Far too many Californians have grown up with memories of wildfires. Growing up in the Bay Area, the Oakland Hills fire, which, until more recently was one of the most destructive and deadliest tragedies in our history, was a pivotal part of my youth. Wildfires once again played a big role with my family in 2018 when both my parents and brother lost their homes in Paradise to the Camp Fire.
Last year, no Californian was immune from the negative effects of wildfires when thick, dark clouds of smoke stretched to the furthest reaches of the state for a month and ash rained down on neighborhoods. Wildfires have become even more prevalent and disastrous, and our states, local communities and individual homeowners must come together to look for ways to comprehensively mitigate these impacts.
I recently testified at a hearing held by California Department of Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, alongside a great lineup of scientists, fire professionals and risk analysts who are collectively rolling up their sleeves to tackle this problem head on. As more and more wildfires are disrupting lives, displacing families and taking a huge financial toll, these are the types of conversations and forums that help us better understand how to withstand and minimize the impact of these ferocious fires.
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety research center is the only place where scientists model realistic thermal flame exposure and ember behavior onto full-sized buildings. Our IBHS research engineers and partners conduct post-disaster investigations to examine the factors that contribute to losses in order to better understand these destructive fires so homeowners, communities and the state can prepare for the future.
One thing we know is that while wildfire risks to homes, businesses and communities can be reduced, they cannot be eliminated. We know the specific vulnerabilities that drive wildfire losses in suburban communities. There are targeted investments in your home that can reduce risk, but more study is needed to directly quantify how effective these individual steps may be.
For example, we know that things like roof material, a home’s attic and crawlspace vents, double pane windows and a five-foot home ignition zone clear of anything flammable all make a difference. However, even if the homeowner undertakes all these mitigation efforts, their hard work may prove futile if their neighbors and community members don’t follow suit.
Unlike other perils, wildfires require risk reduction on the part of the homeowner and adjacent neighbors, including those seven doors down. A neighbor’s poorly maintained property or green space can be the source of wildfire spread no matter how much hard work and mitigation you have done.
California leads the nation on so many dimensions of climate change policy, yet it is falling flat on this account. We know that the risk of wildfires intruding on suburban neighborhoods is higher today than ever before, but we will not be able to change that trajectory instantaneously. Mitigation is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it requires collective actions at the homeowner, neighborhood and ecosystem levels.
We need to address fuel loads in our forest chaparral and grassland ecosystems. We need to make real changes that are neighborhood-based and not individual-based. And we need to help all homeowners do their part to reduce fire risk.
IBHS is committed to being part of a comprehensive solution by investing and bringing the science to solve this growing crisis so that California has the tools and research it needs to better address the impacts of climate change on homes and communities.
California native Roy E. Wright is the president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Previously, he worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he served as chief executive of the National Flood Insurance Program.