By Roy E. Wright
Two years ago, my parents were among the thousands of Californians who lost their homes to the Camp Fire that ravaged Paradise. I’ll never forget walking among the ashes and resolving to do everything I could to prevent future wildfire damage.
I’ve spent much of my career talking to survivors of natural disasters, researching ways to build stronger, more resilient structures. But as this wildfire season has already recorded five of California’s six largest wildfires ever, it’s clear that we must do more.
The good news is, we can. My organization’s research, which I recently presented to California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, shows that while there is no way to totally eliminate wildfire risk, we are not powerless. There are clear, cost-effective steps that everyone can take to reduce fire risk and prevent future devastation.
First, individual citizens should make their homes and businesses more fire-resistant.
For example, you can defend against flying embers, one of the leading causes of structure fires, by covering attic and crawl space vents with 1/8 inch or finer metal mesh, so embers can’t get in and ignite insulation or other materials. Home and business owners can also create a five-foot “no-ignition zone.” This is done by clearing dry vegetation, trimming trees, and moving sheds to form a flame-resistant ring around your home, almost like a protective mote around a castle.
The most important step for individual citizens, however, is coordinating efforts to reduce wildfire risk with neighbors. Even if you do everything right in protecting your own home, it will likely prove futile if your neighbors neglect to do the same. Similar to how everyone needs to wear masks to slow a pandemic, collective action is required to prevent the spread of fires.
There are more advanced resilience methods, such as replacing roofs with fire-resistant Class A materials like asphalt, clay, or concrete tiles. While this is good practice for any who can afford it, most families should not be expected to shoulder this cost.
That is where the responsibility shifts to developers and government leaders. This year, we can rebuild communities with stronger and more fire-resistant structures, instead of repeating the same mistakes that made them tinderboxes before. Economic data shows that there is almost no cost difference between building a typical new home and building one with wildfire-resistant materials and features, and it’s much less expensive than costly retrofits to bring homes up to these standards later.
Nonetheless, developers likely won’t act of their own accord, which is why government leaders need to upgrade their guidance and enforcement measures. The current wildfire guidelines in California’s building code are incomplete, outdated, and poorly enforced. These codes should address everything from architectural design to landscaping to space between structures.
Finally, forest management is due for an overhaul. Research supports an “all of the above” approach, including burying power lines, thinning out underbrush and deadfall, conducting controlled burns, and treating fire-prone land. This will require coordination, because 57 percent of California’s forests are federally managed.
While no one is powerless, wildfire management is a team sport. Individuals need to protect their homes and rally their neighbors to do the same. Developers need to understand that wildfire-resistant housing is in everyone’s best interest, even theirs. Governments need to set clear regulations that lead to smart rebuilding.
This year must be a wakeup call that sparks new mindsets, new practices, and new laws to prevent wildfire damage. If we fail, the fires will get worse. If we succeed, this year will still have been the worst fire season in history—but at least it will stay that way.
California native Roy E. Wright is the president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which conducts scientific research on strategies for building homes and businesses resilient to worsening natural disasters. Previously, he worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he served as chief executive of the National Flood Insurance Program.