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A Wildfire Resource Essay

 A Wildfire Resource Essay 

by Harvey Pressman 


Wildfire preparation, prevention and mitigation is a complex, multi-layered issue encompassing numerous sub-topics. This essay will survey some resources that can shed light on these topics. 


One useful starting point is an on-line course called Wildfire and You. The Fire Safe Council for Monterey County developed this free online workshop, which you can take at any time, as part of the Listos Monterey project. It shows you how to help protect your life and home in event of a wildfire by (1) Planning for evacuation, (2) Reducing vegetation to create effective defensible space, and (3) Hardening your home to make it less likely to ignite during a wildfire. It’s available in English and Spanish.
Several other useful resources can be found on the same web site, among a group of 13 modules developed for trainers in the Listos California project 

One, entitled Disaster and Emergency Readiness Training for Wildfires and Home Fires, includes fire safety tips for non-traditional learners, kids, elderly populations and people with disabilities, with a focus on building resilient communities as a whole. Its 25 pages include 6 pages of videos, annotated guides, pamphlets, brochures, publications, apps, etc.

Another, entitled Emergency Preparedness for Power Outages, with Special Considerations for People with Disabilities or Older Adults, includes resources the outages that wildfires frequently create, about the unique challenges that people with disabilities face in power outages, and how you can best prepare to keep yourself safe. 

A third, entitled Evacuation and Relocation during Disasters and Emergencies can help you and your family know when to evacuate, where to relocate and how to plan for that. It covers the three main components of preparing for evacuation (get a kit, make a plan and stay informed) as well as what to do during and after relocation to keep your family safe. 

A wildfire burning toward homes.

Preparation Resources

READY, SET, GO! Wildland Fire Action Guide focuses on saving lives and property through advance planning. This 12 page guide from the San Diego Office of Emergency Services covers defensible space, evacuation planning and even includes a returning home checklist. There is also a version translated in Spanish.

The Santa Cruz Fire Safe Council has produced Prepared,Not Scared Wildfire Preparation Worksheet and Emergency Evacuation Guide. This succinct pamphlet provides checklists on “What You Can Do Today—Be Prepared”— “Protect Your Home—Home Hardening”—“Protect Your Property—Creating a Defensible Space—“ and “Fire Threat Imminent—Preparing to Go—“ in a format that can be hung on a refrigerator when an emergency approaches.

The New York Times has just updated its very comprehensive catalogue of “The Best Wildfire Preparedness Supplies and Strategies.” This profusely illustrated description of every conceivable item you may need also includes sections on “How to protect your home from a wildfire,” “More ways to prepare for wildfire season,” and “How to clean wildfire smoke from your home.” 

A team of firefighters ready to take action against a wildfire.

Public Policy

Some of the items on the Times list are pricey, but a cheaper way to get started can also be found in the Low Cost Retrofit Kit, which includes 12 suggestions on Low-Cost Ways to Harden Your Home and 5 No Cost Ways to Create Defensible Space and Enhance the Effects of a Hardened Home. 

In 2008, California implemented new fire-resistant building standards for homes in fire-prone regions. An analysis of the homes in the path of the 2018 Camp Fire demonstrated the effectiveness of these measures: just 18 percent of homes built before 2008 were undamaged, compared to 51 percent of the homes built after 2008. 

It is nearly impossible to make one’s home completely fireproof, but you can make it more fire-resistant. A Low-Cost Retrofit List that lists low-cost ways to harden your home and 5 no cost ways to create defensible space and enhance the effects of a hardened home can help reduce the amount of damage.

Building in the wildland-urban interface is likely to continue in California despite the growing risks, but how the builders plan can make a big difference. Rancho Mission Viejo is at the far urban edge of unincorporated Orange County. There have been wildfires in and around the ranch. Consideration of wildfires has been part of every major land use decision they have made since they started considering developing the property. Data-informed planning drove their wildfire resilience strategy, which includes a fire master plan, conservation of open space, building guidelines, and strict landscaping and defensible space protocols. The development team began with a fire behavior modeling study to assess risk throughout the entire ranch. 

The results of the study inform the Ranch Plan Fire Protection Program, which was created in partnership with the Orange County Fire Authority and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The protection program includes requirements for noncombustible construction materials and standards for automatic fire sprinklers everywhere in the community—not just in the riskiest areas. Each neighborhood is surrounded by a 110-foot-wide fuel modification zone (a mix of no vegetation, fire-resistant vegetation, and irrigated vegetation), which is extended to 170 feet near higher-risk areas. Certain plant species (such as pines, eucalyptus, and palms or anything with peeling bark) are prohibited. The typical site plan calls for five- to 10-foot residential backyards of mostly non-vegetated hardscape. 

A fire hydrant system to save property and lives from wildfires.

Another way in which public policy can impact the destructiveness of wildfires involves discouraging building in fire prone areas through public policy, by denying them insurance. California’s insurance regulator has backed sweeping changes to discourage home building in fire-prone areas, including looking at cutting off new construction in those regions from what is often their only source of insurance — the state’s high-risk pool. The proposals, many of which would require approval by the State Legislature, could remake the real estate market in parts of California. The insurance commissioner, Ricardo Lara, endorsed proposals that include halting state funding for infrastructure in certain areas prone to fire, leaving vacant lots undeveloped and the expansion of more stringent building codes. (As Disasters Worsen, California Looks at Curbing Construction in Risky Areas, N. Y. Times, June 2021.

In “Thinking Harder and Smarter About Wildland Fire” in The Regulatory Review of 10/16/20, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Sivas reports that a widespread scientific consensus indicates that poor management over the last century has made remote forests more vulnerable to wildfire. Historic fire suppression and unsustainable logging practices have resulted in too much vegetative understory, too many even-aged stands, and too few resilient old-growth trees that protect forests from catastrophic wildfire. 

The longer-term solution, she concludes, is to move—and keep—people out of harm’s way. The market could help drive this solution as fire insurance becomes unavailable or housing prices drop to reflect fire risk. One other emergent idea in California is to allow homeowners to port the tax base in their high-risk properties over to new homes in a safer location. In a state where property taxes are essentially frozen in place at the time of purchase—with a small annual increase thereafter—and property values appreciate significantly over time, the ability to rebuild elsewhere without incurring a new, higher property tax base could be a substantial incentive. 

An area that is at high risk for fires indicated with signage.

Promoting Individual Action

A new and useful resource on wildfires and many other kinds of disasters can be found on the extensive Listos California website. It includes a free, downloadable, six-page “Safety Tips for Wildfires” pamphlet in seven languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Korean and Vietnamese), as well as audio files featuring more general disaster readiness tips in indigenous Mexican languages (e.g., Preparing for Disaster Safety Tips for Triqui speakers from San Martin Itunyoso, Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca.and COVID-19 Safety Tips for Triqui speakers from Carrizal, Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, as well as Mixtec, and others. 

How do you convince people in wildfire danger zones to get themselves better prepared? 

The exact line where a wildfire was stopped.

Studies have shown that communicating social norms, such as what others typically do and think should be done is an effective way of modifying behavior. A CERT colleague currently at the London School of Economics is using social norm/social influence theory in her research, and suggests that to effectively share what we know we need “simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources” to help people convert their good intentions into effective actions. We need to do everything we can to “make the behaviors we are promoting easy, fun and popular. We should also organize a relatively large amount of prescriptive information into a relatively easy to use process. (Piers D. L. Howe, et al., Increasing Preparedness for Wildfires by Informing Residents of Their Community’s Social Norms Natural Hazards Review, May, 2018). 


Regrowth after a wildfire.

For those who are negatively impacted by wildfires, the road to recovery is often long and hard. MONTEREYCO.RECOVERS.ORG is a website managed by the non-profit Community Emergency Response Volunteers (CERV) of the Monterey Peninsula, working in partnership with community members, other nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. 

Recovers.org is an internationally-acclaimed web portal that basically acts like a matchmaker between people who need post-disaster help and individuals and organizations who are able to help them. The Monterey iteration has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of assistance to people impacted by wildfires since the Soberanes Fire of 2016.