follows:
- Perform capacity building in demonstration communities to prepare to implement home hardening programs.
- Leverage the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and state funding to harden homes in demonstration communities.
- Continue to implement projects funded by HMGP, leveraging state match, in demonstration communities.
- Expand program throughout the state, contingent on state and federal funds
2025 and Beyond
- Continue leveraging FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to increase the number of hardened homes and strengthen community resilience to wildfires, contingent on state and federal funds