Fake contractors using wildfires to take advantage of devastated people

Picking up the pieces is often the main focus of those whose homes or businesses have been destroyed by wildfires. In that singular focus, it’s understandable why someone who claims they can help pick those pieces up for cents on the dollar would be welcomed with open arms by those who have lost it all.

But that kindness, according to multiple state agencies, is sometimes too good to be true.

The Gray Fire in Washington killed one person and destroyed 185 structures. Victims in the devastated community of Medical Lake are falling prey to an ongoing scam, according to the state’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). The scam involves “contractors” showing up uninvited and offering to help people rebuild. The fake contractors offer to do work and ask for a deposit, only to disappear and raise their prices once the funds are handed over.

The scam has recently happened frequently enough in the Washington community of Medical Lake that L&I issued a warning telling residents affected by wildfires not to accept these solicited offers.

“Disasters like our state’s recent wildfires often bring out scam artists itching to make a buck from homeowners desperate to quickly rebuild or repair their homes,” the warning read. “That’s why [L&I] is urging people recovering from the devastating fires to be sure to hire contractors registered with the department.”

The department outlined numerous ways people looking to rebuild can avoid becoming victims of the scammers. The department recommended obtaining a written contract, getting three written bids, and never paying in full before a job is completed. L&I also said it has an entire database where interested people can look up and verify a contractor’s registration status.

“L&I requires construction contractors to be registered and have liability insurance, a business license, and a bond to provide some financial protection if something goes wrong with the project,” the department said. “It’s easy to verify contractor registration at ProtectMyHome.net or by calling L&I at (80)647-0982 and choosing 2.”

A similar warning was shared by California’s Insurance Commissioner in 2018, warning wildfire victims to not fall for schemes involving price gouging, debris removal, or fraudulent charitable solicitations.

“Because property loss from a disaster can be so traumatic, victims of disaster can become easy targets for fraud,” the commissioner’s website said. “It is important to keep a sharp lookout for people who try to play on the emotions of those stricken by disaster.”

Disaster assistance: Resources are also available through the Spokane County Disaster Assistance Center at the Spokane Falls Community College, Building 9, 3305 W. Whistalks Way, Spokane, WA  99224 – (509)998-2750. Additional resources for property clean-up can be found at Spokane Regional Health and Spokane Air: bit.ly/44o05BX.

Cal Fire ready for its highest-risk time of the year

As many fire crews across North America are ending their official wildfire seasons, Cal Fire is now gearing up for its most at-risk time of the year.

Seven of California’s top 20 most destructive wildfires (“most destructive” meaning fires that resulted in the most structures destroyed or lives lost), over the years have occurred in the month of October. The top three on the list after the November 2018 Camp Fire, all burned in October, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm (with the Tunnel Fire), and the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Plus of course the October 2006 Esperanza Fire.

On the morning of October 20, 1991, towering clouds of black smoke blocked out the sun as “diablo winds” whipped flames hot enough to melt gold throughout the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.
On the morning of October 20, 1991, fearsome Diablo winds whipped flames hot enough to melt gold across the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.

Cooling temperatures and incoming moisture often provide relief to much of the country during early autumn, but conditions in especially dry parts of California can blow up wildfire risk in the state thanks to a combination of summer’s dry vegetation and fall’s fierce winds.

“It is a common misconception that the most dangerous time for fires in California is during July and August,” according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association website. “While there may be fewer fires in September and October, the fires that do occur are far more destructive and burn through many more acres.”

October 2006, en route to the Esperanza, photo by Laguna IHC.
October 2006, en route to the Esperanza Fire, photo by Laguna IHC.

This explosive wildfire situation is caused mainly by a combination of dry vegetation from hot summer weather and the intense dry winds that blow over California fires in the fall.

Known as the Santa Ana winds in southern California and the Diablo winds in northern California, they’re characterized by downslope gusts blowing from the mountains toward the coast. Despite their different names, the winds are caused by similar autumn weather patterns, differing mostly by their locations — the Santa Anas in the south blow down from the Santa Ana Mountains, while the Diablos  in northern California blow from the Diablo Range. 

Oakland Hills 1991
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm. View of the fires above the Claremont Hotel on October 20, 1991. Oakland local wiki pages.

And while these autumn winds now build in the state, some areas are still benefiting from the record-breaking wet winter across the Southwest at the beginning of 2023. Crews in the Santa Cruz area reportedly had to start their season late since the ground was too wet to conduct planned prescribed burns.

“Because it was so moist, my burn crews were not available until early July,” Sarah Collamer, forester and Cal Fire burn boss, told KSBW. “We usually burn in June, but it was too wet.”

As we head into October, we’ll see who wins in the perennial battle between seasonal dry winds and the unseasonal wet ground.

No excuse for neglecting firefighter pay

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

This week Grassroots President Luke Mayfield sent a letter to USDA leadership and key Congressional members concerning the lack of movement on the Wildland Firefighter Pay Protection Act — here’s an excerpt from the letter.

“The debate over the remaining funds from the Bipartisan lnfrastructure Law is a distraction to conjure false narratives; one is administrative mismanagement and the other that the federal wildland workforce is not facing a fiscal cliff. Rather than action to address the crisis at hand, these arguments try to avoid accountability for the lack of leadership, which could bring thousands of wildland firefighters to the brink of a pay cliff.”

The federal wildland firefighter workforce can no longer be sacrificed without long-term and catastrophic consequences. Workforce and systemic reforms must become congressional and administrative priorities.

The purpose of the letter is to clearly outline and document our intent for agency leadership and Congressional decision-makers.

To read the entire letter for perspective on what’s going on in the Capitol, click [HERE]. Our organization wants to make sure stakeholders are not misguided by rumors or false narratives from named or unnamed sources.

Thank you,
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
PO BOX 51253
Sparks, Nevada 89435

Yukon First Nations Wildfire closes a record-breaking fire season

A collaboration between 13 indigenous governments and the Yukon government officially closed another fire season on Friday, which was one for Canada’s record books.

Canada saw more than double the carbon emissions from wildfires between January 1 and July 31 than the previous record year, according to the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme. The emissions represented 25 percent of the global total for 2023 to date.

Animation of GFASv1.2 active fire locations and fire radiative power over Canada from 1 May to 31 July 2023, showing how the locations of wildfires has moved during the 2023 season. Credit: CAMS/ECMWF.
Click to view animation of GFASv1.2 active fire locations and fire radiative power over Canada from 1 May to 31 July 2023, showing how the locations of wildfires moved during the 2023 season. Credit: CAMS/ECMWF.

The Yukon First Nations Wildfire partnership helped fight 218 of the fires that started in the territory and burned more than 223,942 hectares. The partnership is made up of 13 First Nations and nine stakeholders that incorporate traditional knowledge in both its IA and SA programs. The collaboration officially closed its IA crew’s season on September 15.

“Today is the final day of our Initial Attack crew’s season! Congratulations on a summer full of hard work and dedication,” the partnership posted on its Facebook page. “It’s been a record-breaking year for wildfires across the country, and your impact has been felt from coast to coast.”

Yukon First Nations Wildfire was founded by wildland firefighters and Indigenous business leaders in 2018 after Da Daghay Development Corporation, a First Nations development corporation, started talks for unified wildland firefighting from among all of the territory’s First Nations in 2015. The partnership has since trained 250 firefighters and deployed nine IA teams in First Nation communities.

Yellowknife firefighters

The 2023 season was the first in a recently renewed three-year agreement for managing wildfire in the territory between the First Nations and Yukon’s government, one that outlines hiring procedures for IA firefighters across the territory.

“Several models for wildfire response are in place across the Yukon depending on the preference of First Nations governments for direct hiring of wildland firefighters or delegating administration to others,” according to a June news release from Yukon’s government. “While some First Nations hire crew members directly through development corporations, others delegate contracts to Yukon First Nations Wildfire. These contracted employees are trained and integrated on a yearly basis into the territorial Wildland Fire Management organization.”

The Yukon First Nations Wildfire partnership specifically includes the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, the White River First Nation, the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, the Liard First Nation, the Kluane First Nation, the Champagne Aishihik First Nation, the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, and the Ross River Dena Council. Four others — the Selkirk First Nation, the Vuntut First Nation, the Teslin Tlingit First Nation and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, are administered by Development Corporation or First Nations directly.


California insurance rules change

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said this week that insurance companies in the state will soon be allowed to factor in climate risks including wildfires in their insurance rates — if they increase their underwriting in at-risk areas to wean consumers off state-funded coverage.

Reuters reported that in the last year or two, seven of the state’s top 12 insurers have paused or restricted new business, including State Farm and Liberty Mutual, and the government’s Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan, intended as an insurer of last resort, has grown to a 3 percent share of California’s market.

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Jay Walter.

“We are at a major crossroads on insurance after multiple years of wildfires and storms intensified by the threat of climate change,” Lara said.

Unlike other states, according to an ABC News report, California does not allow insurance companies to consider current or future risks when setting the rate for an insurance policy. Companies can consider only what’s happened on a property in the past to set the price.

And insurers say that restriction makes it difficult to accurately price the risk.

On Thursday, Lara said California will write new rules to let insurers look to the future when setting their rates. “Modernizing our insurance market is not going to be easy or happen overnight,” he said. “We are in really unchartered territory and we must make difficult choices when the world is changing rapidly.”

The rule change is not all good news — it could mean higher rates for homeowners who have already seen dramatic increases. Eight insurance companies in California have requested increases of at least 20 percent this year, according to the California Department of Insurance.

Harvey Rosenfield, the author of a 1988 ballot proposition that regulates insurance rates, said Lara’s announcement “will dramatically increase homeowner and renter insurance bills by hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

El comisionado de Seguros de California, Ricardo Lara, dijo esta semana que a las compañías de seguros del estado pronto se les permitirá tener en cuenta los riesgos climáticos, incluidos los incendios forestales, en sus tarifas de seguro, si aumentan su suscripción en áreas de riesgo para que los consumidores dejen de recibir cobertura financiada por el estado.

Reuters informó que en el último año o dos, siete de las 12 principales aseguradoras del estado han detenido o restringido nuevos negocios, incluyendo State Farm y Liberty Mutual, y el Plan de Acceso Justo a los Requisitos de Seguro (FAIR, por sus siglas en inglés) del gobierno, pensado como una aseguradora del último año. resort, ha crecido hasta alcanzar una cuota del 3 por ciento del mercado de California.

Wildfires burn tourist towns in more ways than one

Next month, West Maui will officially welcome back tourists to the island on the two-month anniversary of the devastating wildfires that left 97 dead.

On September 10 Hawai’i Governor Josh Green signed an emergency proclamation [ PDF ] that will end the area’s strong discouragement of travelers on October 8 — at least in part because the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated that the island has lost more than $350 million since the fire.

The state, and numerous small businesses within it, massively depend on tourism. The University of Hawai’i estimated that roughly a quarter of the state’s economy is represented by tourism, including 216,000 jobs and yielding nearly $17.8 billion in tourist spending. Tourism generates an estimated 80 percent of Maui County’s economy specifically, and that’s not likely to increase with airlines still cutting flights to the island.

“Without this influx of cash, a distressing number of local businesses will certainly close for good,” according to the University of Hawai’i.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

The residents of Hawai’i have a love-hate relationship with tourists. While the industry may support a large chunk of the state’s economy, around two-thirds of residents hold anti-tourism sentiments, in part because Hawai’i is still struggling to reopen businesses that shuttered during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the contradictory messaging of the state being run for tourists at the expense of local people.

The complications in firefighters’ response to the wildfire disaster demonstrated some of these dynamics playing out in real-time. As firefighters tried to get to the fire and worked to contain it, hoses ran dry and state officials delayed releasing water from a nearby reservoir. In the weeks since, a centuries-old fight has rekindled between developers and Native Hawaiians over who owns Maui’s water.

Wildfires igniting already-present tensions between locals and tourists isn’t new, especially in communities that have come to rely on encouraging travel. A growing body of research has found that wildfires pose an “existential” threat to the tourism industry as a whole.

Greece and Italy fear a collapse of their entire tourism industry as wildfire and heat waves ravage the Mediterranean. Portugal’s tourism may be out $38 million annually by 2030 because of worsening wildland fires. Fires throughout California’s Sierra Nevada region have led to an increasingly damaging tourism image for the area as a whole.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

Numerous studies point toward wildfires continuing to intensify and becoming more widespread unless emissions are reduced. As Maui continues its balancing act of catering to tourists while leaving its locals calling for a more diversified economy, it will also have to reckon with wildfires becoming a more common occurrence in its visitors’ vacations.

“I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on Maui,” Green said in a recent press release. “The land of Lāhainā is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild.”