Bill Bozarth, a contractor for T&T Home Solutions, climbs a ladder to install an ember-resistant vent at a Lakeside home, June 15, 2021. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Some San Diego County residents will soon be able to tap into a $24 million pot of money to retrofit their homes to protect against wildfire as part of a new statewide initiative.

State officials selected San Diego County to participate in the pilot because the county has the fifth highest combination of social vulnerability, a federal measure of resilience that factors in poverty, access to transportation, age and other factors, and wildfire hazard in the state. 

Residents of Dulzura, in rural southeastern San Diego County, will be the first eligible, followed by nearby Potrero and Campo residents in 2023 and 2024.

inewsource is an independent and nonprofit journalism organization in San Diego, and relies on grants and philanthropists to support its investigative content. Click here to learn more.

The county’s inclusion in the state pilot comes on the heels of San Diego County’s failed attempt to help residents upgrade their homes against wildfire. Last year, inewsource revealed that county officials had nixed a $1.5 million program set up by the Board of Supervisors to reimburse residents who make the upgrades. County officials said they killed the program because of a lack of interest from vendors and homeowners. 

They instead spent the money on equipment to clear roadside vegetation and get into homes in case of an emergency, sparking some backlash from environmental and fire safety groups who wished the government would focus on helping homeowners protect their homes.

Fire and insurance experts have found that taking steps like clearing vegetation around the home and installing ember-resistant vents can reduce the chance that embers will destroy homes in a wildfire – but the upgrades and maintenance can cost thousands of dollars.

The state aid, sparked by a 2019 state law and funded by a $536 million special funding package for wildfires approved in April 2021, targets people in high fire hazard areas who may not be able to afford to protect their homes against the rising risk of destruction from a wildfire. 

The aid follows record-breaking property losses to wildfires, which are growing more frequent and severe as a result of climate change and fire suppression policies that have led to the build up of brush, dead limbs and other plant materials that fuel the fires.

The Dulzura home of Jack Dillender, president of the Dulzura/Barrett Fire Safe Council, is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Jack Dillender)

Following a county-by-county analysis of socioeconomic factors and fire risk, state officials selected Shasta and San Diego counties to pilot the project.

In San Diego County, roughly 88% of the population and around 1 million homes are exposed to some wildfire hazard, according to a 2018 county report. That includes almost 78,000 homes in high to extreme fire hazard areas.

Local officials helped choose the 91917 ZIP code, made up of Dulzura, as the first community to participate in the project. The census tracts there scored highly vulnerable because of socioeconomic status; minority status and language; and housing type and access to transportation. Fire hazard maps blanket the area in red, and recent fires including the 2007 Harris Fire have burned through there.

Jack Dillender, president of the Dulzura/Barrett Fire Safe Council, is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Jack Dillender)

Jack Dillender has lived in Dulzura since 2015 and said he has already lived through five fires forcing evacuations in his neighborhood. Dillender promotes fire safety as the president of the Dulzura/Barrett Fire Safe Council. He said the majority of homes in the community are susceptible to fire because they were built in the 1950s or earlier with wood and don’t meet modern fire codes. 

“Most of these people are aging, on fixed incomes, and they want their homes to be safe but it’s a means of not being able to physically do the work or financially afford to do the work,” Dillender said.

Royce Abalos, a community risk reduction manager at the San Diego County Fire Protection District, said he hopes the first construction work will be executed by the summer. The program is currently accepting applicants.

County fire officials will assess participating homes and contract with vendors directly.

Households would be eligible for work worth $40,000 on average, said Alyson Hanner, a spokesperson for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Eligible work includes trimming or clearing vegetation around the home, upgrading to ember- or flame-resistant roofing, siding or vents and other retrofits.

Abalos added the program is still under development. The state is seeking additional money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to expand the project to over $100 million statewide. County fire officials say they expect about $24 million over the next few years to go to retrofitting San Diego homes.