CCRE EXCLUSIVE: Panel Takeaways on Impacts of Wildfire on Housing
Moderator: Otto Catrina, 2022 C.A.R. President
Karen Collins, Assistant Vice President, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association
Jim McDougald, Division Chief, State of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Stephanie Pincetl, Chair of Environmental Science and CA Center for Sustainable Communities, UCLA
Panelists first explored the projected increases in loss of property and life. Karen Collins noted that the insurance industry is anticipating that wildfires are expected to be a greater threat to homeowners, and we’re already seeing record-breaking losses. She added that insurers need to learn to live with fire as an inevitable threat and that ultimately we must break the unsustainable cycle of building and rebuilding over and over again from fires and instead focus on resiliency measures, because we can’t control all of the changing environmental conditions. Collins asserted that what we can change are preventative approaches to ensure mitigation is effective and consumers are protected.
Dr. Pincetl noted that it’s bad land use policy to allow building sprawl that exposes people to serious risk, and while home-hardening can help, development of road access and resource sustainability must be considered as well as the changing environmental conditions that insurers and homeowners are grappling with. She added that these wildfires are happening because of human-spurred ignitions, development patterns, and building in fire-prone areas—all of which mean accidents will continue to happen. Dr. Pincetl concluded that resiliency measures should absolutely be encouraged even though they are costly, because they will improve the quality of homes, and the alternative is even more severe costs from fire damage.
Chief McDougald explained that he has experienced thousands of fires across the state and his agency is committed to public education efforts and home-hardening programs. CalFire is working on a pilot program in three communities to protect homes in fire-prone areas, along with retrofit resources and a hazardous mitigation program. Chief McDougald added that he is pleased to see more cross-sector collaboration to help prepare the state and homes, and that alignment among impacted groups is helpful in keeping the public informed and protected.
In regards to meeting the state’s overall climate goals to help curb the devastating impact of wildfires and worsening climate conditions, Dr. Pincetl noted that leadership can implement policy decisions that reduce the use of fossil fuels as the surest way to make a difference, along with a more equitable taxation system and structural approaches to the systemic issues affecting homes in regions with different landscapes. Collins noted that the state needs a clear mitigation strategy to effectively reduce risk because it is not just an individual property alone that can be prepared when a whole community is at risk, and a collective approach will make actions more effective.
Chief McDougald added that doing more preventative steps across the landscape is impactful but maintenance of preventative measures every few years is extremely important on top of system-wide better forest management, vegetation measures, and water conversation, among other approaches. Panelists agreed that the California landscape cannot all be treated the same, since it is so varied, and mitigation efforts need to be highly tailored. As part of a tailored approach and individual actions, the Chief noted that CalFire has forest health grants to affect larger landscapes so that communities are protected, as well as prevention grants. CalFire is working with different agencies and community organizations to ensure grants are well utilized.
Dr. Pincetl added that Native Americans managed the landscape with very labor intensive steps and on a continuous basis, and to the Chief’s point about ongoing maintenance, California is really making use and learning from those historical practices now.
Panelists also discussed adoption of innovations and technology to address this issue. Collins explained that it’s important to focus investments on identifying and managing risks, and while the federal level is making great strides in climate research, there are already a lot of climate tools for helping to model and map potential risks. Some tools allow for a faster response to fires and help to identify where the greatest fire risks are bound to affect property. She noted that she hopes more resources and investments continue to prioritize these tools.
Chief McDougald added that when it comes to such tools, it’s not just a matter of identifying hazard, but the potential risks from such hazards, so that communities can properly prepare. Dr. Pincetl added that as we think of innovations and tools, ultimately development patterns need to be scrutinized better, such as research on placement of roads, disposition of the building on a landscape, understanding how fire behavior under high wind circumstances can impact property and more, so that the focus is not just on home-hardening.
Given a pledge from the Newsom Administration to commit $22 billion to climate change efforts, panelists also discussed how these investments can be most impactful. Dr. Pincetl noted that we need to get our house in order about where we ultimately build more housing and that could include compensating individuals for removing properties in highly flammable landscapes. She stated mitigation is untenable if we keep building the way we’re currently developing, and this is a social problem that needs social measures, which might entail compensation to remove properties from hazardous paths. She explained that property is a bundle of rights, not a single right, and we need to return to understand that exercising our best wisdom can keep people out of harm.
Forest health is a very important component as an investment, and after fires occur, we need to have conversations about forest restoration to help with carbon sequestration and ecosystem health, according to Chief McDougald. Resource management cannot be overlooked, he added. Collins noted that she’s very pleased to see an increase in resources, including at the federal level, so that forest health gets prioritized and individual states still need to make sure that property owners adapt their homes properly. There is also concern about flooding and communities need access to the state resources to make a difference.
On the topic of resources, Dr. Pincetl noted that we need to be more careful and thoughtful in using the resources we have because the era of profligacy is over, with water conservation as an example. She stressed that we have to think about our built environment and we could densify urban neighborhoods to achieve so many environmental benefits, such as encouraging more walking and public transit use. She noted medium, gentle density raking place over time is a low impact approach that should be our vision of the future.
Collins added that the materials we use in building (radiant heating; wood fencing) can be prone to risk and we can still do a better job of helping homeowners understand what the risks are across the state, not just in fire-prone areas. Fire is naturally a part of our landscape and we can’t ignore that. Chief McDougald echoed the sentiment that building standards are a point of important consideration and research is continuing to explore what might be better approaches that could be widely adopted.
Panelists also discussed wider mitigation efforts, with the Chief noting that there is now a wildfire mitigation advisory committee that will feature a broad coalition of organizations to ensure we can all work together to assess risk, mitigation strategies, and ultimately help homeowners in ways that are actually implementable. Panelists agreed that mitigation takes a lot of work and we need to be able to help homeowners see the value of changes that might be requested by insurance companies and regulators. The Chief added that his agency conducts damage inspections after fires and they learn a lot from it because when homes are built to standards with effective home hardening, we see a 60% better chance of surviving damage.
Panelists also discussed examples outside of California and the Chief touted programs in Colorado and the importance of regional conversations, such as an upcoming meeting with the Oregon Department of Forestry about defensible space; he added we should continue to talk to other state departments about home hardening data, landscape management, defensible space inspections, and share guidance and information because fire is not just a California problem. Collins agreed that collaboration from agencies all over the west is important because there are regional impacts that will be felt across states.
Panelists also discussed water access and drought in the state, which is impacting development. Chief McDougald noted that we still have options for portable pumping stations, retardants, and while water is an important fire suppression tool, the larger issue is vegetation management. Water conversation should continue to be prioritized and there is a balance between water access, forest management, and where we live.
When it comes to educating homeowners and helping them with the cost of retrofits, McDougald noted that the joint powers authority under Assembly Bill 38 is a fire mitigation program that establishes a cost-share so that state and FEMA money can be pooled together and we’re anticipating $40,000 in average retrofit costs. Through pilot programs, CalFire is looking to better understand what home hardening will cost and what retrofits might be the most impactful so that 5-10 most effective strategies are identified.
Collins added that https://ibhs.org/wildfire-prepared-home/ is a great resource about the minimum core actions that should be done and it’s a consumer friendly site.
Panelists concluded that realtors can be key partners in promoting the awareness of wildfire mitigation and as more standards emerge, information will need to be shared about the economic/safety benefits so everyone has a shared understanding. Dr. Pincetl added that the insurance industry can help signal what changes need to happen and there is a responsibility to ensure the market and consumers adapt to be more safe.