A Marin County firefighter monitors a vegetation burn in San Rafael on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
By REX FRAZIER and MARK SEKTNAN |April 19, 2021 at 12:03 p.m.
On the heels of a winter with well below-average precipitation, we face yet another drought this summer, increasing fire risk for communities across the state.
It is more critical than ever that we work together as insurers, regulators, local governments and legislators to protect our communities, lives and properties.
Marin is well ahead of the curve, with voters passing the local Measure C initiative, which has allocated real dollars behind wildfire preparedness efforts. These efforts include critical vegetation management programs and full-time property inspectors working with the fire department to enforce community wildfire protection plan standards.
Insurers were happy to support the “Yes on C” campaign. But the work has just begun to ensure communities are protected.
By comparison, not many communities are as prepared or invested. An analysis of local fire prevention and preparedness measures from 2020 showed that 74% of communities voted against this investment, even if it was only a nominal local tax.
The homeowners and neighborhoods working hard to reduce their wildfire risk should be recognized for their efforts — which is why California’s homeowners insurers, modeling experts, fire science experts and many others are working to improve the science and technology that will make this possible.
One thing we know is that wildfire risks to homes, businesses and communities can be reduced but not eliminated. Unfortunately, the extent to which these measures provide protection cannot be quantified with the tools available today.
For example, we know that having a fire-resistant roof and deck material, attic and crawlspace vents, double-pane windows and a 5-foot ember-resistant zone all matter. However, we also know that these mitigation efforts at the home level may not provide much protection if neighbors and community members don’t take similar measures.
“Fire-nados” can carry burning embers and ignite fires as far as a mile away. A neighbor’s poorly maintained property or green space can be the source of wildfire spread no matter how much hard work and mitigation a homeowner has done.https://2be6a744882a5c6f681ec0f4ac8203a2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The good news is that science is progressing. Expert researchers like the Institute for Business and Home Safety continue to develop actionable research on the efficacy of home hardening and mitigation efforts. Also, scientists such as the Pyregence Consortium, working on California’s fifth climate assessment, are developing an open-source modeling program that could quantify hardening efforts on a micro-level.
California must continue to encourage and embrace this science and technology, which will ultimately help homeowners by providing greater nuance to analyze and credit mitigation from homes, communities and entire regions.
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To ensure quality home hardening and community-level mitigation are achieved and critical defensible space requirements are sustained, we also support the development of training and certification programs. We need to grow the pipeline for careers in the fire service and create the workforce for an inspection, assessment, verification and certification system as the science and modeling catch up with the growing phenomenon of mega-fires.
Unfortunately, current regulations prohibit the use of science and technology in home insurance rate-making (including projections of climate change), which is why the leadership we’ve seen from the California Insurance Commissioner is so critical on this issue.The California Department of Insurance is looking into the use of modeling technology and wildfire science and considering allowing home insurers to incorporate these tools into rate-making decisions to better help homeowners.
Modeling technology could be applied to more than just fire risk. For context, California’s home insurers currently cannot consider that our state is headed into a drought this year when assessing their risk.
Home insurance companies are in the business of selling home insurance policies. Having homeowners covered adequately and on the books ultimately keeps business going and benefits everyone. We are looking forward to continuing to collaborate and work collectively on a solution that increases insurance availability and protects homes and lives.
Rex Frazier is president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. Mark Sektnan is vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.