Some home insurance companies refusing to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas

Firewise defensible space structure

One of the most serious problems facing firefighters today is the movement of residents into the Wildland/Urban Interface, the WUI. As a wildfire spreads toward flammable structures that are near or in some cases surrounded by burnable vegetation it can be very difficult to protect them. Often as a fire grows in a WUI area containing dozens or hundreds of homes there are not enough firefighters to park a fire engine at every house.

Some structures are easier to protect than others. “Firewise” refers to homes that are designed and maintained to be fire resistant. A few burning embers (that can be transported in the wind for a mile) in most cases will not ignite a home built to withstand fire. It is the other homes, with flammable siding, roofs, and decks, and that have brush or trees providing an efficient path for the fire to spread up to the structure, that is a nightmare for the fire department. In some cases as a fire approaches, this second category of homes will be written off since it may not be possible to save them, even with a fire truck parked in the driveway. Without vegetation clearance of 30 to 100 feet, it can be unsafe for firefighters to remain at the site as an intense fire approaches.

Gunbarrel Fire
Firefighters at the Gunbarrel Fire west of Cody, WY apply foam and install sprinklers at Goff Creek Lodge, August 26, 2008. Photo by Michael Johnson.

A difficult to defend home is not only a problem for the owner, but it also affects the community. As it burns in a wildfire, it creates huge amounts of radiant and convective heat. Combined with the airborne burning embers put into the air as it burns, it can ignite other homes nearby. If multiple unprepared homes burn, the effects of the conflagration are multiplied making it difficult for even Firewise structures to survive. In addition, unprepared homes suck up more firefighting resources, which can make it difficult or impossible for there to be enough firefighters, crews, engines, and aircraft to suppress the wildland fire — they are often tied up because of some irresponsible residents.

In a perfect world all structures in a WUI would be Firewise. Inevitably, however, a sizeable percentage of homeowners will do nothing to make their structures defensible. There are two ways to encourage, or even force, them to take action before a fire strikes. Zoning laws and insurance companies. Laws can, for example, ban wood shingle roofs, and require vegetation clearances up to 100 feet, as well as other requirements. Many jurisdictions do this.

Insurance companies have an extremely powerful tool at their disposal that is rarely used. According to the NW News Network, at least two companies in Washington and Oregon are refusing to renew the policies for some home owners, or for structures in wildfire prone areas.

Below is an excerpt from NW News:

Some insurance companies are choosing not to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas of the inland Northwest. That’s sending home owners scrambling to find new coverage for their properties. Northwest-based insurers such as Pemco and Grange Insurance are getting choosier about how much risk they’ll take on. This according to property owners who’ve been dropped recently and posted about their frustrations online.

One customer from Chelan, Washington, complained Pemco refused to renew her homeowners insurance despite 17 years with no claims. The common thread among the non-renewals is location in wildfire country.

Oregon’s insurance regulators looked into this and said some insurers updated their wildfire risk rating models.

“There have been some non-renewals, rate increases, and moratoriums on new business, because updated risk models showed certain areas to be at especially high risk of wildfires,” wrote Jake Sunderland, a Department of Consumer and Business Services spokesman, in an email.

Refusing to write policies in a large area is not the best solution. Some companies will only insure structures after inspecting them to be sure they are Firewise and have defensible space.

Creating Defensible Space Around Utility Poles

Above: The power pole hazard mitigation crew’s sawyer flush cuts a palo verde stump.

By Tom Story

“As Arizona’s largest utility, there are fire risks we have to manage,” said Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service (APS). “The primary goal of fire mitigation is to prevent fire from ever happening. The second is to provide safe and reliable electricity to the communities APS serves.  Just as important is the ability to provide for firefighter safety around our system in the event of a fire”, Mr. Ward continued.  “With five thousand miles of transmission and twenty-eight thousand miles of distribution it is hard not to have our system affected by wildland fire.  When this happens, APS’s priority is providing a safe environment for crews to work in”.

defensible space power poles
In Cave Creek, AZ; Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service, sizes up a palo verde tree slated for removal as part of the APS Defensible Space Around Poles program.

Mr. Ward knows fire (he joined APS after his fire career at the Prescott Fire Department) and he has seen factors like drought, climate change and forest management set the stage for larger and more powerful wildland fires.  “It is becoming more evident that due to extended drought over the past decade forest and vegetation ecosystems have been stressed from the lack of regular moisture compounded by shorter drier winters and longer warmer summers,” Mr. Ward said.

APS sends out inspectors to identify hazardous vegetation in violation of its safety and reliability clearance standards as well as violations of the National Fire Code and the Urban Wildland Interface Code (which state that a utility with equipment attached to the pole must clear all vegetation 10 feet in all directions including 10 feet from the ground). The area around the pole is cleared by work crews to create defensible space.  “There are approximately 70 thousand poles within our system that we will have on a three year return cycle to maintain Defensible Space Around Poles (DSAP)” said Mr. Ward.

defensible space power poles
Other crew members cut up and feed the branches into a chipper.

The clearing is being done using manual methods (including chain saws, string trimmers and other hand tools) and where approved is followed by the application of herbicide in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Vegetation Management practices. APS has prioritized the treatment of subject poles by utilizing data derived from a risk assessment done across the state. Mr. Ward continued; “It is a part of our core values at APS Forestry to manage vegetation and the environment by balancing benefits to create healthy forests and safe reliable energy”.

Mr. Ward finished his remarks noting, “In 2016 we created 110 acres of defensible space around the state of Arizona. One pole at a time”.

defensible space power poles
Putting the finishing touches on the cleanup around one of the Arizona Public Service power poles in Cave Creek, AZ.

Researchers recommend amount of fire clearance around structures

Researchers have concluded that the most effective fire clearance or defensible space around structures, to reduce the chances of them burning in a wildfire, is between 16 and 58 feet.

Below is an excerpt from the abstract of a paper written by Alexandra D. Syphard, Teresa J. Brennan, and Jon E. Keeley, submitted to a journal September 16, 2014.

We analysed the role of defensible space by mapping and measuring a suite of variables on modern pre-fire aerial photography for 1000 destroyed and 1000 surviving structures for all fires where homes burned from 2001 to 2010 in San Diego County, CA, USA. Structures were more likely to survive a fire with defensible space immediately adjacent to them. The most effective treatment distance varied between 5 and 20 m (16–58 ft) from the structure, but distances larger than 30 m (100 ft) did not provide additional protection, even for structures located on steep slopes.

Two of the three authors are public employees, so the taxpayers already paid for this research. However, if you want a copy of The role of defensible space for residential structure protection during wildfires, it will cost you $25.

More about Open Access to research that is paid for by taxpayers.